Sunday, 24 January 2010

Car chargers spark a revolution

Calvey Taylor-Haw: founder of Electromotive
Kasmira Jefford

He created a way to charge electric cars but now Calvey Taylor-Haw must make it pay.
Taylor-Haw, a photographer who tinkered with cars, came up with a prototype charging station five years ago after his brother was looking to buy an electric vehicle.
“He lived in an apartment and we wondered how he would charge his car,” said Taylor-Haw. “There was no infrastructure to do it.”
That question led Taylor-Haw, 52, and Greg Simmons, an automotive engineer, to investigate. With their company, Elektromotive, they had already tried to produce a lithium-ion battery powered motor scooter for commuters that proved to be financially unviable.
Taylor-Haw cashed in his savings and Simmons’ consultancy, H Technologies, absorbed the research and development costs. They produced their first prototype charging station at the end of 2004.
It took a year to persuade councils to take them seriously. Then, there were few electric cars on the street. “The idea of the charging station was really in a market that was in its infancy,” said Taylor-Haw. “There was a lot of convincing to do.”
There are now 250 Elektrobays in the UK and 1,000 expected to be installed before the end of the year. The charging points, made in Brighton, cost £3,000 each, not counting the cost of connecting them to the grid.
Taylor-Haw’s brainchild is more than just a charging point. It records the time and date, and measures the electricity consumption when a registered user charges their car. Owners sign up on the company website or through their councils and pay an annual fee of £100.
Westminster in central London has the most stations: 45 in car parks and 17 more on the street, with 330 registered users. This should grow quickly — 1,700 electric cars are already registered for exemption from London’s congestion charge scheme, and Boris Johnson, the mayor, has pledged to install 25,000 charging stations by 2015.
At the Copenhagen summit last month, Johnson announced that no Londoner would be farther than a mile from a charging point by 2012.
There are still hurdles to overcome. “London is struggling to find the real estate to put the charging stations on,” Taylor-Haw said.
And electric cars are expensive compared with their conventional counterparts. They range from £7,000 for the most basic model to £101,900 for the Tesla Roadster, which has supercar performance.
They also have a limited range — about 100 miles at best, compared with 300-odd miles for conventional vehicles, which should create a strong demand for public charging points.
They also take time to charge — an hour to charge up to 80% and another five to charge to capacity using an Elektrobay.
“At the moment people are hooked on the car taking five minutes to fill up and having 300 miles’ range,” Taylor-Haw said. “Electric cars just won’t work like that, so if there is going to be widespread use, people have to change the way they think.”
He plans to provide chargers for commercial use that would cut the process to 90 minutes from flat to full. He also predicts the car industry will have a model that can run for 200 miles on one charge within five years.

Zap the trees to reduce carbon

‘Biochar’ pioneers want to put dead plants into a microwave. Why?
Danny Fortson

How do you save the planet? Chop down a tree and put it in a microwave. That’s not a joke. It’s the proposition of at least two dozen companies developing “biochar” technology that they say will suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and help curb global warming.
The idea is straightforward. Trees spend their lives pulling carbon dioxide out of the air. When they die, though, they release it back into the environment. To ensure the carbon contained in the leaves and branches never escapes, trees will be chopped, chipped and put into high-tech “cookers” to reduce them to charcoal, which can then be buried.
In theory the process could be repeated over and over again, fed by giant plantations of fast-growing trees, sucking millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Chris Goodall, the Green party candidate and author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, suggested the world should set aside 200m hectares, an area equivalent to about nine UKs, for such farms. The charcoal could be put down old mine shafts for storage or mixed into soil to enrich it.
The idea is catching on and has the backing of a growing roster of green heavy-hitters, including Nobel peace prize winner Al Gore. James Lovelock, the influential environmentalist, supports its use if limited to plant matter that would otherwise be left to decay. Several firms will test prototypes this year.
Johannes Lehmann, professor of soil fertility management at Cornell University, New York, said it had the potential to remove “a few billion tonnes” of carbon from the atmosphere a year. “This could be one of the top 10 solutions to climate change. It would be irresponsible to not probe its possibilities,” he said. The world generates about 29 billion tonnes of carbon each year.
Some argue the excitement has raced ahead of the science. Almuth Ernsting, who runs the Biofuelwatch blog, said: “There have been no large-scale trials and certainly nothing to prove this actually works.”
Some studies suggest that adding it to soils may activate microbes that break down existing charcoal in the soil, leading to a net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, argues that it remains unclear how long CO2 stays contained in biochar and raised concerns over land-use change.
He said: “We need to see further research that’s disconnected from the commercial interests gathering round this. What we don’t want is clear-cutting of old-growth forest.”
Nobody has proposed that. Most speak about using land that is unused or degraded, or feeding in other waste streams such as sewage or agricultural leftovers.
The basic science that holds up charcoal as a stable and reliable carbon sink is, Lehmann said, “absolutely proven”. He added: “Charcoal has been used and produced for millennia by humanity. We need to get away from ideology and let science speak.”
The difference today is how it can be made. The companies developing the technology all rely on the same basic approach. Called pyrolysis, it heats organic material to between 300C and 600C in an oxygen-starved environment. The result is gas, which can be used in a turbine to generate electricity. Depending on the process, the other products are liquids that can be used for fuels or solids like charcoal.
Carbonscape, a New Zealand group, has come up with a variation that uses a patented microwave-assisted pyrolysis process that can zap organic material such as trees and weeds in a matter of minutes.
Chris Turney, the geology professor at Exeter University who invented the system, envisions machines being rolled out all over the world, especially in the tropics, where deforestation is rife. They are made to fit into a standard shipping container and even if powered by coal-fired electricity, Turney said, the machine removes twice the carbon released by the process.
“The whole reason this works is that we could reforest land, harvest it and then reforest again,” he added.
Turney is not alone. Best Energies in America, BIC in Belgium, AnthroTerra in Australia and Agri-Therm of Canada are among those developing rival systems.
The hard fact remains, however, that there is no intrinsic value in incinerating trees and shrubs. None of these biochar pioneers will get far without public money. The most logical way would be to make biochar eligible for the credits that are traded in Europe’s £70 billion carbon trading system. Politicians at last month’s climate summit in Copenhagen proposed its inclusion, as have American legislators.
Meanwhile, biochar has attracted its share of opportunists. Mantria, an American company, was last month charged with fraud after allegedly swindling $30m (£18.5m) from investors, claiming it was the “world’s leading manufacturer and distributor of biochar”.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, the American stock market regulator, said: “Mantria has never sold any biochar and has just one facility testing biochar for possible commercial production.”

Now companies face a green squeeze on using water

Tricia Holly Davis

The United Nations is to warn businesses they face significant risks from shrinking water supplies and will eventually be forced to keep formal accounts of their water consumption.
The UN report, expected within the next few weeks, is part of a switch of focus by environmentalists and regulators away from greenhouse gas emissions to water use.
The Carbon Disclosure Project, which popularised the concept of carbon footprints for companies, will produce its first water footprint report for the world’s top companies this year, while Ofwat, the UK water regulator, is increasing its scrutiny of wastage and the energy consumed in water production.
The water research has been produced by Global Compact, the UN policy group that encourages businesses to go green. “We’ve never before looked at water footprinting and how this will affect companies’ supply chains,” said Guido Sonnemann, the UN official overseeing the report. “Water scarcity will have an impact on companies’ bottom line and climate change will only exacerbate the threat.”
The report will evaluate the methods used to account for corporate water use. Sonnemann said the UN will then bring together a group of businesses to pilot the various approaches, with a view to creating a formal international standard for water accounting and reporting.
The UN will also highlight the amount of CO2, a greenhouse gas, generated in the treatment, transport and use of water.
In the UK, the water industry uses about 8,000 gigawatts of energy to supply clean water to customers, accounting for 1% of total UK emissions of CO2. Once that water reaches households and is used for showers or to fill a kettle, the emissions jump to 6%, making Britain’s water sector as carbon intensive as aviation.
Ofwat suspects the emissions are much higher when factoring in the commercial use of water and the construction of treatment plants.
Energy companies are among the most vulnerable to water shortages since they require huge volumes to run and cool their plants. The UK uses about 21 billion litres of water per year, 45% of which goes to energy production.
Unlike carbon, however, having a high water footprint isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a climate change perspective. The environmental impact of water use depends as much on where and when it is extracted as the amount.
“Carbon emissions have the same impact on climate change regardless of where they occur in the world, while water use has drastically different social and environmental impacts depending on location,” said Jason Morrison of the US think tank Pacific Institute, which led the UN research.
Companies face difficulties in compiling accurate records of their water use. “For direct water consumption, the challenge is collecting accurate metered data from various water suppliers,” said Jack Cunningham, environmental affairs manager at J Sainsbury, the supermarket group. “It gets more complex as you move down the supply chain, particularly for businesses with different global suppliers.”
For many industries, crop irrigation is responsible for the bulk of water use. SABMiller says that in the Czech Republic, it takes 45 litres of water to make a litre of beer, compared with 155 litres of water in South Africa. “South Africa’s water demands will outstrip supply by 17% in 20 years, so we need to ensure our future water supplies there are protected,” said Andy Wales, the brewer’s head of sustainable development.
Greg Koch of Coca-Cola said that water shortages in Atlanta, Georgia, brought on by a drought forced Coke to shift production to other states. “Water is our lifeblood. We can’t afford to ignore the impacts of climate change,” said Koch.
Marcus Norton of the Carbon Disclosure Project, which annually ranks the environmental performance of the world’s largest companies, said it would publish a water version of its report later this year. “Investors increasingly see water as a risk so there is more pressure on companies to look beyond carbon,” said Norton.
“Water has taken longer to get on the corporate agenda partly due to the ‘noise’ around carbon and partly because relatively low water prices compared with energy have given the impression that water is an infinite resource,” said Guy Battle of Dcarbon8, the environmental consultancy.
Sonnemann agrees: “Now that Copenhagen is behind us, it’s a good time to bring attention to water because focusing on energy alone is not enough.”

Greenhouse effects: Home insulation

More heat is lost through the walls than any part of the home, solid-wall insulation can cut heat loss dramatically

Tony Juniper

Speaking to a Norwegian friend last week, I was reminded how far we have to go in the UK in improving the efficiency of our homes. She remarked that she had never been as cold as during a spell in England this winter, even though temperatures here are higher than in Norway.
Heating is vital for our comfort and health, but it is also the biggest contributor to a household’s carbon footprint. More heat is lost through the walls (up to 50%) than through any other part of the home.
Cavity-wall insulation can cut heat loss dramatically, but for the many properties with solid walls — about 36% of households — a different solution is required.
Homes built in solid brick (like our Edwardian semi) or stone are not easily insulated — and as well as the millions of houses with solid walls, nearly half of the 326,000 high-rise flats in England are similarly built.
If you have solid walls, fitting insulation might be one of the most effective environmental measures you can take.
External wall insulation involves adding a weatherproof insulating layer to the outside; the typical cost for a three-bedroom semi is between £3,500 and £5,500. If done at the same time as renovation work, however, the cost might drop to about £2,000. For more information, visit and Remember that there might be planning issues linked to external cladding, especially if you live in conservation areas or listed buildings.
Internal insulation takes several forms, including ready-made laminates or wooden battens in-filled with insulation. Typically up to 90mm thick, this material will reduce the size of the room, and will require the removal and refitting of cornicing, picture rails and skirting. Expect to pay about £3,600. There are thinner alternatives, such as Warm-a-Wall, a flexible lining 10mm thick that is applied like wallpaper. It can be skimmed or painted — see Another is Sempatap thermal (
Tony Juniper is an environmental campaigner and former director of Friends of the Earth;

UN pledges tighter controls after melting glaciers blunder

Head of climate change refuses to resign over false claims
Robin McKie, science editor
The Observer, Sunday 24 January 2010
The head of the UN's panel of climate scientists, Rajendra Pachauri , has dismissed suggestions that he should resign over an erroneous projection that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035, though he pledged that future research procedures by his organisation would be tightened up.
A 2007 report from the Inter­governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said global warming could cause the Himalayas' thousands of glaciers to vanish if it continued at its current pace. But Pachauri, head of the panel, told reporters in New Delhi that he regretted including the forecast in the report. In fact, projections suggest glaciers in the Himalayas will not disappear for another 300 years.
However, Pachauri insisted the mistake should not obscure evidence that climate change was a real threat. "Our procedures are very robust," he said. "All we need to make sure about is the fact that we adhere to implementing these procedures."
Pachauri brushed aside questions about whether the error would strengthen the hand of climate change sceptics. "Rational people… see the larger picture. They are not going to be distracted by this one error," he said. "I have no intention of resigning from my position."
Were the glaciers to disappear, it would badly disrupt water flows in Asia that are vital for irrigation. Flaws in IPCC reports can be damaging, since the findings are a guide for government policy.

Sheffield Forgemasters moves closer to nuclear reactor deal

Last £20m needed for purchase of new press that would enable UK to supply forgings for use in Britain and overseas
Tim Webb
The Observer, Sunday 24 January 2010

Sheffield Forgemasters is closing in on a £170m financing package which will enable British manufacturers to supply new nuclear reactors built in the UK and overseas.
The government, European Investment Bank and nuclear group Westinghouse have offered about £150m of the sum required to build a new 15,000-tonne press to make large forgings used in new reactors.
The company, whose origins go back to the 1750s, is trying to raise the remaining £20m from other companies involved in the nuclear industry.
About £65m in cheap loans has been offered by the government, whose efforts have been led by business secretary Lord Mandelson, but it is pressing for the remaining funds to be secured soon, otherwise it will find another use for the cash.
Industry sources said that the financing could be completed within days but negotiations have been going on for months and they stressed this weekend that there was still some uncertainty over the outcome. Concerns that government support could fall foul of European state aid rules have also complicated efforts.
Westinghouse has offered to pay £50m upfront for its order of reactor forgings. The European Investment Bank will provide about £35m in loans, which the government has agreed to underwrite. It would also create 150 jobs.
If the fundraising efforts come off, it would mark a much-needed boost for the government's policy of "industrial activism". This took a blow last week when US foods giant Kraft increased its bid for Cadbury, threatening the future of some of Cadbury's 5,000 workforce in the Midlands.
The Sheffield firm is one of only a handful around the world that can make the special forgings, which would otherwise have to be imported for up to 10 reactors being built in the UK. There is increasing political pressure on nuclear companies in Britain to source as many components as possible from the UK.
Dougie Rooney, national officer for the union Unite, said: "The government is putting its money where its mouth is. This would be a clear signal from government they will support British engineering and manufacturing industry."
The French firm Areva, which wants to build dozens of reactors in the UK in coming decades, has admitted that only half the components from the first couple of reactors could be sourced from the UK. It has set a target to award 70% of the contracts to UK firms.
Jean-Jacques Gautrot, head of Areva's UK division, told the Observer: "What we mean when we say we'd have up to 70% of the work available to British suppliers is saying we are willing to go as far as possible from the beginning. It could be 50, 60 or 70% for the first two reactors. But in 10 years, we could source 80% or close to 100% from British companies."

Lasers to beam energy to Earth from space

Solar energy collected in space and beamed back to Earth by laser could soon be used to power homes and electric vehicles under a project by European space engineers.

By Richard Gray, Science CorrespondentPublished: 8:30PM GMT 23 Jan 2010

It sounds more like a scheme dreamed up by a James Bond villain attempting to destroy the Earth than a technology that could help provide a solution to the planet's dwindling energy supplies.
Engineers plan to put satellites into orbit around the planet that can gather energy from the sun, concentrate it into powerful laser beams and transmit the energy back to the Earth where it can be used to generate electricity.

While harvesting solar energy in space has been discussed by scientists for more than 30 years, engineers at EADS Astrium, Europe's largest space company, now believe the technology is available to allow them to start building a working prototype.
They hope to have a small demonstrator of a full sized space-based power station, capable of beaming back 10-20kW of power, ready for launch in the next five years.
Using a network of these solar power stations it would be possible to provide energy on demand 24 hours a day – something that is not possible with solar power on the planet's surface which can only produce energy during the hours of sunlight.
"There is a global need for increased energy generation that does not have an environmental impact," explained Matthew Perren, head of innovation at Astrium's headquarters in Paris.
"The real advantage of space solar power is that it can provide power on demand as we can essentially point the laser beam where ever we like on the earth below the orbit.
"Looking to the future we envisage large power stations in space that are capable of transmitting energy to any point in the planet on demand."
Space-based solar power, although more expensive than using solar panels on Earth, is attractive because of its capability to provide a clean, inexhaustible power supply around the clock.
Much of the power of the sun is filtered out by the Earth's atmosphere while clouds and the inability to produce power at night have all limited the use of solar power as an energy source.
In space, however, the sun's rays are far more powerful and even with a relatively inefficient conversion process, could still produce large amounts of power. Most importantly, satellites can be positioned so they are exposed to sunlight for far longer than sites on Earth.
The space power stations would be launched into a geostationary orbit, which means they remain above the same point above the planet, around 22,300 miles above the surface.
With solar panels more than 50 metres across, they would be able to gather large amounts of energy from the sun which would then be converted into a infrared laser beam to be transmitted back to Earth.
One of the key uses of the technology could be to power a new generation of large electric vehicles such as cargo ships and tankers. The satellites could be made to move the laser beam to track the ships as they move across the ocean, providing a constant energy supply.
Scientists at Astrium have already begun work on developing the technology needed to turn a laser beam into movable source of electricity. They have managed to use lasers in the laboratory to power toy cars.
Astrium hopes to work with international space agencies, governments and power companies to develop a network of space based power stations that will eventually be capable of supplying enough energy to power hundreds of thousands of homes.
But it is not the only firm working in the field. In September Japan announced a $21 billion plan to send solar panel equipped satellite into space that could beam enough power back to Earth to supply 300,000 homes.
California has also made a deal with a company called Solaren to design satellites that would beam power back down from solar powered satellites.
But Astrium claims that its approach of using infrared lasers will make the system safer than other proposals which have suggested using microwaves to transmit the energy. If misdirected, microwaves could cause widespread damage, effectively cooking anything in their path.
Such schemes are reminiscent of far fetched plots in James Bond movies such as Die Another Day, where villain Gustav Graves builds a space based laser that he can control as a weapon, and Diamonds are Forever, where Ernst Stavro Blofeld attempts to hold the world to ransom with a laser in space.
Astrium, however, insist that the infrared laser, which is typically used in laser guidance systems for the military, will be safe. As it is beyond the visible spectrum of the human eye, it would also not be harmful to eyesight should anyone look into the beam.
Mr Perren said: "We are concentrating on developing something that is safe. While the laser beam will have some heat in it, we intend for it to be safe for people to walk through unaffected.
"Much of the technology we need has already been tried and tested in existing satellites and spacecraft, but there are technical difficulties that still need to be overcome such as improving the efficiency of converting the energy and increasing the power of the laser we can build.
"It is important to remember that we are not looking to take the place of power stations on Earth, but to provide another piece of the puzzle in finding alternative energy sources."

Giant food waste recycling plant planned for Edinburgh site

Published Date: 22 January 2010
A RECYCLING plant which would turn tens of thousands of tonnes of household waste into compost is being planned for the Capital.
Up to 40,000 tonnes of the city's food waste would be treated at the Newbridge site every year under plans drawn up by South Lanarkshire firm Muirhall Energy.The plant would use anaerobic digestion techniques, where micro-organisms break down the waste, creating compost and biogas which can power "green" cars and generate electricity.The recycling firm has submitted a pre-application notice to the council outlining the basic details of its plans for an industrial unit at the Clifton Trading Estate, on Claylands Road.It says that the waste will be treated in sealed units which will ensure neighbours are not bothered by escaping smells.The company hopes to begin construction by the summer of 2011.However, it stressed that it would be working with the council and local community to draw up its final designs, which will need the approval of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency as well as city planners.Chris Walker, the director of Muirhall Energy, said: "Edinburgh is short of recycling facilities for food waste, and European legislation is pushing councils to do more in this area, which is why we are looking to develop the plant here."This is a process which is widely used across Europe – there are 4000 such plants in Germany – but you could count on one hand the number that currently exist in Scotland."A lot of that can be down to a negative perception of the impact these facilities can have. "We are very conscious of that, and will be holding a three-month public consultation to discuss any concerns, and draw up plans so that the final design will be acceptable to the local community, businesses and the council."He added: "The benefits from this kind of design can be substantial, as it takes a lot of waste away from landfills and produces a biofuel which has a huge range of uses."Edinburgh and Midlothian councils are also looking to develop an anaerobic digestion facility, as part of a huge recycling centre proposed for the former railyard at Millerhill, Midlothian.The site is to be bought by the two local authorities at a cost of £2 million to enable the project to move forward. The scheme is likely to cost up to half a billion pounds over the next 25 to 30 years, with the plant built and run by a private company. Local councillor George Grubb said: "Minimising the amount of waste sent needlessly to landfill is a key priority of this administration."We will have to make sure any developments are balanced with the needs of the local community."

Kennedy takes on the coal baron in mountain duel

University debate personifies America's deep political and environmental divides

Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, in Charleston, Friday 22 January 2010 19.29 GMT
It was an event billed as the smackdown between the baddest coal baron around and the environmental heir to the liberal Kennedy legacy, live on stage and in the heart of Appalachia mine country. Stage right, appropriately, was Don Blankenship, chairman of Massey Energy, a meaty impassive presence, his Kentucky drawl never picking up speed or volume. On the left, Robert F Kennedy Jr, who has spent his life defending waterways, making lawyerly argument out of staccato bursts of statistics.
The pairing at the University of Charleston was the perfect personification of America's deep divides: Republican versus Democrat; old industry v new, global warming denier v impassioned advocate for climate change laws.
The battle in Thursday night's debate was over mountaintop removal mining, which blows the tops off mountains to get at thin seams of coal and of which Blankenship is the most notorious promoter. "This is the worst environmental crime that ever happened in our history," began Kennedy. "It is a crime, it is a sin, and it is a moral obligation to stop this from happening."
Companies such as Blankenship's are detonating the explosive equivalent of a Hiroshima every week, Kennedy said. They are ruthlessly anti-union and no longer provide jobs: 90,000 were shed in West Virginia over the past 50 years. Worse, Kennedy revealed, Massey's own records show 12,000 violations of pollution regulations last year. It paid $20m (£12.4m) in environmental fines in 2006.
But this was too many facts for Blankenship. "It's a bunch of rhetoric and untruths," he returned. "This industry is what made this country great. If we forget that, we are going to have to learn to speak Chinese." Or accept early deaths, he argued, noting that expectancy in Angola is 39 years.
Or, as he suggested later in a digression on poverty in India, go through life with the indignity of not having a toilet. Or, maybe just roll over and give in to the terrorists. "The truth of the matter is that were it not for coal we wouldn't have the freedom to sit up here and ­discuss this," Blankenship said.
The views – and debating styles – were a stark vision of the separate ­political realities in America.
in 2008. In 2004, he personally spent $3 million on attack ads on a judge's election.The Obama administration and its supporters – and not least Kennedy himself – got a painful message from that other reality this week. The Senate seat left by the death of his uncle Ted Kennedy was filled by Scott Brown, the first Republican in more than 50 years to represent Massachusetts in the Senate. The election takes away the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority, making it even harder for Obama to deliver on his campaign pledges to tackle global warming.
And that suits Blankenship just fine. "When you criticise what we do as an industry, you are criticising the people that are teaching your Sunday school, that are coaching your little league," Blankenship said, folksily. Worryingly for Kennedy, it got the loudest applause.
Kennedy, rallying, argued that the future was green: "If we don't switch to renewables right now we are going to be buying green technology from the Chinese for the next 100 years, the same way we have been buying oil from the Saudis for the last 100 years."
But Blankenship was still looking to the past. "Coal is what made the industrial revolution possible. If windmills were the thing to do, if solar panels were, it would happen naturally."
Oh, and global warming was a hoax, he finished. "Anyone who says they know what the temperature of earth is going to be in 2020 or 2030 needs to be put in an asylum because they don't. This whole thing is designed to transfer wealth from the US to other countries."
The university made sure the 1,000-strong audience was evenly split. On television afterwards, environmentalists said they were sure Kennedy won. The miners gave it to Blankenship: Kennedy just had too many facts from all over the place, said one.
The debate changed few minds. Ed Welch, the university president and moderator, summed it up neatly: "I don't think there is a need for an altar call to recognise any conversions."

One quarter of US grain crops fed to cars - not people, new figures show

New analysis of 2009 US Department of Agriculture figures suggests biofuel revolution is impacting on world food supplies

John Vidal, environment editor, Friday 22 January 2010 15.09 GMT
One-quarter of all the maize and other grain crops grown in the US now ends up as biofuel in cars rather than being used to feed people, according to new analysis which suggests that the biofuel revolution launched by former President George Bush in 2007 is impacting on world food supplies.
The 2009 figures from the US Department of Agriculture shows ethanol production rising to record levels driven by farm subsidies and laws which require vehicles to use increasing amounts of biofuels.
"The grain grown to produce fuel in the US [in 2009] was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels," said Lester Brown, the director of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington thinktank ithat conducted the analysis.
Last year 107m tonnes of grain, mostly corn, was grown by US farmers to be blended with petrol. This was nearly twice as much as in 2007, when Bush challenged farmers to increase production by 500% by 2017 to save cut oil imports and reduce carbon emissions.
More than 80 new ethanol plants have been built since then, with more expected by 2015, by which time the US will need to produce a further 5bn gallons of ethanol if it is to meet its renewable fuel standard.
According to Brown, the growing demand for US ethanol derived from grains helped to push world grain prices to record highs between late 2006 and 2008. In 2008, the Guardian revealed a secret World Bank report that concluded that the drive for biofuels by American and European governments had pushed up food prices by 75%, in stark contrast to US claims that prices had risen only 2-3% as a result.
Since then, the number of hungry people in the world has increased to over 1 billion people, according to the UN's World Food programme.
"Continuing to divert more food to fuel, as is now mandated by the US federal government in its renewable fuel standard, will likely only reinforce the disturbing rise in world hunger. By subsidising the production of ethanol to the tune of some $6bn each year, US taxpayers are in effect subsidising rising food bills at home and around the world," said Brown.
"The worst economic crisis since the great depression has recently brought food prices down from their peak, but they still remain well above their long-term average levels."
The US is by far the world's leading grain exporter, exporting more than Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Russia combined. In 2008, the UN called for a comprehensive review of biofuel production from food crops.
"There is a direct link between biofuels and food prices. The needs of the hungry must come before the needs of cars," said Meredith Alexander, biofuels campaigner at ActionAid in London. As well as the effect on food, campaigners also argue that many scientists question whether biofuels made from food crops actually save any greenhouse gas emissions.
But ethanol producers deny that their record production means less food. "Continued innovation in ethanol production and agricultural technology means that we don't have to make a false choice between food and fuel. We can more than meet the demand for food and livestock feed while reducing our dependence on foreign oil through the production of homegrown renewable ethanol," said Tom Buis, the chief executive of industry group Growth Energy.

Three Gorges dam may force relocation of a further 300,000 people

Chinese government report recommends the relocation of an extra 300,000 people at risk of landslides and water pollution

Jonathan Watts, Asia environment correspondent, Friday 22 January 2010 15.55 GMT
A further 300,000 people must be relocated from around China's Three Gorges dam - in addition to the 1.2 million who have already been forced to leave their homes, according to a draft government report.
Less than two years after completion of the world's biggest hydroelectric power plant, site engineers have found landslides and water pollution are more severe than anticipated, prompting calls for drastic remedial efforts.
In a report drawn up over the past year, the managers of the project and regional officials recommend the withdrawal of people from long stretches of the reservoir's banks.
"We aim to decrease the human impact on the environment and restore the ecosystem," an official familiar with the report told the Guardian. "It will be hard because the plan will cost a great deal of money and involve finding new homes for many people."
The report - entitled the Three Gorges Follow-Up Project - is still being considered, but given the input from senior levels of central and local governments, its recommendations are highly likely to be followed.
Since the start of construction in 1992, about 16m tonnes of concrete have been poured into the giant barrier across the Yangtze river, creating a reservoir that stretches back almost the length of Britain and drives 26 giant turbines.
But the rise and fall of such a huge volume of water has triggered land slides in the surrounding area, while the slowing of the flow has made it more difficult to flush pollution from the river system. Planners hoped the hydrological situation would stabilise by itself, but they are now calling for additional measures.
"An eco-screen, or buffer belt, is waiting for approval to be built alongside the reservoir to improve the water quality of the Yangtze river streams and reduce the contamination from residents living nearby," Hu Jiahai, a deputy of the local people's congress, told the China Daily.
He said the State Council - the Chinese cabinet - was now considering the relocation and other proposals, which were likely to cost at least as much as the 40 bn yuan (£3.7bn) already paid in compensation to those moved for the project.
Finding new homes for so many people will not be easy in an area that has already experienced mass migration and overcrowding. According to the state media, the population density in the reservoir area is already more than twice the nation average.
But this may just be the start of remedial efforts. The report predicts the problems of landslide and river-bank collapses will continue for 20 years, prompting even greater relocations. Last year, senior officials quoted in the newspaper 21st Century Business Herald anticipated a need to move 5 million people.
Overseas environmental protection groups called on the government to learn from the errors of past resettlement programs.
"Compensation must be sufficient for affected people to buy their new homes and invest in a new economic future. Affected people must be allowed to protest abuses [of power], and corrupt officials must be systematically held to account," said Peter Bosshard of International Rivers. "Future dam projects must be evaluated more thoroughly."

Is £400 enough to persuade you to upgrade your boiler

The Government's scrappage scheme gives cash to homeowners seeking to replace inefficient boilers.
By Simon Read
The first application forms for people to claim £400 under the Government's boiler scrappage scheme were posted out this week. Some 6,000 people had pre-registered for the forms, which were issued by the Energy Saving Trust from Monday.
But with just 125,000 possible grants available under the scheme, experts say anyone delaying applying could miss out.
"There are approximately four million G-rated boilers in the UK which qualify for the scheme, but there are only 125,000 grants available," says Kevin Miles, chief executive of npower retail. "Our advice is don't leave it too late, get it before it's gone."
His company, along with British Gas, is matching the £400 offered by the Government to give people up to £800 off the cost of a new boiler which could be as much as a third off the cost of an installation.
But Scott Byrom, utilities manager at says the scheme may not go far enough for many. "While it is fantastic to see such measures put in place to help combat high fuel prices and carbon emissions, I am not sure it is enough to help encourage customers to replace their boilers as the overall costs are still high."
Plumber Charlie Mullins, managing director of Pimlico Plumbers, goes even further. He claims the scheme will fail to benefit those who really need it and is just an attempt to win votes.
"A new boiler costs around £2,000, so Labour's £400 subsidy is only going to help people who could have afforded a new boiler in the first place," says Mr Mullins.
"They say it will help poor families cut their heating bills by £200 a year, but where does the Government propose this group are going to get the other £1,600 from?"
Even if you can afford a new boiler, should you rush to take advantage of the scrappage scheme? Annie Shaw from website, warns people thinking about applying for the grant to think about the costs.
"The boiler scrappage scheme looks attractive, but consumers should beware of hidden costs unless their old boiler is actually on the point of packing up," warns Shaw.
"Modern condensing boilers can be more expensive to fit and maintain than older less fuel-efficient models. While you will find that your gas bills will go down with a modern boiler, don't underestimate the potential cost of repairs and parts. Because modern boilers contain more temperamental electronic parts, these may need more regular and expensive attention.
"Even with the proposed scrappage grant of up to £400 from the Government, installing a new boiler will almost certainly cost you more over five years than keeping an old, well maintained, albeit less fuel-efficient model. If you are thinking of replacing your old boiler for "green" reasons, don't forget to factor the eco-cost of manufacture, transport and installation of your new purchase and the disposal of the old one into your calculations," says Ms Shaw.
Her concerns are echoed by energy expert Gareth Kloet of Confused,com. "The cost of a new boiler will vary considerably plus there are installation costs to add which can also vary depending on the location/accessibility and price of the installer's time.
"Anyone considering taking advantage of the boiler scrappage scheme should therefore resist being bamboozled by the headline offers. Instead it's vital to shop around and consider the total cost of both the replacement boiler and associated installation costs."
Pensioners and low-income households have also been warned to check out their eligibility for a Warm Front grant before applying for the boiler scrappage scheme. If they apply for the scrappage scheme, they will forfeit their right to the Warm Front funding, which could give them up to £3,500 towards the cost of improving their home, although the money must go towards such things as loft insulation, draught-proofing and repairs to an existing heating system, as well as a new boiler.
In fact under Warm Front you can only get £300 towards the cost of a new boiler so if that is the only improvement you need, then the scrappage scheme will be the better option.
Bearing all that in mind the temptation to cut up to £800 off the cost of replacing a dodgy, old boiler could be hard to resist, but how can you qualify?
The boiler scrappage scheme covers the least-efficient gas boilers which have the lowest G-rating. A Corgi-registered professional can tell you whether your boiler is eligible for scrappage, but there are a couple of quick tests you can do at home. If your boiler has a permanent pilot light it is likely to be G-rated. If it is more than 15 years old and gas-fired, then it is probably eligible and if it is oil-fired and more than 25 years old, it is likely to be eligible.
You must live in England and be either a homeowner or a private tenant. Landlords of multiple properties can apply, as long as each voucher is assigned to a different property.
If you are eligible you can apply for vouchers from the Energy Saving Trust, which you must use towards buying any A-rated or equivalent gas, oil or LPG boiler, boilers with a passive flue heat recovery device, micro CHP units or MCS-registered biomass boilers and heat pumps. Solar thermal energy systems are also covered if combined with an eligible boiler replacement. Electric boilers are not eligible, regardless of manufacturer.
To get the additional £400 from npower or British Gas, you'll need to talk with the companies directly. In fact npower's offer goes further, offering to provide £400 for those with boilers up to a c-rating. That means people with newer boilers may yet be able to get some cash off of a replacement even if they don't qualify for the Government scheme.
When it comes to saving money, don't just stop by getting a more efficient boiler, says moneysupermarket's Scott Byrom. "Combining a new boiler with a move to the cheapest energy tariff could see customers saving up to £525 a year on their energy bills," he says.
"There is a desperate need for Britain to become more energy efficient, and cutting household bills is a key part of this. Households should act immediately to ensure they are on the correct tariff for their usage and region – and moving online to a dual fuel direct debit deal is the easiest way to make savings on their energy bills."
Family in need: 'We were left without heating'
No heating during the big freeze left Jeremy Stewart with little choice but to replace his boiler. But the timing has meant he'll save £800 on the cost.
"We had put up with the boiler playing up for a while, and we had continued to get it repaired rather than replacing it as the thought of spending £3,000 on a new boiler just before Christmas didn't appeal," says Jeremy, a marketing director who lives in South Oxfordshire with his wife, Sonia, and daughter, Amelia.
"However, when the boiler became even more unreliable early in the new year, it left us without heating during the big freeze, which made us assess whether now was the time to replace, rather than repair, it.
"I had read about the boiler scrappage scheme, so we looked into whether our boiler qualified."
The family have lived in their current home for five years, but the boiler was installed when the house was built in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Therefore it does qualify for the scheme.
"I spoke to a few suppliers, from big energy firms to local companies, but I was impressed with the service I received and the deal offered by npower," says Jeremy. "They explained the scrappage scheme to us very well, confirmed our boiler qualified, and have kept us up to date on when an engineer will be able to reach us.
"We will save around £800 in total. For us, the boiler scrappage scheme came at the perfect time as it has enabled us to replace our old, unreliable boiler at a much lower cost."
Cash grant: How to apply
For more details on the Energy Saving Trust £400 voucher call 0800 512 012 or go to
For further information on npower's £400 offer call 0800 0722 999 or visit
For more information on British Gas's £400 offer visit or call British Gas on 0800 009 4450.

UN climate change expert: there could be more errors in report

Jeremy Page, South Asia Correspondent

The Indian head of the UN climate change panel defended his position yesterday even as further errors were identified in the panel's assessment of Himalayan glaciers.
Dr Rajendra Pachauri dismissed calls for him to resign over the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change’s retraction of a prediction that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035.
But he admitted that there may have been other errors in the same section of the report, and said that he was considering whether to take action against those responsible.
“I know a lot of climate sceptics are after my blood, but I’m in no mood to oblige them,” he told The Times in an interview. “It was a collective failure by a number of people,” he said. “I need to consider what action to take, but that will take several weeks. It’s best to think with a cool head, rather than shoot from the hip.”
The IPCC’s 2007 report, which won it the Nobel Peace Prize, said that the probability of Himalayan glaciers “disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high”.
But it emerged last week that the forecast was based not on a consensus among climate change experts, but on a media interview with a single Indian glaciologist in 1999.
The IPCC admitted on Thursday that the prediction was “poorly substantiated” in the latest of a series of blows to the panel’s credibility.
Dr Pachauri said that the IPCC’s report was the responsibility of the panel’s Co-Chairs at the time, both of whom have since moved on.
They were Dr Martin Parry, a British scientist now at Imperial College London, and Dr Osvaldo Canziani , an Argentine meteorologist. Neither was immediately available for comment.
“I don’t want to blame them, but typically the working group reports are managed by the Co-Chairs,” Dr Pachauri said. “Of course the Chair is there to facilitate things, but we have substantial amounts of delegation.”
He declined to blame the 25 authors and editors of the erroneous part of the report , who included a Filipino, a Mongolian, a Malaysian, an Indonesian, an Iranian, an Australian and two Vietnamese.
The “co-ordinating lead authors” were Rex Victor Cruz of the Philippines, Hideo Harasawa of Japan, Murari Lal of India and Wu Shaohong of China.
But Syed Hasnain, the Indian glaciologist erroneously quoted as making the 2035 prediction, said that responsibility had to lie with them. “It is the lead authors — blame goes to them,” he told The Times. “There are many mistakes in it. It is a very poorly made report.”
He and other leading glaciologists pointed out at least five glaring errors in the relevant section.
It says the total area of Himalyan glaciers “will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 square kilometers by the year 2035”. There are only 33,000 square kilometers of glaciers in the Himalayas.
A table below says that between 1845 and 1965, the Pindari Glacier shrank by 2,840m — a rate of 135.2m a year. The actual rate is only 23.5m a year.

The section says Himalayan glaciers are “receding faster than in any other part of the world” when many glaciologists say they are melting at about the same rate.
An entire paragraph is also attributed to the World Wildlife Fund, when only one sentence came from it, and the IPCC is not supposed to use such advocacy groups as sources.
Professor Hasnain, who was not involved in drafting the IPCC report, said that he noticed some of the mistakes when he first read the relevant section in 2008.
That was also the year he joined The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi, which is headed by Dr Pachauri.
He said he realised that the 2035 prediction was based on an interview he gave to the New Scientist magazine in 1999, although he blamed the journalist for assigning the actual date.
He said that he did not tell Dr Pachauri because he was not working for the IPCC and was busy with his own programmes at the time.
“I was keeping quiet as I was working here,” he said. “My job is not to point out mistakes. And you know the might of the IPCC. What about all the other glaciologists around the world who did not speak out?”
Dr Pachauri also said he did not learn about the mistakes until they were reported in the media about 10 days ago, at which time he contacted other IPCC members. He denied keeping quiet about the errors to avoid disrupting the UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen, or discouraging funding for TERI’s own glacier programme.
But he too admitted that it was “really odd” that none of the world’s leading glaciologists had pointed out the mistakes to him earlier. “Frankly, it was a stupid error,” he said. “But no one brought it to my attention.”