Sunday, 26 July 2009

Nissan brings the electric car revolution to Britain

Ray Hutton
NISSAN, the Japanese car giant, is poised to set up Britain’s first production line for electric cars at its plant in Sunderland. Last week it confirmed it would build a £200m battery production facility next to the factory but said it was still in negotiations with the government over whether to make the vehicles there.
However, senior Nissan executives have told The Sunday Times that Sunderland is almost certain to start making electric vehicles from 2012. “You don’t set up to make batteries if you don’t intend to make cars there,” said one source.
Nissan’s plans are a boost for the government’s vaunted – and criticised – blueprint for a low-carbon economy. Ministers have claimed that 400,000 green jobs will be created in low-carbon industries, and that Britain could become a centre for new industries such as electric vehicles.
The car likely to be made in Sunderland will be unveiled next Sunday by Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s chief executive, at the opening of its new corporate headquarters in Yokohama. It is a five-door hatchback, the size of a Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf, and will be available, initially to company and government fleets, in Japan and America at the end of next year.
The first cars will be supplied from the Oppama factory in Japan but the company is preparing for electric car production in America and Europe after volume sales begin in 2012. Nissan has only two car plants in Europe – in Sunderland and Barcelona.
The battery packs to be made in Sunderland are the latest lithium-ion type made in modular units, each with four laminar cells. They were developed by Automotive Energy Supply Corporation, a joint venture of Nissan and NEC, the electrical company.
Battery technology is the key to the acceptance of electric cars for everyday use. Nissan claims its 400-volt battery pack, housed at the centre of the car under the floor, will provide a range of up to 100 miles. A full recharge by plugging into a 240-volt domestic supply takes eight hours.
These batteries will also be used by Nissan’s alliance partner Renault, which will offer electric vehicles in 2011.
Renault’s approach is different to that of Nissan in that it will start with plug-in versions of familiar existing models, the Kangoo and Megane.
Nissan has developed a unique “E platform” to take full advantage of the layout of an electric car, where the batteries are bulky and heavy but the drive motor is more compact than a combustion engine and its ancillaries. It will run almost silently and produce no emissions.
Surprisingly, the first electric Nissan is designed to look “normal” and not stand out as an electric car. Toyota had more success than its rivals when it adopted a futuristic style for the Prius petrol-electric hybrid, immediately signifying its green credentials.
By the second half of the next decade, Nissan expects 10% of its new-car sales to be electric. To achieve this, it will have to address the cost issue and that will mean buyers reassessing motoring’s economics.
Nissan’s objective is to sell, or lease, the electric car at the same price as a diesel car of similar size and type, but to lease separately the battery pack for an amount equivalent to the monthly cost of petrol or diesel fuel.
Rather as mobile-phone contracts include a package of calls, the battery payment could include the cost of electricity required for a set monthly mileage. Nissan accepts the overall cost of ownership must be lower than that of a conventional car.
How the electric cars will be sold will This year, the government announced that, from 2011, there would be grants of up to £5,000 for the purchase of an electric car. Some other countries have even higher sums on offer as incentives. For this reason, Nissan expects Portugal and Denmark to be the European countries most eager to adopt electric cars.
The Renault-Nissan alliance is collaborating with states, cities, fleet operators and utility companies to establish an infrastructure of charging stations.
The first electric Nissans will be equipped with an internet-linked navigation system that will accurately predict remaining range and identify the nearest quick-charging points where the batteries can be brought up to 80% capacity within 25 minutes.
Nissan’s plan for electric-car production in Britain follows Toyota’s recent decision to build the Auris petrol-electric hybrid at depend on the region and the type of user. Burnaston, Derbyshire.

Desert sun power pulls in the big guns

Mark Jansen
It's a simple idea: cure Europe’s addiction to fossil fuels by connecting its electricity-hungry consumers to the deserts of north Africa that are rich in solar energy.
Simple, but surely this is straight out of science fiction? There may be plenty of sun power in the Sahara, but the cost and political problems in creating an infrastructure to harvest it are daunting.
Some serious players, however, have joined together to see if the obstacles can be overcome. Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance group and a leader among financial institutions on climate change, brought together 12 finance and energy companies in Munich a fortnight ago to seek a solution.
The reinsurer, which has had to make high payouts in recent years for damage caused by erratic weather, believes solar power in north Africa could deliver 15% of Europe’s electricity by 2050.
The concept of harnessing solar power from the deserts has long been promoted by Desertec, a European network of scientists and engineers, but this is the first time that commercial companies have come together to discuss how to turn it into reality.
Deutsche Bank, Eon, Siemens and ABB attended the meeting, along with representatives from Desertec, the European Union and the League of Arab States.
Delegates agreed to fund a three-year feasibility study and set up a consortium, with all 12 members having pledged to contribute to the $2.5m (£1.5m) running costs for the first year.
So what is the likely price tag for a scheme that would provide the 15% specified by Munich Re? $560 billion.
“We believe that the technology is available but we want to see if the concept can be realised from a political and economic point of view,” said the reinsurer.
The plan would depend on an enormous expansion of concentrated solar power (CSP) plants in countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. CSP plants use mirrors to direct sunlight into a small area and generate heat. That creates steam, which drives a turbine to generate electricity (see graphic above).
The advantage over photo-voltaic solar panels is that it does not need expensive silicon to generate power. CSP needs lots of direct sunlight, making it unsuitable for European countries but ideal for deserts.
Power generation can continue at night, using spare heat that has been held over from the daytime and stored in tanks filled with melted salts such as sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate, or in blocks of concrete. This enables generators to offer a constant power supply and match the peak demand that occurs in the evenings.
Desertec claims that the world’s present electricity needs could be met by covering just 1% of the world’s deserts with CSP. Cost is a problem. Electricity generated by CSP costs about €0.15 per kilowatt, compared with €0.06 per kilowatt for electricity generated from coal or nuclear stations.
Supporters of the Desertec plan believe the price of CSP can be brought down to the same level as fossil fuels if European governments provide subsidies for 10 to 15 years.
These would probably take the form of feed-in tariffs, which would give CSP generators a guaranteed price above market rates for a fixed time.
These subsidies would cost anything between €50 billion (£43 billion) and €250 billion, according to a study by the Vienna-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, which presented its findings at the Copenhagen global warming conference in March.
At least another €200 billion would be needed to build the CSP plants and invest in a transmission grid that could bring the power to European countries.
The institute’s Anthony Patt believes that north African countries are cautiously supportive of the Desertec concept, provided local energy needs are also met. “I’m confident that a deal can be struck that is good for north Africa,” he said.
Munich Re insists the money can be found: “We believe the Desertec concept can be financed by the capital markets if the right companies are involved and there is a regulatory framework that offers good investment opportunities,” it said.
The project would also provide an economic boost to the Sahara region, with Desertec estimating that about 2m jobs would be created by 2050.
Spain so far leads the world in CSP, with six plants already operating and at least 12 more under construction. It offers feed-in tariffs that are guaranteed for 25 years, which has encouraged investment.
Two CSP plants have been operating in California since 1990. Small CSP plants are also being built in Algeria and Morocco.
Despite the size of the challenges, Gerry Wolff, co-ordinator of Desertec in Britain, said he was increasingly optimistic the scheme would succeed. “People are beginning to throw their weight behind this. The logic of the idea is almost inescapable and I’m sure it will happen,” he said.
The plan is not without its critics. Hermann Scheer, head of the European Association for Renewable Energy (Eurosolar), has said the initiative is unviable, claiming its proponents have underestimated the technical and political challenges and the likely cost.
“We could invest the €400 billion here,” said Scheer. “Nothing will ever come of it.”

Brazil to triple price it pays Paraguay for energy

Reuters, Saturday July 25 2009
* Deal a political victory for Paraguay's President Lugo
* But agreement likely to generate criticism in Brazil
* Paraguay wins right to sell excess energy on free market
By Todd Benson
ASUNCION, July 25 (Reuters) - Brazil agreed on Saturday to triple the amount it pays Paraguay for energy from the massive Itaipu hydroelectric dam on their border, ending a long-running dispute that had soured relations between the two neighbors.
Paraguay also won the right to gradually sell excess energy from the dam directly to the Brazilian market instead of doing so exclusively through state-owned power utility Eletrobras.
That move will allow Paraguay to fetch more for the power at market prices.
The deal is a much-needed political victory for Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, whose first year in office has been marked by a severe economic downturn and scandals over revelations he fathered children when he was a Roman Catholic bishop.
But the agreement is likely to face criticism in Brazil, where opposition leaders and even some government allies have urged President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to play tough with Paraguay.
Lugo swept into office in August last year after promising to extract better terms from Brazil over the energy it sells from Itaipu. His victory ended a 60-year stronghold on power by Paraguay's conservative Colorado Party.
Lugo and Lula said the deal would usher in a new era of relations between the two countries based on cooperation instead of recriminations over who benefits most from Itaipu.
Lula said the agreement is part of a campaign by Brazil to spur economic development in the region.
"Brazil is not interested in growing and developing if our neighbors aren't growing and developing at the same time," Lula said at a ceremony with Lugo at the presidential palace in Asuncion, Paraguay's capital.
"This is not an agreement in which one side wins and the other side loses," Lugo said. "This is for the good of both countries."
Lugo had initially pushed to renegotiate the 1973 treaty that laid the foundations for Itaipu, which straddles their border along the Parana River. But Brazil pushed for a compromise that would allow Paraguay to boost its take from the dam.
Brazil gets close to 20 percent of its energy from Itaipu, paying Paraguay about $120 million a year, an amount that will now triple. Each country owns half of the 14,000 megawatts the dam produces annually, but Paraguay consumes just 5 percent of that amount and sells the rest of its share to Eletrobras for $45 per megawatt hour.
Paraguay will eventually be allowed to sell a growing share of that excess energy directly to the Brazilian power market, where it could fetch as much as $65 per megawatt hour under current market prices.
The deal gave negotiators 60 days to work out a timeline and the terms at which that excess energy will be sold on the Brazilian market. It also stipulated that Brazil and Paraguay could begin selling excess power from Itaipu to other countries in 2023, when the Itaipu treaty expires. (Editing by Xavier Briand)

Firms demand incentives to go low carbon

Tricia Holly Davis
SOME of the biggest names in British business are ready to revolt against what they claim is a failure of the government’s low-carbon policies.
A report to be published soon will call on Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary, to introduce firm prices for carbon, extra tax breaks and a raft of other incentives, including better capital allowances for green technology investment.
The report, tentatively titled Lessons from UK Climate Policy, is being prepared by a loose coalition of businesses and pro-business lobby groups, representing all sectors of industry from manufacturing to finance.
It is likely to come as an embarrassment to the government, which this month published its eagerly awaited low-carbon transition strategy. Ministers said it would pave the way for a new era of investment, creating 400,000 jobs in green industries. Members of the coalition, however, say the strategy falls short.

“The UK’s current climate policy has some way to go to incentivise businesses to green their operations,” said Walter Todd, vice-president of operations for PepsiCo, one of Britain’s largest food manufacturers and a member of the group.
He believes the government needs to take a carrot-and-stick approach to climate policy. This means providing a stable carbon price, a move that would encourage companies to curb their carbon-dioxide emissions or pay the price. Todd said the model should be the tax that has rapidly increased the cost of sending waste to landfill.
He also wants incentives to make new green technologies financially viable. For instance, the government could provide businesses with enhanced capital allowances, whereby companies can take higher deductions for spending on energy-saving technology.
PepsiCo this year announced plans to convert husks from the manufacture of its Quaker Oats cereal into a low-carbon fuel that would then be used to power one of its plants. This would have cut the annual carbon emissions from Quaker Oats production by 9,000 tonnes.
However, Todd said the plans had stalled because the scheme would cost too much. “Current calculations mean that the payback to business for certain types of green technologies can be up to 35 years,” he said.
“No business can meet its shareholder obligations and do the right thing for the environment, so this is a good example of where government incentives – in this case incentives that help shorten the payback time – would go a long way towards helping businesses justify these sorts of projects.”
Gareth Elliott of the British Chambers of Commerce, also a member of the coalition opposing the government’s plans, said that if the strategy was not rethought, it could cause a migration of British operations to countries with better environmental taxes and subsidies.
He used the government’s planned subsidy for electric vehicles as an example of misguided planning.
“The subsidy doesn’t come into effect until 2014 and doesn’t cover commercial vehicles. This kills off most of the industry until 2014 and also means British manufacturers that produce cars for the commercial market won’t benefit.”
In its report, the coalition will say that by delaying incentives to businesses, the government is slowing down improvements to companies’ environmental impact. Since businesses account for nearly half of UK emissions, this will delay the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Poisonous gas from African lake poses threat to millions

Trapped methane and carbon dioxide could be set loose by a quake or landslide, say scientists
Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer, Sunday 26 July 2009
More than two million people living on the banks of Lake Kivu in central Africa are at risk of being asphyxiated by gases building up beneath its surface, scientists have warned.
It is estimated that the lake, which straddles the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, now contains 300 cubic kilometres of carbon dioxide and 60 cubic kilometres of methane that have bubbled into the Kivu from volcanic vents. The gases are trapped in layers 80 metres below the lake's surface by the intense water pressures there. However, researchers have warned that geological or volcanic events could disturb these waters and release the gases.
The impact would be devastating, as was demonstrated on 21 August 1986 at Lake Nyos in Cameroon, in West Africa. Its waters were saturated with carbon dioxide and a major disturbance - most probably a landslide - caused a huge cloud of carbon dioxide to bubble up from its depths and to pour down the valleys that lead from the crater lake.
Carbon dioxide is denser than air, so that the 50mph cloud hugged the ground and smothered everything in its path. Some 1,700 people were suffocated.
"The lake was essentially like a bottle of beer that had been shaken up," said Professor George Kling, of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Michigan University. "When you opened it, carbon dioxide bubbled up, and the beer frothed over. A glassful is OK. A lakeful is deadly."
Kling has since turned his attention to Lake Kivu, which is more than 3,000 times the size of Nyos and contains more than 350 times as much gas. More worrying is the fact that the shores of Kivu are much more heavily populated. About two million people live there, including the 250,000 citizens of the city of Goma.
Mount Nyiragongo, near Goma, erupted in 2002 and lava streamed from it into Lake Kivu for several days. On this occasion there was no disturbance of the lake's deep layers of gas and no deadly outpouring of carbon dioxide or methane. However, Kling has warned - in the journal Nature this month - that in the event of another eruption the region may not be so lucky again.
Indeed, the impact would dwarf the disaster that struck Nyos. "Kivu is basically the nasty big brother of Nyos," Kling told Nature.
The source of Kivu's problems stems from carbon dioxide that has bubbled up through the lake bed from molten rocks below. The region - in Africa's Great Rift Valley - is a centre of volcanic activity. In addition, some of this carbon dioxide has been converted by bacteria in the lake into methane. Hence the accumulation of both gases.
According to studies by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, there was a 10% rise in carbon dioxide concentration, and a 15-20% increase in methane concentration in Kivu between 1974 and 2004. At the same time, plankton fossils on the lake's bed have revealed several massive bouts of biological extinctions in Kivu over thousands of years. However, it is impossible to say if a new one is imminent, researchers told Nature.
At the same time, engineers are trying to tap Kivu's rich supplies of methane - by lowering pipes from floating platforms down to its holding layers and siphoning off the gas. This could then be burnt and used as a source of industrial and domestic energy.
Several projects have been established, though only one is currently generating electricity - albeit sporadically - for the Rwandan grid. Another platform sank last year shortly before it was scheduled to begin production.
Tapping Kivu's methane could, theoretically, reduce the risk of a deadly eruption, say engineers. However, scientists have also warned that tampering with the lake's gases also carries a risk of triggering a disaster.

The colourful life of dragonflies

These remarkable insects date back to dinosaur times, they eat mosquitoes and midges, and have a short, but vibrant lifespan
Chris Packham, Saturday 25 July 2009 00.08 BST
On a warm summer's day a ramble along a riverbank or around a pond is likely to reward you with a dazzling display of brightly coloured dragonflies hawking along the waterway in search of prey.
These beautiful predators belong to the order known as Odonata meaning "toothed jaw" and look almost identical to large insects which flew over our forests at the time of the dinosaurs. With wingspans of up to 75cm those "monsters" must have been amazing.
Although known collectively as dragonflies there are two distinct groups, dragonflies and damselflies. The damsels are small delicate insects with four wings the same size and shape which are folded parallel to their body at rest. Their eyes are always separated on either side of the head. Dragonflies are usually larger, stronger flying insects that can often be found further away from water. Their hind wings are generally shorter and broader than their forewings, while massive eyes occupy most of their head. These wings are held open and flat across the back when the dragons are resting.
The brightly coloured adults represent the final and shortest part of the dragonflies' remarkable lifecycle, the vast majority of which is spent underwater. Once mated, a female dragonfly uses her long abdomen to dip her fertilised eggs below the surface of the water or inserts them into underwater vegetation. These develop into larvae from which flying adults emerge after anything from a few months to several years, dependent on species. This stage of their lifespan is relatively short with small damselflies living for just a couple of weeks and larger dragonflies unlikely to survive longer than a couple of months. Many become prey for birds, and large numbers starve, as in poor weather conditions neither they nor their potential prey can fly. Dragonflies are voracious carnivores eating up to 20% of their bodyweight daily. Their diet consists mainly of flying insects, particularly flies, midges and mosquitoes, whilst larger species may even tackle butterflies and moths.
Dragonflies have unique powers of flight and can hover or fly in all directions, covering up to 10 metres in a second. They can see all round without moving their heads and keep them level even when turning sharply in flight so they never lose track of their victims.
Sadly today the survival of many of our dragonfly species is uncertain. Since 1950 three species have become extinct and a third of the 42 found regularly in Britain are now under threat. The loss of wetland habitat due to housing development and intensive agriculture, coupled with run-off and wind drift from insecticides and herbicides, is having a devastating effect on the long-term survival prospects of many of these wonderful insects. Rising sea-levels and diffuse pollution in our waterways also threaten their long-term survival.
In the UK one of the best places to see dragonflies is at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, where 21 species of dragonfly breed on the fen, and where an exciting new national centre dedicated to these unique insects opens today.
The Centre will open at weekends throughout the summer offering a regular programme of events including dragonfly safaris, talks to beginners and advanced courses on dragonfly identification and biology for uber-geeks like me. It'll also offer practical advice on wildlife gardening and pond creation - making it the perfect place for anyone can learn how to help protect dragonflies for the future.
Chris Packham is an author, photographer and the presenter of BBC's Springwatch

Warm seas threat to coral and marine life

Published Date: 26 July 2009
By Brian Skoloff in West Palm Beach, Florida
WARM ocean temperatures predicted to persist until October in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico could mean the loss of huge swaths of corals, US scientists have warned.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch network said conditions may lead to coral disease and bleaching, when the stressed organisms expel colourful algae living in their tissues, leaving them white.Coral bleaching lasting more than a week can kill the organisms, since they rely on the algae for sustenance, leading to the loss of reef habitat for numerous marine species.Sea surface temperatures in parts of the Caribbean are already at levels typically not seen until late summer months when the water is hottest, said C Mark Eakin, coordinator of NOAA's Coral Reef Watch.Bleaching can occur when sea temperatures rise just a few degrees above the average of the warmest summer months. Eakin noted that sea temperatures in some parts of this region already were at the higher threshold, around 30C, and that some bleaching had already begun. Those temperatures are expected to hold until October. Scientists fear the bleaching could exceed what was seen in 2005 in the Caribbean, the worst coral bleaching event in the region's recorded history when up to 90 per cent of corals suffered bleaching, with more than half dying."Just like any climate forecast, local conditions and weather events can influence actual temperatures. However, we are quite concerned that high temperatures may threaten the health of coral reefs in the Caribbean this year," Eakin said.NOAA also warned of potential high sea temperatures stressing corals near the central Pacific islands of Kiribati, and between the Northern Mariana Islands and Japan.Scientists hope the early warnings of potential coral stress will lead governments to take protective steps, including establishing temporary restrictions on users of coral reefs such as divers, boaters and anglers.Land-based pollution, such as sewage, beach erosion, coastal development and overfishing are also to blame, experts say.About 25 per cent of all marine species need coral reefs to live and grow