Saturday, 14 March 2009

U.S. goes solar in tracks of Europe

By Kate Galbraith
Published: March 13, 2009

Solar cells adorn the roofs of many homes and warehouses across Germany, while the bright, white blades of windmills are a frequent sight in the skies above Spain.
If one day these machines become as common on the plains and rooftops of the United States as they are elsewhere, it may be because the financial technique that gave Europe an early lead in renewable energy is starting to cross the Atlantic.
Put simply, the idea is to pay homeowners and businesses top dollar for producing green energy. In Germany, for example, a homeowner with a rooftop solar system might get paid four times more to produce electricity than the rate paid to a coal-fired power plant.
This month, Gainesville, Florida, became the first U.S. city to introduce higher payments for solar power, which is otherwise too expensive for many families or businesses to install. City leaders unanimously approved the policy after studying Germany's solar-power expansion.
Hawaii, where high electricity prices have stirred special interest in alternative forms of power like solar, hopes to have a similar policy in place before the end of the year. The mayor of Los Angeles wants to introduce higher payments for solar power. The California state government is also considering a stronger policy, and bills have been introduced in other states, including Washington and Oregon.

"I'm seeing it with my own eyes: It's really having a good effect on our local economy, particularly in these hard times," said Ed Regan, the assistant general manager for strategic planning at Gainesville Regional Utilities. He said he had received calls from other cities and states since announcing the policy.
The surge of interest in the payment system is a recognition that despite generous state and federal incentives, the United States still lags far behind Europe in solar power. Germany, where higher payments for renewable power (sometimes called "feed-in tariffs") have been in place since 1991, has about five times as many photovoltaic panels installed as the United States, although they still account for only 0.5 percent of electricity in that country.
In the United States, said Wilson Rickerson, a Boston-based energy consultant, "a lot of people simultaneously reached the conclusion — who's moving fastest internationally? And that's definitely been Germany and Spain."
The policy affords a different way of paying for solar power systems.
If the United States were to fully switch over to such a payment system on a national scale, something that even solar advocates say is unlikely, the burden of subsidizing solar power would switch away from taxpayers, who fund a national tax credit, to electricity rate payers.
In Gainesville, the new policy has already sparked a rush to put up panels. John Stanton, a retired civil servant living with his wife in Gainesville, put 24 solar panels on his roof in late January, as city leaders sped the policy toward approval. Gainesville's municipal utility now pays Stanton and other homeowners and businesses who generate solar power more than twice the standard electricity rate, and guarantees that rate for 20 years.
"It was the thing that sort of put us over the top," Stanton said.
Wind power and other sources of renewable energy are generally included in the European payment systems, but solar — as one of the costliest renewables — has benefited the most. Payment rates for wind are substantially lower than for solar, according to Christian Kjaer, chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association.
In the United States, solar panels remain almost prohibitively expensive — a big reason why they account for far less than 1 percent of electricity generation. Generating power from the sun can cost several times as much as from coal, the largest and cheapest source of electricity in the United States.
If the utility commits to paying a higher rate for solar power over a period of years, it can offer those with solar panels or wind turbines a steady return — a particularly appealing prospect amid the economic turmoil.
From the utility's perspective, since it does not own the system, it avoids the cost and hassle of maintaining the panels. But paying more for solar power also has a direct impact on rate payers. Homeowners' electricity bills will rise 74 cents a month in the case of Gainesville, or about half a percentage point of the average homeowner's monthly bill.
Opponents like Marcel Hawiger, a staff attorney for the Utility Reform Network in California, say that the policy, by raising electricity rates, would hit the poor the hardest, because a relatively high percentage of their income goes to utility bills.
"Why should we use regressive taxation to support the most expensive form of renewable energy?" Hawiger asked.
The programs have sometimes proved so popular that costs can spiral out of control. Last autumn, blockbuster solar growth forced Spain to cap the amount of solar installations it would subsidize because it was paying too much. Ontario, which has had a feed-in tariff since 2006, also suspended its program last year after being oversubscribed, but wants to restart the policy.
Even in Gainesville, homeowners wanting to put solar panels on their roof are now out of luck — the city reached its cap on solar payments for this year and next only a few days after introducing the policy.
James Kanter contributed reporting.

There Is No Such Thing as Nuclear Waste


'White House Buries Yucca," read the headlines last week after Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said the proposed storage of nuclear waste in a Nevada mountain is "no longer an option."
Instead, Mr. Chu told a Senate hearing, the Obama administration will cut all but the most rudimentary funding to Yucca and be content to allow spent fuel rods to sit in storage pools and dry casks at reactor sites "while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal."
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a longtime opponent of the repository, was overjoyed. Environmental groups were equally gratified, since they have long seen Yucca Mountain as a choke point for asphyxiating nuclear energy. Greenpeace immediately called for an end to new construction of nuclear power plants, and for all existing reactors to be closed down.
So is this really the death knell for nuclear power? Not at all. The repository at Yucca Mountain was only made necessary by our failure to understand a fundamental fact about nuclear power: There is no such thing as nuclear waste.
A nuclear fuel rod is made up of two types of uranium: U-235, the fissionable isotope whose breakdown provides the energy; and U-238, which does not fission and serves basically as packing material. Uranium-235 makes up only 0.7% of the natural ore. In order to reach "reactor grade," it must be "enriched" up to 3% -- an extremely difficult industrial process. (To become bomb material, it must be enriched to 90%, another ballgame altogether.)
After being loaded in a nuclear reactor, the fuel rods sit for five years before being removed. At this point, about 12 ounces of U-235 will have been completely transformed into energy. But that's enough to power San Francisco for five years. There are no chemical transformations in the process and no carbon-dioxide emissions.
When they emerge, the fuel rods are intensely radioactive -- about twice the exposure you would get standing at ground zero at Hiroshima after the bomb went off. But because the amount of material is so small -- it would fit comfortably in a tractor-trailer -- it can be handled remotely through well established industrial processes. The spent rods are first submerged in storage pools, where a few yards of water block the radioactivity. After a few years, they can be moved to lead-lined casks about the size of a gazebo, where they can sit for the better part of a century until the next step is decided.
So is this material "waste"? Absolutely not. Ninety-five percent of a spent fuel rod is plain old U-238, the nonfissionable variety that exists in granite tabletops, stone buildings and the coal burned in coal plants to generate electricity. Uranium-238 is 1% of the earth's crust. It could be put right back in the ground where it came from.
Of the remaining 5% of a rod, one-fifth is fissionable U-235 -- which can be recycled as fuel. Another one-fifth is plutonium, also recyclable as fuel. Much of the remaining three-fifths has important uses as medical and industrial isotopes. Forty percent of all medical procedures in this country now involve some form of radioactive isotope, and nuclear medicine is a $4 billion business. Unfortunately, we must import all our tracer material from Canada, because all of our isotopes have been headed for Yucca Mountain.
What remains after all this material has been extracted from spent fuel rods are some isotopes for which no important uses have yet been found, but which can be stored for future retrieval. France, which completely reprocesses its recyclable material, stores all the unused remains -- from 30 years of generating 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy -- beneath the floor of a single room at La Hague.
The supposed problem of "nuclear waste" is entirely the result of a the decision in 1976 by President Gerald Ford to suspend reprocessing, which President Jimmy Carter made permanent in 1977. The fear was that agents of foreign powers or terrorists groups would steal plutonium from American plants to manufacture bombs.
That fear has proved to be misguided. If foreign powers want a bomb, they will build their own reactors or enrichment facilities, as North Korea and Iran have done. The task of extracting plutonium from highly radioactive material and fashioning it into a bomb is far beyond the capacities of any terrorist organization.
So shed no tears for Yucca Mountain. Instead of ending the nuclear revival, it gives us the chance to correct a historical mistake and follow France's lead in developing complete reprocessing for nuclear material.
Mr. Tucker is author of "Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey" (Bartleby, 2008).
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Maersk Tankers looking at sea transport of CO2

By Robert Wright in London
Published: March 14 2009 02:00

One of the world's biggest owners of oil and gas tankers has become the first major operator to announce plans to enter the market to transport captured carbon dioxide.
Maersk Tankers, part of Denmark's AP Moller-Maersk, said demand for the service could be vast - around 750m tonnes of carbon dioxide are emitted from large power plants around the North Sea alone.
That amount would fill around 380 tankers of the kind Maersk envisages using for the new market.
Most previous plans to transport captured carbon dioxide have focused on using pipelines to move it from power stations and other producing sites to underground reservoirs.
The technique is designed to prevent carbon dioxide emissions entering the atmosphere and worsening global warming.
Maersk announced its plans at an international scientific conference on climate change near its Copenhagen headquarters. The meeting was part of the preparation for the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen in December.
The market would require new tankers with a mix of the capabilities of Maersk's existing liquefied natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas carriers, Martin Fruergaard, senior vice-president of Maersk Tankers, said. The gas would need to be both refrigerated, as happens on LNG carriers, and kept under pressure, as is LPG.
"It's a natural move for us," Mr Fruergaard said.
Jeff Chapman, chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, an industry body, said it seemed to be a practical idea to move captured carbon dioxide by ship.
"I'm convinced there's a place for it in local delivery," he said.
While movement in ships would itself produce carbon dioxide, that was true of any method for moving the gas, Mr Chapman said.
Maersk said that ships could be more flexible and better for moving small quantities of carbon dioxide than pipelines. They could also be used to take the captured gas to places such as Saudi Arabia, with significant space for storing the gas in old oil reservoirs, but too distant from producing centres to justify a pipeline.
The company has no immediate plans to order ships to enter the market because there remain question marks over the carbon capture technology necessary to provide the gas.
Mr Fruergaard said it would take about two years from ordering to have a vessel built. As a significant North Sea oil producer, -Maersk owns large undersea reservoirs that might be suitable for storing the gas.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Maldives aims to become first carbon-neutral country

By Jerome Taylor and Andrew Buncombe
Saturday, 14 March 2009

The Maldives – the island nation threatened by rising sea level as a result of global warming – is attempting to become the world's first carbon-neutral country.
The Independent has learnt that tomorrow President Mohammed Nasheed will reveal details of a plan to achieve full carbon neutrality within 10 years. In doing so, his country of islands in the Indian Ocean, will join a small group of nations racing to be first in what environmentalists have described as "the Carbon World Cup".
Five other countries – Costa Rica, Iceland, Norway, New Zealand and Monaco – have signed up to a UN-backed plan to become zero net emitters but none intend to achieve carbon neutrality as quickly as the Maldives, a nation of island atolls which is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels.
Earlier this week, Ahmed Shafeeq Ibrahim Moosa was appointed the country's new envoy for science and technology and is investigating ways to make the country carbon neutral. Mr Moosa, a former political activist and journalist, was appointed with a new Agricultural Minister, one of whose tasks is to reduce food imports.
Mr Moosa said: "Ten years – that's the target. We're going to be looking at solar, wind and waves and working out the best system for us. There will have to be a lot of education. People need to know everyone can do their bit. The Maldives is a small country with only 300,000 people. It will be achievable."
Local environmentalists welcomed the plan. Ali Rilwan, founder of Bluepeace, noted individual resorts were aiming at carbon neutrality, using solar panels to generate electricity and sea water for air-conditioning. "This is the sort of thing international donors are very interested in," he said.
The country's first democratically elected president, Mr Nasheed has made the environment a priority. Confronted by rising sea levels that threaten to swamp many of the 1,200 atolls that make up the Maldives, he announced plans for a fund to buy an alternative homeland, perhaps in India or Sri Lanka. The country has spent £30m on a three-metre-high flood defence wall around the capital, Male, but 80 per cent of the islands are just one metre above sea level or less.

We will create green new deal, says Gore

Global campaigner and investment sidekick call for 'sustainable capitalism'
Leo Hickman
The Guardian, Saturday 14 March 2009

For a man with the very survival of human civilisation weighing heavily on his broad shoulders, Al Gore cuts a surprisingly relaxed figure. With a Diet Coke in hand, and chewing gum rolling around inside his mouth, one of the great "what ifs" of modern political history strolls into the boardroom of his London-based asset management firm, located in one of the city's "most environmentally friendly buildings".
Gore is in the capital, as he is every few months, to spend a couple of days meeting with his partners at Generation Investment Management, the "sustainability-driven" asset management firm he set up in 2004 with David Blood, who, as the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, once managed investments worth $325bn (£232bn). As is the case everywhere, the numbers are somewhat smaller these days, but the firm they both wanted to call Blood and Gore (sadly, it was overruled by the rest of the board) still manages a pot of investments worth billions, according to Blood.
As chairman, Gore, 61, says he spends about "one day a week" working for Generation, but his press handlers won't expand on what investments he holds or remuneration he receives, other than to say he initially used his own money to "experiment with" in trial investments during the two-year period when the company's "structure and philosophy" was being established ahead of any outside investors being invited to join them. It is tempting to see Gore's role at Generation as the day job, allowing him the time and financial security to spend the rest of the working week on his three-decade-long quest to warn the world about the perils of climate change. But he insists that his role at Generation is as important as any of his other high-profile projects.
Blood and Gore couldn't have picked a more apt time to agree to talk about their vision of "sustainable capitalism", with the global economy and the planet's environmental health in twin decline. What they are keen to prove, they say, is that the short-termism of a market "driven by quarterly reports" is unsustainable. "The focus on short-termism has reached a ridiculous extreme," says Gore. "The business cycle is much longer than that and some investments take much longer to reveal their full value and profitability." They have chosen a three-year period in which to judge investments, though "many people would say is still too short", says Gore.
This view broadly chimes with the now widespread call for a "green new deal", as reflected in the raft of environmental measures embedded within many of the national economic stimulus packages announced around the world. But this promised new dawn is also widely predicted to be one in which the heavy hand of regulation will loom large. "Yes, we're going to need more regulation," says Blood. "Yes, raw capitalism failed us. That shouldn't be a surprise to anybody. But we also have an opportunity to create a green economy. To put a price on carbon, through tax or cap-and-trade, or both. That is an important step to making economics sustainable."
But the European carbon market is in disarray, with the price of carbon at such low levels that it now arguably rewarding the big polluters. Earlier this week, the environmental scientist James Lovelock said carbon trading was a "scam".
"The European trading system got off to a bad start, but they have addressed those flaws and made it work much better," Gore responds. "The fundamental problems are that it's like a bucket with a large hole in it because the US and China are not involved."
Gore says that, since the election of Barack Obama last November, he feels much more bullish about the chances of political progress in tackling climate change. But one group who are unlikely to ever "get it" are the ever-vocal contingent of climate change sceptics, the most prominent of whom were gathered at a conference this week in New York. Al Gore, the world's best-known climate change "alarmist", as the sceptics like to say, was a popular source of ridicule and ire at the conference. Gore brackets the sceptics with those who believe in creationism: "It's fed by a huge amount of funding from carbon special interests who have been financing these phoney, pseudo-scientific reports and they have a self-interest in sowing doubt. Doubt is their product.
"It's also fed by an ideological opposition and, coming out of the 20th century, the battle against excess statism in various forms became a deeply held view, and I share that view if it's stated properly, but some take it to such an extreme that anything which implies a new regulation or a new role for government is automatically attacked."

From science to statesmanship

The Guardian, Saturday 14 March 2009

Acid oceans, rising seas and a planet so parched that half of it ends up being uninhabitable. Science fiction writers have long played with such ideas, but this week they were being set out in the course of science proper. Experts came to Copenhagen to update the projections which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published as recently as 2007. From average temperatures to deforestation, their forecasts show that the news is turning from bad to worse. The few morsels of more heartening analysis - such as the suggestion that the total destruction of the Greenland ice cap might be slightly more remote than we suspected - only served to underline that the dire overall picture was not the product of apocalyptic occultism, but of hard research conducted with open minds.
At the meeting's close, its conclusions were passed to the Danish prime minister - a neat way for the scientists to signify that they have done their bit, and it now falls to the politicians to pick up the agenda. The boffins were sufficiently scared by their findings to breach the usual self-denying ordinance against discussing policy. They insisted that something big must be done urgently; even if that is accepted, though, there is still lots for statesmen and women to talk about at their own Copenhagen summit in December. Their job is to devise a replacement for the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012. The task will be shaped by shifts in politics and trade as much as by changes in forecasts about the climate.
Since the haggling over Kyoto, politics has evolved in ways which should expand what is possible. As Beijing starts to grapple with the damage the planet's slow roasting will inflict, it is becoming possible at least to imagine a carbon compact that could meaningfully tie in the developing world, something off-limits at Kyoto. Equally significant is political change in America. The point here is not merely the departure from the Oval Office of a man whose instinctive sympathies were with the deniers. Important though that is, it is as well to recall that even before George Bush's day the Clinton administration proved unable to secure the ratification of Kyoto. No, the real point is the wider collapse of the Bush brand of ultra-conservatism. There are still deniers and isolationists on Capitol Hill but, intellectually beaten and diminished in number, they may no longer be the obstacle to progress they once were.
While the politics are more propitious than last time the world got round the table to discuss climate, the globalisation of economic life ensures that there is now an awful lot more to thrash out. Kyoto held countries responsible for the carbon pumped out within their own borders. That principle had the great merits of simplicity and transparency, but now that so much pollution is being churned out in the poor world to service the needs of the rich it is an approach that will no longer do. Only last year China officially knocked the US off the top spot in the CO2 league table, and yet a new study this month has established that half of the rise in its emissions are down to its manufacturing of goods for export. Morally, there can be no doubt that where the west is consuming the polluting products, the west must face the consequences. A consumption-based system would, however, be too complex for the weak global institutions that currently exist to monitor and enforce.
The mismatch between economic globalisation and a political world still fragmented on national lines has just been exposed by the banking crisis. When the risk is physical rather than financial meltdown, the stakes are higher still. Either economic integration must be complemented by stronger global governance or else the only way to save the planet will be to put globalisation into reverse. The former is the better option, but it will take leadership. If that emerges in Copenhagen, the city will go down in the history books as wonderful indeed.

Global warning

Published: March 13 2009 20:18

Don’t be misled by the recent cold winter in Europe and north America – or by this week’s conference of vocal climate change sceptics in New York. Pay attention instead to the larger gathering in Copenhagen, where mainstream scientists have issued a series of dire warnings that global warming is proceeding far faster than the scenarios published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change two years ago.
Many politicians who believe in global warming have taken some comfort from the IPCC consensus opinion that average temperatures will rise by about 2°C this century, an increase to which the world could just about adapt. Unfortunately that view is out of date, according to recent evidence presented in Copenhagen and elsewhere – ranging from the rapid thinning of Arctic ice to the unexpected vulnerability of the Amazon rainforests to drought and heat.

To reduce the real risk of a climate catastrophe, bringing untold social disruption later this century, politicians worldwide must bring a new sense of urgency to the battle against global warming. The new US president will help: Barack Obama believes personally in the need for action and his administration has a strong environmental team. As he has said, the fight against recession is no excuse to relax on the climate front.
Three main strategies are needed. The first is direct support for technologies to cut the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere; such “green investment” should be part of any economic stimulus plan. Second, judicious use of regulations can force companies and consumers to use energy more efficiently.
The third element is the most difficult: making it more expensive to emit greenhouse gases. Political constraints may rule out the most straightforward method – raising carbon taxes substantially – in some countries, including the US. If so, robust cap-and-trade schemes, imposing stringent limits on emissions, will serve well instead.
In December there will be an even bigger climate conference in Copenhagen – to agree an international treaty to follow the flawed Kyoto protocol. Intensive international negotiations will be needed over the next nine months to draw up an action plan that the whole world can endorse then.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Science briefing: Darkening skies

By Clive Cookson
Published: March 13 2009 14:58

Skies have dimmed over most of the world during the past 35 years as a result of increasing pollution, according to a comprehensive study published on Friday in Science. The shining exception is Europe, where skies are clearer.
Scientists at the University of Maryland analysed visibility measurements over the period 1973 to 2007 from weather stations all over the world and also studied more recent satellite data. Visibility - the furthest distance a trained meteorological observer can see - is reduced by microscopic particles of soot and dust and droplets of sulphur dioxide in the air; these “aerosols” are generated by burning fossil fuels.
The greatest reductions in visibility - or “dimming” - occurred over rapidly industrialising regions of south and east Asia. Africa, Australia and south America have also experienced some dimming. Europe was the only continent where the sun shone brighter in 2007 than in 1973.
Although the effects are not large - the average global dimming rate is about 0.1 per cent a year - scientists say the aerosols responsible are bound to play a role in climate change. More research will be needed to determine whether dimming is accelerating or putting a brake on global warming.
Boost for electric cars
Engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered how to boost the performance of lithium-ion batteries, a favoured power source in applications from laptop computers to electric cars. Their research, described in the journal Nature, will allow lithium batteries to be discharged and recharged much more quickly than is possible today.
Lithium cells are popular because of their high energy density - they can store a lot of charge in a small space - but their charging and discharging rates are relatively slow. By redesigning the battery and incorporating a compound called lithium iron phosphate, the MIT researchers made a prototype cell that could be fully charged and discharged within 20 seconds; the process takes six minutes in a conventional cell of the same size.
“The ability to charge and discharge batteries in a matter of seconds... may open up new technological applications and induce lifestyle changes,” Gerbrand Ceder and Byoungwoo Kang of MIT conclude in their Nature paper.
Electric cars powered by the new batteries could not only be recharged quickly but would also accelerate faster. MIT says the research has been licensed to two companies and could be on the market within three years.
CJD hopes dimmed
The first clinical trial of a treatment for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has given mainly disappointing results.
Laboratory tests and anecdotal evidence from patients had raised hopes that quinacrine, a medicine used to treat malaria and arthritis, might help people with CJD. This fatal brain disease occurs spontaneously in around two people per million but it has also affected around 200 people who ate beef contaminated with BSE (mad cow disease) before controls were imposed in the 1990s.
John Collinge of University College London organised a trial for the UK Medical Research Council with 107 CJD patients, of whom 40 took quinacrine and 67 did not. Although mortality was slightly lower in the group taking the drug, there was no significant difference in survival after adjusting for factors such as disease severity.
A mildly encouraging sign was that the four patients who had temporary improvements in brain function during the trial were all in the group taking quinacrine.
In a comment accompanying Prof Collinge’s paper in Lancet Neurology, Michael Geschwind of the University of California, San Francisco, says it is unlikely that quinacrine will be the “penicillin” for CJD. But he adds: “The results of this study show that treatment trials for rare, rapidly progressive and fatal diseases are possible.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009