Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Energy companies need more help if they are to exploit offshore options

The Times
February 18, 2009
Wind farms in the North Sea and the Thames Estuary appear to be promising ideas, but they will not fulfil their potential unless obstacles to progress are removed
Patrick Loughran

The future of the energy industry in Britain could be poking out of a sandbank in the Solway Firth near Dumfries. The offshore wind farm’s oddly quaint name is Robin Rigg – taken from the seafloor shelf that supports its 60 wind turbines.
“The Rigg” should start providing the UK with 180 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy this year (enough to power 120,000 homes) and there are hopes to go further, particularly with the 1,000MW London Array proposal that would put 341 turbines in the Thames Estuary.
But the future is getting mired in the sandbanks. Britain is losing its appeal to renewable energy investors, which in turn is putting the growth in alternative energy jobs at risk.
Lord Smith of Finsbury, chairman of the Environment Agency, recently cited Shell’s withdrawal from the London Array last summer as an example of the “green drain” out of Britain. Shell’s rival, BP, also abandoned plans for UK offshore wind farms last year in favour of onshore projects in the United States. Lord Smith said that he wants to take a “long serious look” at why companies are doing this.

Jonathan Smith, of E.ON, one of the companies to stay with the London Array after Shell left, said that the oil company had the “same difficulty everyone always has with offshore”. That difficulty is planning delays and he is calling for government to streamline the process. “Local government delays planning by debating whether there is a benefit in projects. But with cases like renewables, where we’re helping to meet national targets, it’s not clear why there has to be so much debate.”
Mr Smith said that government also needed to improve access to the national grid for offshore wind projects and to update the subsidy scheme to reflect the difficulties of offshore work. “Under the ROCs [renewables obligation certificates] subsidy scheme, offshore gets 1.5 ROCs for generating the same amount of power that gets onshore one. But that increase is only now being brought in, and we think it needs to go to two,” he said.
Mike O’Brien the Minister for Energy and Climate Change, said that the Government had taken action: “The Planning Act 2008, the Energy Act and the Climate Change Act, all brought into law in October, changed planning. For renewable projects over 100MW, we have a new national body – the Independent Infrastructure Planning Commission. For projects under 100MW, we have the new Marine Management Organisation. Both consult with local authorities, but follow objective criteria set out by national government.”
The minister said that the planning process for renewable projects now lasts nine months on average, compared with two years before the legislation. “It can’t be quicker because there are others involved and many interests to balance. But we plan to bring in a policy statement eliminating the requirement to prove offshore wind farms are needed,” he said.
The minister said that he had sympathy with complaints from investors about offshore access to the national grid. The difficulty is finding private sector funding to lay the expensive high-voltage undersea cables. More than 100km could be needed between Scotland and England alone.
Yet Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at Oxford University, said that there were more fundamental issues to consider: “The claim that a wind farm can power 100,000 homes only applies when the wind is blowing continuously. In the first three weeks of January, there was very little wind generation in the whole of Germany because of high pressure. Offshore is an extremely expensive way of making marginal cuts in carbon emissions. Very few people think wind will work and there is no evidence whatsoever that we’re going to meet our emissions targets. The three climate change Bills are just fiddling – the bigger picture isn’t going well. We need an energy mix that includes more efficient sources, like nuclear and carbon sequestration.”
Professor Helm said that Shell and BP go to America because they know that investment opportunities are better there. “It is a bigger country, so onshore wind, which is cheaper for them, is more plausible. The subsidies and investment in research and development also help.
“The US was more attractive even before Obama. Bush’s spending on R&D made a more significant difference to CO2 reduction than the whole Kyoto agreement. Achieving Kyoto will not make one part per million of difference.”

Universal mobile phone charger unveiled as industry gets greener

• New device will include a 50% reduction in standby energy consumption• Solar-powered phones set for launch

Richard Wray in Barcelona, Tuesday 17 February 2009 08.31 GMT

The universal mobile phone charger, which relies on the micro-USB connection found in the new BlackBerry Storm, will appear later this year. Photograph: PR
The mobile phone industry plans to introduce a universal charger as part of a drive to improve its previously patchy environmental record.
The plan from industry body the GSM Association (GSMA) is just one of a raft of "green" announcements at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Not only will it mean phone users no longer have to hunt for the right charger, but the specifications for the new device include a 50% reduction in standby energy consumption.
All five of the UK's mobile phone companies have signed up to the universal charger, as have the major handset manufacturers, and phones which can use the new charger - which relies upon the micro-USB connection found in the new BlackBerry Storm - will start appearing later in the year. By 2012, the GSMA has pledged that the majority of phones shipped around the world will use the universal charger.
The mobile phone industry has been attacked by environmental campaigners in the past for being one of the least green areas of technology, but mobile phones made from recycled materials or sporting solar panels have been one of the most interesting features in Barcelona so far.
Samsung unveiled the Blue Earth touchscreen phone which has a solar panel on the back that can charge the phone. Available in the UK in the second half of the year, the handset is made from recycled plastic from water bottles and is also free from harmful substances such as brominated flame retardants, beryllium and phthalate. Samsung Blue Earth - Mobile World Congress 2009
It also includes an in-built pedometer which tells the user how much CO2 they have saved by walking instead of using motorised transport. Samsung's SGH-F268 handset was last year named as the industry's greenest in a survey by Greenpeace.
A range of solar-powered phones are also being created by Dutch company Intivation, in a joint venture with ZTE, China's largest mobile phone manufacturer, and mobile phone network Digicel, which has operations in such remote places as the South Pacific islands.
And Sweden's Flexenclosure has showcased the latest in wind-powered mobile phone masts.
LG pledged yesterday that it would remove brominated flame retardants, chlorinated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride from the manufacturing process by next year. It also pledged to use green packaging across its entire line of 2009 mobile handset models.
The company has used the trade fair to unveil a handset equipped with a solar panel battery cover as part of what it termed an "aggressive green initiative".
"Using renewable solar energy in a mobile handset is an example of our ongoing efforts to help create a safer, cleaner environment for our customers," said LG's chief executive, Skott Ahn.
Exposing the phone to the sun for 10 minutes gives it enough power for a three-minute call. Left in natural light for long periods, the solar panel generates enough standby power to enable the phone to be used without any further charging.

Wind of change for Cadbury cows

By Fiona Harvey
Published: February 18 2009 02:00

Flatulent cows are to have the wind taken out of their sails by Cadbury, the food company.
The company found that milk contributed more than 60 per cent of the greenhouse gases arising from its production. Most of this came from the digestive systems of cows.
Some of its dairy farm suppliers will be asked to feed cows less grass - the worst culprit for causing wind - and more clover and maize, which produce less flatulence.
Fiona Harvey
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

EPA to Reconsider Emissions Ruling

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration said Tuesday it will reconsider the question of whether carbon dioxide emissions should be a factor when the Environmental Protection Agency grants permits for power plants, refineries and other facilities, in a partial victory for environmental groups that want the agency to enforce tougher curbs on greenhouse gases.
Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson's decision doesn't change current rules, but it raises the possibility that the Obama administration could move in the future to officially regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act -- an outcome that many business groups want to avoid. The EPA's action could put pressure on Congress to act on broad, new greenhouse gas regulations.
Jeff Holmstead, head of environment policy at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP and a former EPA air administrator, called Ms. Jackson's decisions "a clever procedural move" that allows the new administration to distance itself from the previous Administration without actually changing how CO2 is regulated.
"This reminds Congress that (climate legislation) needs to be at the top of the agenda," said John Stowell, environmental policy chief for Duke Energy. Duke has two coal-fired power plants under construction, one of which is designed to later capture and store greenhouse gases, when the technology becomes commercially available.
The issue revolves around a finding by an EPA appeals board last year that required EPA's Denver office to consider including carbon dioxide emissions regulation as part of a permit for a proposed expansion of the Deseret Power Electric Cooperative's coal-fired power plant in Bonanza, Utah.
Mr. Johnson, shortly before he left his post as EPA administrator last month, issued a decision that the agency should disregard the appeals board's action -- in effect saying the agency shouldn't weigh carbon dioxide emissions as a factor in approving the power plant.
A group of environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, petitioned the EPA to reconsider Mr. Johnson's ruling and in the meantime to base its policy for reviewing new power plants and other facilities on the appeals board decision that required consideration of carbon dioxide output.
Ms. Jackson, in a letter viewed by Dow Jones Newswires, said that the agency will "vigorously review" Mr. Johnson's decision to determine whether it is "consistent with the Obama administration's climate change strategy." The agency will soon start the process of seeking public comment on a new rule that will govern how the agency regulates carbon dioxide emissions as part of the permitting process.
The new EPA chief also said that current EPA policy doesn't stop states from issuing permits under their own State Implementation Plan, which could leave the door for state governments to enact more stringent permitting policies.
Environmental groups applauded Ms. Jackson's decision, saying it was the first step toward controlling carbon dioxide.
" clearly choosing a new, more responsible direction for the EPA," said Patrice Simms, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that filed the petition.
Industry and many lawmakers say they would prefer Congress to write greenhouse gas legislation rather than the executive branch writing rules under the Clean Air Act, saying that using current law is too blunt of an instrument that could devastate the economy and force business overseas.
"If the environmental groups succeed in having this policy overturned, the number and types of facilities requiring EPA permits would explode resulting in an impassable regulatory gridlock," the National Association of Manufacturers said in a statement.
Write to Ian Talley at

Cheap food damages the environment, says Waitrose boss

Since end of second world war food has been 'a disposable commodity that does not merit more than passing consideration'

Juliette Jowit, Tuesday 17 February 2009 12.05 GMT

Mark Price, managing director of Waitrose. Photograph: Sean Smith
The culture of cheap food has damaged public health, farming and the environment, according to the head of Waitrose .
Mark Price, the supermarket chain's managing director, attacked aggressive price cutting championed by his larger rivals such as Tesco and Asda. He blamed the government for encouraging a trend of cheap food after the second world war, which consumers "have now got used to".
"The headlong rush since the end of the second world war for ever greater quantities of cheap food has not only made us fatter, it has led to fewer, more indebted farms and an impoverished environment," Price told the National Farmers' Union conference yesterday.
"Food is seen as a disposable commodity that does not merit more than passing consideration. Food is seen as cheap. Food is neither of these things."
With price cutting moving up the agenda after years of rising prices and more recently growing unemployment and job insecurity since the economic downturn, Price defended Waitrose's higher prices.
Like-for-like products were less than 5% more expensive than in Tesco or Sainsbury's, and the difference between the cheapest chicken in rival supermarkets and Waitrose was only £1, Price told the Guardian.
Waitrose could demand better standards for a relatively small extra cost by making less profit on these products, something the supermarket could afford to do because it had a higher proportion of high-value, high-margin fresh food and top-range produce, said Price.
"Despite the recession, on average, Britons are financially and materially better off than at any other point in history," he told the conference in Birmingham.
"This is not to say that some families are not suffering very badly. They are. But the fact is that food now makes up a smaller portion of household expenditure than ever before.
"This may be good for our pockets, but it isn't good for our farmers, our health, our communities or our attitude to the natural environment – and that means it isn't good for anyone."
As well as naming his rival supermarkets, Price made an indirect attack on Tesco's chief executive Terry Leahy, linking him in his introduction to a clip of Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko making his infamous "greed is good" speech in the 1980s film Wall Street.
A Tesco spokeswoman said the company did not want to respond directly to Price's speech, but added: "We're wholly committed to British farming, but equally customers need us to be able to offer them great value."
Price also criticised the boss of Asda, Andy Bond, for putting down celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Heston Blumenthal. "His [Bond's] criticism centred on a belief that asking consumers to pay a little more for high-quality, ethically reared meat is out of step with public mood," said Price.
Peter Kendall, the NFU president, welcomed recognition of the pressures on farmers, which he said had increased during the credit crunch.
Methods used by supermarkets included forcing down prices after contracts were signed by changing products from normal to cheap "value" ranges, and demanding more money for marketing and promotions, said Kendall.
More education was needed to persuade people that cheap food was not good "value", said Kendall.
"A lot of people here have built a good business on the back of [supermarkets], they have got some long-term relationships with them. But there's an air of short-termism which does damage our long-term supply base," he said.

'Eco-house' based on Medieval architecture could be home of the future

Energy bills will be a thing of the past in the 'eco-house' of the future thanks to a combination of the latest renewable energy technology and building techniques from hundreds of years ago.

By Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent Last Updated: 2:46PM GMT 17 Feb 2009

The zero carbon building, developed by University of Cambridge architects as a prototype for future living, is based on a 600-year-old Medieval design that retains heat from the sun while cooling naturally in the summer.
Any extra energy needs are provided by solar panels on the roof and a woodchip boiler.
The unusual dome-like design is based on a Medieval technique, originating in Spain, known as "timbrel vaulting".
The four-bedroom "Eco-house", which will feature on the Channel 4 programme Grand Designs tonight (Wed), cost £445,000 to build. However, with the price of renewable technologies set to plummet it could be the most affordable and practical option for the future.
The building materials used were environmentally friendly, such as locally-sourced timber and recycled newspaper for insulation. The house was also easy to build. The arched building is essentially one large vault spanning 65 feet (20 metres), covered on the outside with earth and plants to camouflage it and help it blend in with the rural surroundings. The natural materials mean the house can absorb fluctuations in temperature while triple-glazed windows use as much light as possible.
Michael Ramage, who is based at the University of Cambridge Department of Architecture, predicted future developments will look more and more like the eco-house.
"The design is cost-effective in that the home is relatively simple to build and, once you know what you're doing, it's quick," he said. "Many of the costs come from the new technology it uses for energy storage and generation. If those become more widely available, making a similar house cheaply in much larger quantities may be possible."
At the moment the Government is under pressure to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. With more than a quarter of carbon emissions coming from households, improving the efficiency of homes is a major part of ongoing policy with all new homes to be zero-carbon by 2016.

With turbines, Alaska is frontier for green power

By Stefan Milkowski
Published: February 18, 2009

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska: Beyond the fishing boats, the snug homes and the tanks of diesel fuel marking this Eskimo village on the Bering Sea, three huge wind turbines tower over the tundra. Their blades spin slowly in a breeze cold enough to freeze skin.
One of the nation's harshest landscapes, it turns out, is becoming fertile ground for green power.
As interest in cleaning up power generation grows around the country, Alaska is fast becoming a testing ground for new technologies and an unlikely experiment in oil-state support for renewable energy. Alaskans once cast a wary eye on anything smacking of environmentalism, but today they are investing heavily in green power, not so much to reduce emissions as to save cash.
In remote villages like this one, where diesel to power generators is shipped by barge and can cost more than $5 a gallon in bulk, electricity from renewable sources like wind is already competitive with power made from fossil fuels. In urban areas along the state's limited road system, large wind and hydroelectric projects are also becoming attractive.
Alaska produces more oil than any state except Texas, but most of it leaves the state. Small markets and high transportation costs have kept local fuel prices high. As oil prices spiked last year, the state's coffers overflowed with oil tax revenue, but the rising cost of diesel and other fuels became a local crisis.

Governor Sarah Palin and state lawmakers responded last year by pledging $300 million over five years in renewable energy grants to utilities, independent power producers or local governments. It is a substantial sum for a state with only 670,000 residents.
"Oil used to be cheap and convenient," said Steve Haagenson, appointed last year by Palin as statewide energy coordinator. "Today, it's just convenient."
Advocates of renewable energy here say Alaska, with its windy coasts, untapped rivers and huge tidal and wave resources, could quickly become a national leader. The state already generates 24 percent of its electricity from renewable sources — almost exclusively hydroelectric — and Palin last month announced a goal of 50 percent by 2025. "Today's current low oil prices should not lull Alaskans into a false sense of security, as if these low prices are going to last," she said.
Environmentalists concerned about the impacts of climate change, already widely apparent in Alaska, have strongly backed the state investments in renewable energy. But the driving force among politicians was economic.
In many rural areas of the state, high fuel costs have resulted in electricity prices of up to 75 cents or more per kilowatt-hour, five to 10 times the prices common in the Lower 48. Despite high installation costs and the need for cold-weather engineering, wind turbines can often produce power at a lower cost than diesel generators by eliminating the need for fuel.
The Kotzebue Electric Association in northwest Alaska first demonstrated the value of utility-scale wind power in Alaska in 1997. Since then, nine other rural communities have added turbines, and dozens more are pursuing projects.
A state review completed in 2008 found that wind power was technically and most likely economically feasible in more than 100 Alaska villages, according to Martina Dabo, who oversees wind power programs at the Alaska Energy Authority, a public corporation whose mission is to reduce the cost of energy.
Northern Power Systems, a small turbine manufacturer in Barre, Vermont, has capitalized on Alaska's new interest in wind. The company initially designed its 100-kilowatt turbine for operation at the South Pole, not a huge market. "We said, 'Hey, there's a market in Alaska — let's go after it,' " said Brett Pingree, the company's vice president for sales.
Northern Power now has turbines in eight Alaska villages, including Toksook Bay, and is working on projects in 45 others.
Renewable energy is also becoming attractive along the Railbelt, the area stretching from Seward to Fairbanks where most of the state's residents live. While electric prices are lower than in the remote villages, renewable power would help guard against future price spikes. A wind farm is under development for an island near Anchorage, and other projects are being studied, including a pair of dams that could meet the entire Railbelt demand.
"I think the Railbelt's waking up to the reality that the era of cheap natural gas is over," said Chris Rose, who oversees a coalition of public and private groups called the Renewable Energy Alaska Project.
While remote locations and limited demand hamper their development, Alaska's renewable resources are vast and diverse compared with those of other states. According to Roger Bedard of the Electric Power Research Institute, Alaska has more than half the country's ocean wave energy resources and more than 90 percent of its river current and tidal resources.
In Toksook Bay, residents credit the wind turbines with keeping electric bills from rising as fast as the price of oil.
"I think the turbines are very, very helpful," said Alexie Jimmie, who owns Bayview, one of the two stores in Toksook Bay. "Otherwise, we probably would pay way more than what we are paying."
The state subsidizes electricity for residential customers in rural areas, but only to a degree. Jimmie's recent monthly bills came to $371.14 for his house and $713.12 for the small store where he sells items like cereal and spark plugs.
Officials with the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, which serves Toksook Bay and 52 other communities, estimate the turbines in Toksook Bay will pay for themselves through fuel savings in about 17 years, and will last 20 to 25 years.
To make the most of the resource, the cooperative and other power providers are developing systems with electronically controlled diesel generators that can rapidly adjust their output, electric heaters that can absorb excess power and other tools for dealing with the variability of wind. The result is hybrid power systems that generate 25 percent or more of their power from wind on an annual basis.
"Right now Alaska is really the front-runner in wind-diesel applications," said Dabo of the Alaska Energy Authority. "We take the steps from an engineering drawing board and really put those systems into place."
The Chena Hot Springs Resort near Fairbanks is testing new geothermal technologies, and villages along the Yukon River are experimenting with using river current to make power.
The plunge in oil prices has caused some lawmakers to question the state's ambitious investments in renewable energy, but Palin and others argue it is critical to push ahead. The Alaska Energy Authority released a hefty report last month assessing the feasibility of alternative energy projects in every rural community in the state.
Village residents, who are still paying high prices because of the spike in fuel costs last summer, like the idea of expanding the wind farm there.
"Jobs are scarce," said Francis Sipary, assistant manager at the Nunakauiak Yupik Corporation store, "and members can't afford to pay so much dollars the way the economy's going."
Sipary, who like many people here hunts and fishes, added that the turbines were nice for another reason. They can be seen from a boat 20 miles at sea, so the people of Toksook Bay now use the wind turbines to find their way home.

Electric Nissan to have 100-mile battery range

The Associated Press
Published: February 17, 2009

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee: Nissan's new all-electric car to be sold starting late next year will have 100 miles (160 kilometers) of pure battery range, a Nissan North America planning director said.
Product planning and strategy director Mark Perry also told the Chattanooga Engineers Club that the company wants to eventually make the car that will run on a lithium ion battery pack and the batteries at its plant in Smyrna. The car will initially be made in Japan.
Perry told the engineers' group Monday that Tennessee is to be a launch market for the all-electric car after it arrives in late 2010, along with Oregon and Sonoma County, California.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that Perry said the car will seat five.
Nissan's North America headquarters is in Franklin.

Perry said the 100 miles (160 kilometers) of pure battery range is more than double the battery range of some competitors' electric cars.
Perry said that while the cost of a conventional vehicle of similar size may range from $28,000 to $30,000, the U.S. government is offering a tax credit of up to $7,500 on the electric car. He said annual maintenance costs will be about $1,350 less for a pure electric vehicle than a conventional car.
"The payback is immediate," Perry said. He estimated the cost to "fill the tank" at about 90 cents, and said it will take about four to eight hours to do so at a residence.
Perry said plans are to reduce that time frame to four hours in 2012.
Nissan NA spokesman Fred Standish previously said the company submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Energy for a share of the government's $25 billion loan program intended to help automakers retool their plants to build more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Standish said the Smyrna plant, built in 1983, is the only one of Nissan's three plants in the U.S. that would meet the loan's criteria.
The Energy Department has received dozens of applications for the loan program, including requests from Detroit's automakers, Tesla Motors Inc., which builds an all-electric two-seat sports car, and several battery manufacturers.