Monday, 29 June 2009

Valero Harnesses Wind Energy to Fuel Its Oil-Refining Process


SUNRAY, Texas -- In this windswept corner of the high plains, a big oil refiner is embracing new green technology in order to make more money producing old-fashioned fossil fuels.

Valero's $115 million Texas wind farm, above, will pay for itself in about 10 years at current electricity prices.

Valero Energy Corp., which has the capacity to process more crude than any other U.S. refiner, recently installed 33 windmills to supply a refinery here with green electricity to produce gasoline and diesel.
The marriage is one of convenience, Valero executives say. "We didn't build the wind farm so we could get into the wind-energy business," notes Tom Shetina, the refinery's manager, who expresses awe at the windmills' size. "We built the wind farm so we could support the refinery and run it more economically."
The company hopes to lock in fluctuating electricity prices by developing its own source of power, rather than relying on the grid, and to cut the $1.4-million-a-month electricity bill at the seven-decade-old refinery. The $115 million wind farm, which will be ready to operate at full capacity in August, will pay for itself in about 10 years at current electricity prices, company officials said.
Valero, which is based in San Antonio, does have some environmental motives. It hopes to produce its petroleum-based fuels more cleanly, something it could be forced to do if Congress enacts legislation to curb greenhouse gases.
While the wind farm will make the refinery greener, it won't reduce the greenhouse gas emissions spewed by cars and trucks as they burn the fuels that Valero makes.
Transportation generates 33% of U.S. carbon emissions, with gasoline accounting for the bulk of them, government data show. Transforming crude oil into fuels accounts for less than 5% of U.S. emissions, according to industry trade groups.
Valero is experimenting with alternative fuels -- it bought several ethanol plants earlier this year -- but it and other refiners are betting that Americans will continue to fill their tanks mostly with gasoline and diesel for years to come.
And faced with increasing competition from refineries located in lower-cost areas overseas, it wants to make those fuels more cheaply.
According to Ken Starcher, director of the Alternative Energy Institute at West Texas A&M University, the cost of electricity from a typical wind farm in the area averages 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour during the project's lifetime, including the initial investment and maintenance. That's about 1.5 cents less than the current utility-company rate, he says.
After the Sunray wind farm is completed in August -- and when the wind is blowing -- Valero expects to generate 50 megawatts of electricity an hour, the full load required to run the refinery next door. That should cover the refinery's needs 40% to 45% of the time, it says, an estimate that experts say is reasonable for the area if the wind farm is well managed.
Valero says it will also receive tax credits from the project and could potentially sell the renewable-energy certificates from its wind power, which will displace electricity that is mostly generated by burning Wyoming coal.
The refinery, which was built here in the 1930s to take advantage of nearby oil wells, happens to be in one of the most desirable wind-power-producing regions in the U.S. Located some 40 miles north of Amarillo, the refinery has few neighbors aside from cattle and prairie dogs, which don't seem to mind the towering white windmills.
For the refinery's workers, the new wind farm, with its sleek towers and swooshing sound, is a lesson in contrasts between the old and new energy. It will take only about three local people to operate, compared with the 450 to 1,500 workers required to keep the refinery's noisy labyrinth of tanks and pipelines running in good shape.
Write to Ana Campoy at

Biodiesel Startups Run Out of Gas


HOUSTON -- When Imperium Renewables Inc. opened what was then the largest U.S. biodiesel plant on the coast of Washington state two years ago, its executives thought it would be the cornerstone of a far-flung empire.
The Grays Harbor, Wash., facility is still there, but hasn't produced a drop of the stuff since February. The closely held Seattle company now makes its money by storing biodiesel produced by other facilities.
John Plaza, Imperium's chief executive, said a combination of volatile commodity prices, a financial crisis, antibiofuel rhetoric, and U.S. and state governments' tardiness in enforcing renewable-fuel mandates have arrested the biodiesel industry's momentum.
Biodiesel, a fuel derived from vegetable or animal fat, can be used in engines designed to run petroleum diesel. Biodiesel production in the U.S. has been surpassed by corn-based ethanol, which is blended into most U.S. gasoline to satisfy federal mandates.
GreenHunter Energy Inc.'s Houston plant, which surpassed Imperium's as the largest in the U.S. after its 2008 opening, also has been idle since February. On Tuesday, GreenHunter said it is mulling a sale of the plant to pay down debt.
About one-third of the nation's biodiesel plants are idle, said officials with the National Biodiesel Board, an industry group.
With many plants being idle and running below capacity, at the current rate of production without an effective mandate, U.S. biodiesel producers are forecast to cut output by almost half this year, to 350 million gallons.
Write to Angel Gonzalez at

The Black Liquor War

The U.S. and Canada duke it out over an alternative-fuel boondoggle.

Congress's unrelenting efforts to rid the world of fossil fuel have now produced a North American trade war over an obscure substance called "black liquor." Let us explain.
This story begins with Congress's 2005 highway bill. It included a subsidy to encourage businesses to power their motor vehicles with "alternative fuels" such as ethanol, rather than fossil fuels such as diesel. Congress said businesses could receive a 50-cent tax credit for every gallon of gasoline if they used a blend of a traditional fossil fuel and an alternative fuel.
Then in 2007, Congress extended this largesse beyond highway vehicles to a wider range of alternative fuel users. Enter "black liquor," a carbon-rich substance the paper industry has used for decades to power its mills. It also qualifies as an alternative fuel. All the paper industry had to do was blend some fossil fuel in with their alternative fuel and -- voila! -- billions of dollars in federal subsidies were within reach. So they did.
Adding diesel to the paper production process might not be in the anti-fossil fuel spirit of Congress's tax credit, but it was legal, and lucrative. The American paper industry is on pace to pocket some $6 billion in tax credits this year, enough to cut production costs by 60% and reduce the price of some U.S. paper goods by 25%.
Not surprisingly, Canadian paper companies are miffed at this subsidized windfall to their competition. Now they've gotten their Parliament to do something about it. Following the two-wrongs-make-a-right logic of trade wars, Canadian lawmakers recently passed a subsidy worth $882 million for their domestic paper industry.
Canadian paper producers defend the counter-subsidy in the classic language of trade warriors. "This will save tens of thousands of jobs," says Avrim Lazar of the Forest Products Association of Canada. "When the U.S. government is stepping in," Mr. Lazar adds, "creating a massive advantage for American jobs, it's the [Canadian] government's job to step up to the plate."
Senators Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley are trying to end the American black-liquor subsidy ahead of its scheduled expiration on December 31. Don't expect this to satisfy Canadian paper producers. Cue Mr. Lazar: "Even when they stop the tax credit, we'll be way behind the starting line when the new race starts." Translation: We like subsidies, too.
So a sloppily written green provision in a federal highway bill has triggered an enduring cross-border subsidy war. No word yet on whether ethanol is being written into the health-care bill.

BP solar panel blaze raises concerns

The Times
June 29, 2009
Robin Pagnamenta, Energy and Environment Editor

Fresh concerns have emerged over the future of BP’s alternative energy business after a fire broke out at one of the company’s largest solar power installations in Germany.
The incident on June 21 destroyed nearly 200 sq m of one of the world’s largest roof-mounted solar panel arrays on a warehouse complex in Bürstadt, near Mannheim. As outside investigators and BP’s own staff were looking into the cause of the fire, a spokesman for BP Solar confirmed that much of the equipment involved had been supplied by the company four or five years ago.
In the past, concerns have been raised about some junction boxes manufactured by BP Solar, which were said to be prone to overheating. The company recalled and replaced some of these in 2006 and 2007 as a precautionary measure.
Kai Alfermann, head of asset management at Fiege, the German logistics company that owns the site, said that the fire appeared to have started on the array itself and had spread to the timber frame on which it was mounted. He said it was not the first time that the installation had suffered problems and that, depending on the outcome of the investigation, Fiege might take legal action against BP Solar or the German company that installed the equipment.

“The cause of the fire is unknown at this stage and it would be unwise of us to speculate,” BP Solar said.
One well-placed solar industry source claimed that there were concerns about BP’s equipment in the industry, which generated global revenues of $37 billion last year. “Major manufacturers are up in arms because they don’t want to be tainted by this episode,” he said.
News of the fire surfaced days after Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP’s newly appointed chairman, said that clean energy would continue to play a key role in the oil group’s agenda.
Although BP invests more in renewable energy than many of its rivals, there has been uncertainty over its plans for alternative energy. Last month, Tony Hayward, the chief executive, questioned the economics of solar energy, claiming that the technology was unlikely to ever be as competitive as fossil fuels.
“I think solar is probably the most challenged of all of BP’s alternative energy interests,” he told a conference in California.
“It is not going to make the transition to be competitive with more conventional power — the gap is too big. If solar is going to make a breakthrough, there will be a technology disintermediation step.”
Vivienne Cox, head of alternative energy at BP, left the group this month and the company is shutting the head office of its alternative energy business in London. However, BP insists that it remains firmly commited to lower-carbon energy.
BP Alternative Energy operates a range of businesses, including American wind farms, solar power, biofuels, hydrogen energy and carbon-capture and storage projects.

Nuclear industry accused of hijacking clean energy forum

Critics say France is using debate about where to base new Irena global renewables body to co-opt organisation
Terry Macalister, Sunday 28 June 2009 14.52 BST

The nuclear power industry has been accused of trying to muscle in on plans to establish a global body to represent the renewable energy industry at a key meeting in Egypt tomorrow.
France – a major user and exporter of nuclear technologies – is accused by critics of trying to win the top job inside the renewable organisation so it can move the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) towards being a promoter of "low-carbon" technologies – including atomic power.
The talks in Sharm el-Sheikh are already threatening to become a major standoff between Germany and the United Arab Emirates over which country should win the right to have the headquarters of Irena based in its country.
France, which recently signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with the UAE, is supporting Abu Dhabi. It also wants one of its own civil servants, Hélène Peloss, to be given the top role.
Britain, which only signed up for membership on Friday, has given no indication whether it plans to cast its vote in favour of Bonn or Abu Dhabi, while the US is expected to join Irena in Egypt and then lend its support to Germany.
Karsten Sach, an official in the German environment ministry with responsibility for Irena, said he was "very optimistic" that his country would be chosen but he refused to be drawn on the competition with Abu Dhabi or the role of France.
"I think we have an excellent offer in terms of experience, policy frameworks and vibrant research but we are not campaigning against any other offer," he argued.
Bonn is considered by many to be the more obvious location because the renewables agency was the brainchild of the Germans, who have led the way in the clean technology sector through its determined championing of solar power. The promoters of Bonn are also suggesting that the Danish renewables policy expert Hans Jørgen Koch should be chosen as director general.
But Abu Dhabi, in the UAE, is pushing its claims to host Irena by emphasising its new commitment to clean technology through the construction of the hugely ambitious, low-carbon Masdar City project. It is also arguing that a developing country rather than the west is better placed to pursue the vital north-south dialogue needed to beat global warming.
At previous planning meetings for Irena, the French have talked about "low-carbon" technologies, encouraging speculation about its ultimate motives.
Eric Martinot, a senior research director with the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies in Tokyo, and a former environment specialist at the World Bank, told the Huffington Post, an online newspaper, that the French manoeuvres should be resisted.
"An Irena located in Abu Dhabi under such circumstances would be 'nuclear tainted' because the negotiating process used to select a host country would be based on support for nuclear power," said Martinot.
"Are the original goals of Irena being co-opted so that renewables become a mere appendage to a nuclear agenda? 'Sprinkling some renewables on top of our nuclear power'?" he asked.
More than 100 countries have signed up to the new organisation, although the US and China have yet to do so. Sach said he was hopeful that the US might join in Egypt and that China would eventually come on board.
The renewable agency will have a mandate to disseminate knowledge, develop regulatory framework and to actively promote the widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies around the world.
It comes ahead of vital new talks in Copenhagen at the end of this year about how to tackle global warming and amid excitement that the US and China are finally starting to play more constructive roles compared with the past.

Red tape in UK defeats eco fund

The British team behind the launch of a €200m (£170m) investment fund for renewable energy has turned to Eastern Europe because of regulatory barriers to green energy projects in the UK.

By Rowena Mason Published: 7:56PM BST 28 Jun 2009
The new fund, which will be announced this week, is planning to finance biomass, wind and solar energy in Finland, Romania and Estonia, with estimated returns of 20pc-50pc per year.
Hadley Barrett, chief executive of the Oxford Renewable Energy Fund (OREF), said his team had contemplated trying to develop green projects in the UK but the obstacles have proved too great.

A lack of political will, poor energy infrastructure and lengthy planning procedures means the fund would not generate satisfactory returns.
"There is an awful lot of confusion for renewable energy investors in the UK, where the Government first gives its support then takes it away and cannot make up its mind on policy," he said. "If you are doing it right, you can make very good money out of renewable energy, but certainly not in the UK."
The fund, whose backers are a combination of high net worth individuals and institutional investors, will list in the Channel Islands. OREF's previous funds have all returned between 45pc and 100pc per year.
"We are no eco-warriors," Mr Barrett added. "This is about making money from renewable energy e_SEnD in a sustainable way – but that is not possible in the UK at the moment."
The fund launch in Eastern Europe comes after BP last week decided to close its Alternative Energy office in London. BP is expected to cut its investment in alternative energy this year to as low as $500m, compared with $1.4bn last year. It follows the departure of Vivienne Cox, BP's head of alternative energy, earlier this month.
Sources in the oil and gas industry said many multinational energy companies were now turning to the US, where they believe President Obama is planning to pump money into new alternative energy projects.
In the UK, consumers are expected to bear an extra £112bn on renewable energy generation, £52bn on power plants, £40bn on upgrading the network, £13bn on smart meters and £16bn on reducing carbon emissions.

Batteries included: Are eco-friendly cars any good?

Politicians want British drivers to switch over to eco-friendly cars. They're silent and stylish – but are they any good? John Walsh puts pedal to the metal
Monday, 29 June 2009


The first shot of the electrical car revolution was fired on 10 January 1985.
Rather than change the world, it hit a wall of media criticism, ricocheted against several bricks of public abuse and pinged back to strike its originator between the eyes. It was the winter morning when Sir Clive Sinclair, the eccentric, beady-eyed, ginge-bearded inventor of pocket calculators and microcomputers, introduced the Sinclair C5, the world's first electric car.
It was an odd-looking thing, like a pointlessly streamlined invalid carriage, 6ft long, 2ft 6in high, 2ft 6in wide and weighing just 99lb. Instead of petrol, it ran on a 33lb lead acid battery which drove a 250-watt electric motor – identical, journalists noted, to the one that powers your mum's washing machine. Its top speed was a snaily 15mph, and it could travel a whole 20 miles between recharges. Imagine.
How they scoffed, the C5's first spectators, as they watched the shoe-shaped machine slither in the snow. Nobody believed the 20-mile claim. Sceptics noted it used more electricity in cold weather and struggled so much uphill, the driver was obliged to use pedals. Its height made it dangerous for the occupant, who, A: couldn't been seen by lorry- or jeep-drivers, and B: would be choked by car fumes just at the level of his or her nose.
It was a disaster. Nobody wanted the C5, the invention that conferred instant wally status on anyone foolish enough to climb into it. Sir Clive became a figure of ridicule. The price was slashed from £399 to £199 to offload the surplus stock. By October, Sinclair vehicles were in the hands of the receivers, and production of the C5 ceased. Electric cars? Pah, everyone said. They're battery-powered toys, one step up from milk floats. They are slow, anaemic, whining, pathetic and need charging up with flex and socket every few miles. How am I supposed to drive one to the Cairngorms? Don't talk to me about electric cars.
Scoot forward to 2009 and you could be forgiven for thinking our relationship with the things had scarcely improved. The only electric car driven by anyone I know is the GoinGreen G-Wiz and, much as I like the owner, you'd never catch me in one. I recall the nitric scorn heaped on it by Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. He abused its cramped conditions, its lethal cornering, its arse-juddering suspension, its sluggish performance: you can't, he pointed out, access the radio or the fan, or have electric windows, or go fast or even stop, "because it'll wear the battery down". He mocked the fact that the EU didn't classify the G-Wiz as a car at all, but a "quadricycle". He raced one against a standard Renault (it lost) and a kitchen table carried by six men (it lost when it ran out of juice). Plus, EU data also revealed that, whatever its manufacturers claimed about a 45mph top speed, the average speed at which it's usually driven is 10mph. Twenty-odd years after the C5, the electric car is still becalmed near the intersection of Toytown and Rubbishville.
Not for much longer. Last week, the Government rolled out a scheme to persuade the population to love, or consider loving, electric cars – sorry, "environmentally-friendly vehicles", because they're not all electric; at least one runs on wind turbine energy. The scheme, fronted by Paul Drayson, the science minister, is costing £25m and will make 340 cars from various manufacturers available, at the end of the year, to members of the public to test, on short-term leases, in eight areas, including London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Oxford.
Universities and regional areas will be encouraged to help by experimenting with finding ways to supply the nervous electric motorist with charging points. The aim is to cut road transport emissions in the UK by half, from 22 per cent to 11 per cent.
The Government's scheme will start with four models: they'll be given the Star Wars-ish title of the Ultra Low-Carbon Vehicle Fleet. They are the Smart Electric Drive, owned by Mercedes; the MiniE from BMW; the Expert Eurobus (formerly the Teepee) from Peugeot, and the Lightning from the combined forces of Westfield and Delta Motorsport. But hardly had the scheme been announced than other makers pitched in. Ford Motors announced its own "global commitment" to developing "Battery Electric Vehicles" or BEVs. They're not saying which makes or models will take part in the scheme, but we shall find out by the end of the year.
Will we like them? I thought I'd go for an early sighting. I am no petrol-head, but I love cars. I practically live in my Alfa Romeo 159. Could I find an electric one that didn't make me feel (and look) a fool or a geek when driving it? Could I turn myself into an amp-head, a watt-brain, an ohm-body?
The cool-looking Lightning, sad to report, isn't currently available, since it's still being built. Ditto the Mini E, which BMW hope will be available to the public by November. So I high-tailed it to west London to try out the Smart ED.
People are in two minds about Smart cars. They look slightly ludicrous, but are becoming less so. They nip in and out of traffic like annoying hornets, but have a certain miniature charm.
At first sighting of the ED, your heart sinks. Climbing into one is like getting into one of those electrically-operated toy vans you see outside supermarkets. It's all front seat, driver's door, then nothing. I was reminded of the moment in the wartime movie Kings Row, when the unfortunate Ronald Reagan, having fallen foul of a vindictive surgeon, wakes up in hospital to find both his legs amputated, and cries: "Where's the rest of me?" Inside, though, it's not half bad. There's plenty of headroom. Even if, like me, you're six-feet-one, there's plenty of legroom. The dashboard is charming. On the left of the speedometer, two little dials poke up like antennae on a robot: one's a clock, the other tells you how much percentage of electricity remains.
I switched it on, nervously. I put it in gear. (There are three gears: neutral, drive and reverse. Electric cars don't need clutches, transmission, spark plugs, engine oil, filters, exhaust, any of that stuff.) I gingerly placed my foot on the accelerator. A strange, mosquito whine filled the air: "Eeeeeeeee." Slowly, painfully, the Smart ED inched forward, as though expressing a whingey reluctance to go anywhere (or anywhere with me). Once I left the car park, the noise resolved into a cute, kittenish mewing, then disappeared. It was damned odd to be driving something so discreetly, mutedly, virginally, monkishly, mortifiedly silent.
As I became used to its teeny size, things became easier. It was still sluggish getting away from traffic lights, but I could feel it trying. It handled very lightly – sometimes I felt I was sitting on a metal tray with windows – but was a little ponderous when taking corners, hardly surprising when you think of the heavy battery pack under the floor. Though my reflection in shop windows looked a little ridiculous (especially with the words "emission zero!" emblazoned just under my nose), it was easy to feel rather cool and zippy.
The makers claim a top speed of 60 mph and I can confirm that, in a burst of enthusiasm, I got it up to 56mph on the M4 before being forced to subside. The main drawback of the Smart ED, though, is that you spend a lot of time watching the dial that tells you how much juice is left. At the start of my drive, the dial said 83 per cent remained. After an hour, the figure had reduced to 60. At times, I thought I could see the needle moving before my eyes while I hummed along. They say you can drive 70 miles before needing to recharge the battery. I'm afraid I'd have one eye on the dial all the way.
It's a simple drive, in a car that feels properly constructed, rather than fashioned from plastic. It doesn't emit carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, unburned hydrocarbons – it doesn't emit anything except a high-pitched whine. And charging it means sticking a blue plug into a six-pin socket and sticking the three-pin plug at the end of a long yellow flex into a household socket, for up to eight hours. Call me a dreamer, but the Smart ED seems to represent the normalisation of the electric car. If only someone could apply the transformation to a family-sized saloon ...
Should you have an unusually large family – very large – you might talk to Peugeot, who are taking part in the Government's trial. For a year from this autumn, they'll supply 40 of their "zero emission vehicles" (ZEVs) for drivers in Glasgow, in partnership with the local battery company, Axeon. During the trial period, Scottish Power will set up 40 electric-charging points around Glasgow. All the data about car journeys will be recorded by satellite and analysed by boffins at Strathclyde University. The only drawback to the plan is that ZEVs aren't your usual family runaround. They are big commercial vans and "multiple passenger vehicles" (or as we say in English, "buses").
I headed for the Peugeot showroom in Chiswick and took out a Peugeot Expert Eurobus. It's a big, roomy, metal box with windows; it will never appeal to the boy racer but, in its electrical incarnation, it's fun to drive. You feel like you're sitting six feet above other motorists, humming along in near-silence. The suspension is so bouncy that driving over speed bumps is like hitting a trampoline – and then there's the gear lever.
Just the sight of it made me laugh out loud. Plonked in the middle of the wide dashboard, sitting on a metallic pad the size of a beer mat, the lever is the size of a toothpick, tapering outwards at the top. It resembles one of those miniscule screwdrivers you get in a Christmas cracker. You flick it forward an inch, and the 3,000kg bus moves forward. Flick it back an inch, and the metal Behemoth obediently reverses. I flicked it back and forth a dozen times, entranced by the power and heft that could be accessed by prodding something the size of a Twiglet.
The Eurobus has a top speed of 70, and a range of 100 miles between rechargings; the makers suggest you treat it like a pet, settling it down after a hard day's driving, for "a good night's charge", so you can assume eight hours is standard.
I was beginning to warm to electric cars – their silent efficiency, their clean energy, their lack of bits that can go wrong. Hard-core petrol-heads will never love them – without all the complex engine parts, no exhaust system, fuel system, gearbox or clutch, they rather resemble a human body with no internal organs, only a robot brain and an On/Off switch – but you can see them catching on, as soon as the problem of recharging availability is solved. Should sockets be available on the forecourt of every petrol service station? Or would the petrol companies consider that helping the enemy?
What I missed about the cars I'd tried was a sense of style. Then I learned that the Tesla company was opening a London outpost. Tesla is a name that raises goose-bumps on some motorists' skin. Rumours have flown for months about the Californian company owned by Elon Munsk, whose electric Roadster is a sports car that can reportedly out-race a Porsche and a Ferrari from a standing start.
The showroom was in Knightsbridge. The four cars on display were jaw-droppingly beautiful - sleek and glistening in red or silver. The makers have adapted the chassis from a Lotus Elise, made it 6in longer and 2in wider, its carbon-fibre skin as smooth as butter. The gear stick is a perfect silver ball like a Ferrari's. The seats are low-lying and buttock-clenching. The leather upholstery is black and red, finished with exposed stitching like a Savile Row suit.
Don Cochrane, who runs the UK office, is a handsome, Wapping-born Londoner with coal-black hair and a boundless optimism about electric cars. He dismissed the idea that Tesla was in competition with the environmentally-friendly cars coming out from BMW, Peugeot, Mercedes and Ford. "We're not making cars in their price bracket. But I'm happy to see more electric cars in the market place. The more people see them, the more they'll say, 'Maybe it's realistic for me to have an electric car for the 20 miles a day that I drive, instead of a combustion-engined vehicle.' " A car lover rather than an environmental zealot, he is nonetheless keen to change people's perspectives: "It makes sense that if things are going to change, you should be part of that change and not have it forced upon you." He used to work for Formula One under Bernie Ecclestone. Could he imagine an electric model ever having the performance level of Formula One cars?
"Certainly. Give it five years. There's so much investment now in battery technology. One positive side-effect of this recession is that governments are bailing out companies but, as part of the bailout, are forcing them to work on more environmental cars. Ford just announced they're going to build two; that's because they're just got $1.5bn of DOE money from the States."
Mr Cochrane can talk at torrential length about battery technology and the 6,831 lithium-ion cells that make up the battery in every Tesla Roadster. He can explain with admirable fluency the "torque curve" of ordinary cars, as they increase their power ratio through the gears, and how electric cars provide 100 per cent torque all the time (but controllably). He explained how the Roadster's top speed is 125 mph and that it can go 200 miles without recharging. I listened politely, but itched to try it. We rolled the doors aside, Cochrane started the engine (silently) and rolled the silver Roadster out into the narrow roadway. He glided into a side-road, then – in a burst of pure showing-off – whizzed in reverse round the corner, fast as a whipcrack. I climbed in (the seats make you virtually horizontal), plied the key, engaged "Drive" and glided away, with no whining, no wheel-grind, no noise at all except the envious cooing of passers-by.
It was a completely new driving experience: touch the accelerator and you rocket forward, the G-force pushing you back in your leather seat as if you're on a fairground ride, although you never feel out of control. The handling is (as with the Smart ED) a touch heavy when cornering, but deliciously smooth on the straight. Though the car lies very close to the road, it bounces over bumps and sleeping policemen as if pillowed in goosedown. And you can't help but feel a boyish glee about the vast coiled spring of power and speed that's detectable under your hands. On Hammersmith flyover, doing 50 with no traffic ahead, I experimentally floored the accelerator to see what would happen. The car leapt forward, in a split-second, to 70mph. Talk about torque. It was scary (and possibly illegal) but tremendously exhilarating.
By the time I returned it, with the greatest reluctance, to Mr Cochrane's tender care, I was determined to buy one. There are 500 lucky Californians driving Roadsters and amazing their friends with their environmental responsibility and their love of speed. It's time I joined them. It'll only take 20 years or so of patient savings to find the £94,000 I'll need.
With their curious little fleet of tiny Smart cars and Minis, and huge utility vehicles from Peugeot, the Government may have an uphill struggle making British people love electrical cars. The shadow of the Sinclair C5 hasn't completely dispersed. I suspect if the sceptics were given five minutes in a Tesla, they'd change their minds. It's becoming obvious that the electrics are where the future of cars must lie. Whoever comes up with the first mid-range, sensible-sized, four-door family model for under £20,000, with a charging-range of at least 100 miles, will be a very lucky winner indeed, in this fascinating off-shoot of the race to environmental purity.
On the circuit: The electric alternatives
Smart Electric Drive 4-2
Top speed: 60mph
Charge time: 4 hours
Distance between charges: 70 miles
Price: Not yet released
Peugeot Expert Eurobus
Top speed: 70mph
Charge time: 7 hours
Distance between charges: 100 miles
Price: £55,000
Tesla Roadster
Top speed: 130mph
Charge time: 3.5 hours
Distance between charges: 220 miles
Price: £94,000
Top speed: 130mph
Charge time: 10 minutes with a special converter (two hours without it)
Distance between charges: 188 miles
Price: £120,000
With good looks and racing car technology, the Lightning is at the forefront of electric car revolution. It can do 0 to 60mph faster than many petrol sports cars but without the maintenance hassle. However, a guilt-free sports car experience doesn't come cheap.
NICE / Fiat Micro-Vett e500 electric
Top speed: 60mph
Charge time: 6-8 hours
Distance between charges: 75miles
Price: £25,000
This Italian-made motor won Europe's Car of the Year and has an advanced electric drive system. Like the Aixam Mega City it also comes with lithium-ion batteries which means higher speeds and a longer range than some other electric cars on the market.
Aixam Mega City
Top speed: 40mph
Charge time: 5-8 hours
Distance between charges: 60 miles.
Price: £14,175
For a two-seater, surprisingly roomy and has a large boot. Like all electric cars it's exempt from road taxand is one of the most popular electric vehicles in Britain with 180 already on the road.
G-Wiz L-ion
Top speed: 51mph
Charge time: 6 hours
Distance between charges: 75 miles
Price: £15,795
A nippier upgrade to the two-seater G-Wiz seen on the streets of London over the last few years. A bit boxy, but it's the world's first mainstream lithium-ion powered electric vehicle.
Mitsubishi i-MiEV
Top speed: 87mph
Charge time: 20 minutes
Distance between charges: 100 miles
Price: £29,300
One of the fastest electric cars but what really sets this Japanese-designed car apart is its remarkable charge time of only 20 minutes, making it super-convenient. The batteries are hidden beneath the floor, leaving room for a surprising amount of space for four people.
Mini E BMW
Top speed: 95mph
Charge time: 2.5 hours with a special converter, 8 hours without)
Distance between charges: 156 miles
Price: Still being trialed
The Mini's electric makeover is truly stylish. Trials will be held across the UK in autumn but apply well in advance through Mini for a test drive. It boasts safe handling for dynamic stability control and the power-assisted steering reacts to driving conditions.
Additional reporting by Kate Proctor
... and the biker's option
Xero's eScooter Classic
Top speed: 30mph
Charge time: 6-8 hours
Distance between charges: 25 miles
Price: £1,499
Dan Barber, who rides a conventional petrol-powered scooter, tested Xero's eScooter Classic. He says: "The main thing you notice is how quiet this is. You don't get any sense it's started until it moves. That makes it very difficult to tell how fast you're going – but the brakes are nicely responsive and the acceleration okay.
"I own a Vespa GT and this doesn't have the same growl to it, or oomph when you're picking up speed. In fact, it felt a bit like driving a milk float. One of the major plus points is that, despite being a similar size to a petrol bike, it's much easier to manoeuvre (backing it up, for instance) because it's lighter. On the downside, because it's so light I would be really worried about being carried off by a side wind. Looks-wise, it's striking, a bit faux-retro, and a bit flashy. The biggest downside is that it is legally restricted to go no faster than 30mph. This could prove tricky if you needed to accelerate out of difficulty.
I prefer my classic Vespa for all its sins, but the price is excellent for a new scooter, there's little maintenance involved – and it's good for the environment."

Obama Wary of Tariff Provision

Trade Proposal in Climate Bill a Potential Problem as Action Moves to Senate


President Barack Obama said the House bill curbing greenhouse-gas emissions that passed by a close vote Friday represents "an extraordinary first step," but said he had doubts about a provision to impose tariffs on goods from countries that don't match U.S. efforts to combat global warming.

After passing by a 219-212 vote, the bill, a priority for President Obama, faces even higher hurdles in the Senate, both from Republicans and from the president's own party, despite a 59-40 majority for Democrats. "It was a struggle to get [climate legislation] through the House, and there's no reason to think it will be any different in the Senate," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), chairwoman of one panel that has jurisdiction over climate legislation, along with Sen. Jeff Bingaman's (D., N.M.) energy committee. Ms. Boxer said she intends for her environment committee to vote on a version before Congress's August recess.
Several Republicans, criticizing the bill's costs, suggested the House bill has little chance of passage in the Senate. "You're going to find signs on manufacturing doors, if this bill passes, that say, 'Moved, gone to China,'" said Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) on ABC's "This Week."
Among the most controversial parts of the House bill is the provision inserted by Democratic leaders that would impose tariffs on goods imported from countries that don't match U.S. carbon-dioxide restrictions -- a slap at China and India that some business interests fear could provoke a trade war. The tariff would take effect in 2020 and fall on a range of products from countries that don't adopt similar programs to control emissions.
"There are critics from the left as well as the right; some who say who doesn't go far enough, some who say it goes too far. I am convinced that after a long period of inaction, for us to have taken such a significant step means that we're going to be in a position to advance technologically, obtain huge gains in efficiency." -- President Obama

Supporters say a tariff is needed to shield U.S. industries such as steel and cement makers from unfair competition abroad. The proposal also is designed to give Congress leverage to force imposition of a tariff even if the president resists.
President Obama, speaking to reporters Sunday, didn't say whether he would veto the bill if the measure remains a part of it, or whether he will work to remove it in negotiations with Congress. "At a time when the economy world-wide is still deep in recession, and we've seen a significant drop in global trade, I think we have to be very careful about sending any protectionist signals out there," he said. He added that he was "mindful" of the need to level the playing field internationally for U.S. business.
The bill would create a system that lets companies buy and sell pollution permits, while complying with progressively tighter caps on emissions. U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions would be cut by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, and 83% by midcentury.
It also would mandate that coal-burning electric utilities use greater amounts of renewable fuels like solar and wind power and would provide incentives to develop clean-energy technologies. The legislation gives businesses -- including power generators -- more than 60% of the pollution permits for free in the early years of the program.
Business factions remain split. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers lobbied against passage, while groups that represent airlines, oil producers and mining companies expressed disappointment, saying the bill would lead to onerous new costs. "It will affect every aspect of the American economy, harming our ability to compete in the world and provide secure and affordable energy to American consumers and businesses," the National Mining Association said in a statement.
But the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, backed it, as did companies with big investments in alternatives to fossil fuels. "The House has taken an important first step on a road that will help the industry scale to a point at which we no longer need government incentives," said Bryan Ashley, vice president of Suniva Inc., a Georgia solar-cell manufacturer.
The bill contained a range of compromises. The original goal for 2020, for instance, was a cut of 25% of emissions from 2005 levels, not 17%. But leaders made a deal with Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D., Minn.), who spoke for many rural lawmakers, letting the Agriculture Department run a key program for farmers, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency. Some Farm Belt lawmakers fear the EPA would be less friendly to agribusiness.
Even after those changes, nearly one in five Democrats defected from the House bill. That the climate bill is coming at the same time as the president's health-care plan makes it an even tougher sell to some from conservative districts.
Similar compromises to woo centrist Democrats loom for the health-care bill, which faces votes in both chambers later this summer. Some Senate Democrats are whittling down provisions considered sacrosanct by liberal advocates, reducing proposed subsidies for the uninsured and opposing the creation of a government-run plan to compete with private insurers.
The intraparty tensions are frustrating some Democratic leaders and activists, who believe they have an opportunity to enact a broad liberal agenda. announced Friday that it is running ads criticizing Sen. Kay Hagan, a newly elected Democrat from North Carolina, for opposition to a publicly run plan as part of a health overhaul.
Mr. Obama and his top aides at the White House played down intraparty tensions, as well as the 44 Democrats who voted against the climate bill. "I think those 44 Democrats are sensitive to the immediate political climate of uncertainty around this issue," the president said.
A senior aide even suggested the climate vote "has helped health care enormously," demonstrating that Congress is capable of confronting big issues.—Stephen Power contributed to this article.
Write to Greg Hitt at and Naftali Bendavid at

Cap-and-trade mess

Published: June 28 2009 18:12

The US House of Representatives has passed a bill to limit greenhouse gases. The White House lobbied hard for it: “A bold and necessary step,” said Barack Obama. Many hailed its passage as a triumph. In fact there is little to celebrate.
Recall that cap-and-trade was expected only recently to pass in the House without difficulty. It scraped through by 219 votes to 212, with 44 Democrats voting against. Opposition to cap-and-trade in the Senate is stronger, so the chances of this bill or anything like it becoming law look slim.

To make matters worse, the bill makes political compromises that undermine its effectiveness. Even so it passed by just seven votes. What this says about the prospects of a more forceful measure – one that dares to confront consumers with significantly higher energy costs – is discouraging.
To curb climate change, the world needs to cut carbon emissions. It needs US leadership on the issue too. But this bill is not the way. A bewildering combination of cap-and-trade, mandates, new regulation, and every kind of open and disguised subsidy, it is too complicated, too prone to subversion and in many ways downright self-defeating.
To soften its impact, the House first adopted undemanding targets for emissions. Debate made them milder still. Instead of auctioning emissions permits, the bill would give nearly all of them away, so the measure does little to raise needed revenue. Permits will be handed to electricity producers on condition that the windfall be passed to consumers, many of whom would see their electricity bills fall as a result.
Learning nothing from Europe’s experience, the bill relies heavily on offsets, which let companies pay someone else to plant trees or cut emissions, so they do not have to. The still-unsolved problem is policing the system to ensure the offsets are real. The bill gives oversight of domestic offsets in farming to the Department of Agriculture – good news for farmers seeking a new trough of subsidy. To defend US competitiveness, it proposes subsidies for exporters and penalties on importers. In principle, cap-and-trade does require border adjustments, but the bill is careless and creates a gateway for protectionism.
In short, it is a mess. The key to a better plan is understanding that you cannot cut carbon without making carbon-based fuels more expensive – an obvious point, you would think. But it is one that US policymakers still cannot face.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Eon chief promotes EU-wide energy policy

German energy provider's CEO says more lateral thinking would benefit all
By Sarah Arnott
Monday, 29 June 2009

The German energy company Eon is calling for a common European energy policy to ensure secure, climate-friendly and economically viable power supplies.
The energy sector is in challenging times. It is simultaneously required to meet carbon reduction targets while funding expensive, often untried, infrastructure such as offshore wind farms, and meeting ever-growing demands for power without an over-reliance on foreign gas.
The mish-mash of subsidies, regulations and targets across Europe is a major barrier to progress, says Wulf Bernotat, Eon's chief executive.
"We need not have 27 separate systems," he said. "We are a union and we need an EU system that functions at an EU level." Part of the problem is to make renewables economically viable. In Europe alone, the target for 900 gigawatts (GW) of wind power by 2020 will require 300,000 new turbines and more than €1trillion (£852bn) of investment. Structural changes are also needed, in transmission grids and storage capacity, and also in political and financial structures such as the emissions trading system. The development of carbon capture and storage technology faces similar issues, requiring a region-wide policy; as do decisions on which mix of sources – renewable, gas, coal or nuclear – will best ensure a secure and affordable supply. Politically, the prognosis for a common energy policy is not good. The attempt to give the European Commission the necessary power structure was felled with the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.
"A number of senior politicians realise it would be an advantage, especially for security of supply," Dr Bernotat said. "But a number of countries, including the UK, are not keen to give up authority."
But all is not lost. Interconnecting infrastructure is creating a common market where power is traded across national boundaries, bringing wholesale prices broadly into line in Germany, France, Benelux and Switzerland. These market forces may be strong enough to force politicians' hands. "A common energy policy might happen anyway, formed by market forces that will effectively engineer the political reality," Dr Bernotat said.
In the meantime, international progress on climate change is likely to be slow. Even with the new US administration, expectations of progress at the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen in December remain muted.
"The best realistic expectation for Copenhagen is that the US starts to define targets for [its] carbon emission reductions. But I expect it to be modest," Dr Bernotat added.

The Climate Change Climate Change

The number of skeptics is swelling everywhere.

Steve Fielding recently asked the Obama administration to reassure him on the science of man-made global warming. When the administration proved unhelpful, Mr. Fielding decided to vote against climate-change legislation.
If you haven't heard of this politician, it's because he's a member of the Australian Senate. As the U.S. House of Representatives prepares to pass a climate-change bill, the Australian Parliament is preparing to kill its own country's carbon-emissions scheme. Why? A growing number of Australian politicians, scientists and citizens once again doubt the science of human-caused global warming.

Among the many reasons President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority are so intent on quickly jamming a cap-and-trade system through Congress is because the global warming tide is again shifting. It turns out Al Gore and the United Nations (with an assist from the media), did a little too vociferous a job smearing anyone who disagreed with them as "deniers." The backlash has brought the scientific debate roaring back to life in Australia, Europe, Japan and even, if less reported, the U.S.
In April, the Polish Academy of Sciences published a document challenging man-made global warming. In the Czech Republic, where President Vaclav Klaus remains a leading skeptic, today only 11% of the population believes humans play a role. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to tap Claude Allegre to lead the country's new ministry of industry and innovation. Twenty years ago Mr. Allegre was among the first to trill about man-made global warming, but the geochemist has since recanted. New Zealand last year elected a new government, which immediately suspended the country's weeks-old cap-and-trade program.
The number of skeptics, far from shrinking, is swelling. Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe now counts more than 700 scientists who disagree with the U.N. -- 13 times the number who authored the U.N.'s 2007 climate summary for policymakers. Joanne Simpson, the world's first woman to receive a Ph.D. in meteorology, expressed relief upon her retirement last year that she was finally free to speak "frankly" of her nonbelief. Dr. Kiminori Itoh, a Japanese environmental physical chemist who contributed to a U.N. climate report, dubs man-made warming "the worst scientific scandal in history." Norway's Ivar Giaever, Nobel Prize winner for physics, decries it as the "new religion." A group of 54 noted physicists, led by Princeton's Will Happer, is demanding the American Physical Society revise its position that the science is settled. (Both Nature and Science magazines have refused to run the physicists' open letter.)
The collapse of the "consensus" has been driven by reality. The inconvenient truth is that the earth's temperatures have flat-lined since 2001, despite growing concentrations of C02. Peer-reviewed research has debunked doomsday scenarios about the polar ice caps, hurricanes, malaria, extinctions, rising oceans. A global financial crisis has politicians taking a harder look at the science that would require them to hamstring their economies to rein in carbon.
Credit for Australia's own era of renewed enlightenment goes to Dr. Ian Plimer, a well-known Australian geologist. Earlier this year he published "Heaven and Earth," a damning critique of the "evidence" underpinning man-made global warming. The book is already in its fifth printing. So compelling is it that Paul Sheehan, a noted Australian columnist -- and ardent global warming believer -- in April humbly pronounced it "an evidence-based attack on conformity and orthodoxy, including my own, and a reminder to respect informed dissent and beware of ideology subverting evidence." Australian polls have shown a sharp uptick in public skepticism; the press is back to questioning scientific dogma; blogs are having a field day.
The rise in skepticism also came as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, elected like Mr. Obama on promises to combat global warming, was attempting his own emissions-reduction scheme. His administration was forced to delay the implementation of the program until at least 2011, just to get the legislation through Australia's House. The Senate was not so easily swayed.
Mr. Fielding, a crucial vote on the bill, was so alarmed by the renewed science debate that he made a fact-finding trip to the U.S., attending the Heartland Institute's annual conference for climate skeptics. He also visited with Joseph Aldy, Mr. Obama's special assistant on energy and the environment, where he challenged the Obama team to address his doubts. They apparently didn't.
This week Mr. Fielding issued a statement: He would not be voting for the bill. He would not risk job losses on "unconvincing green science." The bill is set to founder as the Australian parliament breaks for the winter.
Republicans in the U.S. have, in recent years, turned ever more to the cost arguments against climate legislation. That's made sense in light of the economic crisis. If Speaker Nancy Pelosi fails to push through her bill, it will be because rural and Blue Dog Democrats fret about the economic ramifications. Yet if the rest of the world is any indication, now might be the time for U.S. politicians to re-engage on the science. One thing for sure: They won't be alone.
Write to

China recruits algae to combat climate change

Chinese firm behind ambitious plan to breed microalgae in greenhouse with the potential to absorb carbon emissions

Jonathan Watts in Langfang, Sunday 28 June 2009 16.32 BST

The garish gunk coursing through a greenhouse filled with transparent pipes appears to belong on the set of a particularly slimy episode of Star Trek.
Multiplying rapidly as it flows through tubes, stacked 14 high in four long rows, the organism thickens and darkens like the bioweapon of a deranged scientist.
But this is not a science fiction horror story, it is one of humankind's most ambitious attempts to recruit algae in the fight against climate change.
Developed by a groundbreaking Chinese firm, ENN, the greenhouse is a bioreactor that breeds microalgae, one of the fastest growing organisms on the planet, with carbon captured from gasified coal.
China is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because it relies on coal for 70 per cent of its power. Almost none of the carbon dioxide is captured, partly because there is no profitable way of using it.
Algae may be the answer. The organism can absorb carbon far more quickly than trees, a quality that has long attracted international scientists seeking a natural method of capturing the most abundant greenhouse gas.
At ENN's research campus in Langfang, an hour's drive from Beijing, scientists are testing microalgae to clean up the back-end of a uniquely integrated process to extract and use coal more efficiently and cleanly than is possible today.
Coal is first gasified in a simulated underground environment. The carbon dioxide is extracted with the help of solar and wind power, then "fed" to algae, which can be then used to make biofuel, fertiliser or animal feed.
Foreign experts are enthusiastic. "Algae biofuels and sequestration are being tried in a bunch of places, but never with such an innovative energy mix," said Deborah Seligsohn, of the World Resources Institute, who visited ENN recently with a group of international energy executives. "It is really interesting and ambitious."
Researchers at the algae greenhouse plan to scale up the trial to a 100 hectare (247 acre) site over the next three years. If it proves commercially feasible, coal plants around the world could one day be flanked by carbon-cleaning algae greenhouses or ponds.
"Algae's promise is that its population can double every few hours. It makes far more efficient use of sunlight than plants," said Zhu Zhenqi, a senior advisor on the project. "The biology has been proven in the lab. The challenge now is an engineering one: We need to increase production and reduce cost. If we can solve this challenge, we can deal with carbon."
The algae must be harvested every day. Extracting the oily components and removing the water is expensive and energy intensive.
ENN is experimenting with different algae to find a hybrid that has an ideal balance of oil content and growth speed. It is testing cultivation techniques using varying temperatures and acidity levels.
Algae tests are also being carried out at the University of Ohio. In Japan, algae is farmed at sea where it absorbs carbon from the air. Elsewhere carbon is sprayed or bubbled into algae ponds. But ENN is focusing on a direct approach.
"Here we can control it, like in a reactor," said Gu Junjie, a senior advisor. "Theoretically we can absorb 100% of carbon dioxide emissions through a mix of microalgae and chemical fixing with hydrogen."
This might work on a large scale in the northern deserts of Inner Mongolia, where land is cheap, plentiful and in need of fertiliser. But elsewhere, application may be limited because of the large areas of land or water needed for cultivation.
"Algae is not likely to be the main solution for the carbon problem because of the amount of CO2 that needs to be consumed," said Ming Sung, Chief Representative for Asia Pacific of Clean Air Task Force. But, he said: "Algae is part of the solution and is closer to what nature intends. Being one of the simplest forms of life, all it takes is light and CO2 in salt water,"
The advanced algae, solar and coal gasification technology is the latest stage in the rise of ENN, which has been spectacular even by modern Chinese standards. Founded in 1989 as a small taxi company, it has branched successfully into the natural gas industry and now into the field of renewable energy. The private company now employs about 20,000 people, and owns a golf course and hotel near its headquarters in Hebei province, where a new research campus is under construction.
In the short term, ENN's advanced underground coal gasification technology is likely to prove more significant than its algae work. This technique enables extraction of fuel from small, difficult-to-access coal seams, and could double the world's current coal reserves. It also avoids the release of the pollutants sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
The company is also one of only a small handful in the world capable of mass producing thin-film solar panels, which can be manufactured with less water and energy than conventional photovoltaic materials. Late last year, the World Bank's International Financing Corporation announced a US$136m loan for ENN's solar business.
ENN executives have talked to the US department of energy about joint research , a sign that the transfer of low-carbon technologies is no longer a one-way street from west to east.
The development of the algae technology trails the others, but Zhu says the results from the 10,000 litre algae greenhouse have been sufficiently encouraging to move ahead.
For the 100 hectare test facility, ENN is looking at sites near the company's 600,000 tonne-a-year coal mine in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, where the cold winters will require a heated greenhouse, and a location on Hainan Island, where the hot weather would allow the algae to be grown more cheaply in open ponds, but further away from China's main coal deposits.
With China building the equivalent of more than one new 500MW coal-fired plant every week and likely to be dependent on coal for at least two decades, the further studies planned by ENN could be crucial.
Recognising the continued role of the fossil fuel in China, the European Commission proposed a plan this week to co-finance a demonstration coal plant that aims to have near zero emissions through the use of carbon capture and storage technology.
If members states and the European parliament agree on the €50m plan, the facility would be operational by 2020.