Friday, August 17, 2007

Smart Car arrives in Bahs-ton

It's 104 inches long and 20,000 people have put deposits on one. An interesting wrinkle in the evolution of the automobile and the changing tastes of the buying public...

Friday, August 10, 2007

Ticking Time Bomb Beneath Arctic Ice

This L.A. Times article, The Crisis Under the Ice, illuminates the risks from "a ticking time bomb", the release of methane from below arctic permafrost. Russians seeking undiscovered oil in Arctic regions have planted a flag made of titanium on the seabed, but a number of scientists are concerned about a more pressing danger than diminishing oil supplies:

But there is an even more dangerous aspect to the unfolding drama in the Arctic. While governments and oil giants are hoping the melting ice will allow them access to the world's last treasure trove of oil and gas, climatologists are deeply worried about something else buried under the ice that, if unearthed, could wreak havoc on the biosphere, with dire consequences for human life.

Much of the Siberian sub-Arctic region, an area the size of France and Germany combined, is a vast, frozen peat bog. Before the most recent Ice Age, the area was mostly grassland, teeming with wildlife. The coming of the glaciers entombed the organic matter below the permafrost, where it has remained ever since. Although the surface of Siberia is largely barren, there is as much organic matter buried underneath the permafrost as there is in all of the world's tropical rain forests.

Now the permafrost is thawing on land and along the seabeds. If it occurs in the presence of oxygen on land, the decomposing of organic matter leads to the production of CO2. If the permafrost thaws along lake shelves, in the absence of oxygen, the decomposing matter releases methane. Methane is the most potent of the greenhouse gases, with a greenhouse effect 23 times that of CO2.

Oil and global warming are inextricably linked in what can only be considered a dance of death as our industrial society inches closer and closer to the tipping point where warming processes can't possibly be reversed.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Eat Less Oil

The amount of oil involved in our globalized agriculture is staggering, as dramatized in this animation.

The solution: eat more local food.

From Oil Kings to Uranium Kings

Whether you have an energy economy geared to oil or hooked on uranium, as in France, as the commodity becomes scarce, the prices rise and fights often break out among those who want the remaining stores. This Le Monde editorial talks about the dynamics involved as France negotiates with Niger to ensure an ongoing supply of "yellow cake" to fuel its reactors.

Mr. Tandja has observed the price takeoff. A pound has gone from ten dollars three years ago to close to one hundred and fifty dollars on the international market (not counting long-term revisable contracts). And the increase should continue as needs grow and tensions over supplies appear. A windfall for Niger, which sees Chinese, Canadians, and Australians flooding in. World reserves are abundant, but exploration only resumed recently after twenty years of under-investment linked to attractive oil prices up to 2003 and to the rejection of nuclear power after the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe. Demand from big American, German, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian electricity companies will grow as they build new reactors. With the exhaustion of military (especially Russian) stocks, recycled as fuel since the end of the Cold War to compensate for mining under-production, rationing looms.

Wind, solar, and geothermal are looking better all the time.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Wind Power Alternative from NStar

For a price (about $7.50 to $15.00 a month) customers of the Boston utility NStar can buy electricity from a wind farm in upstate New York. The program still needs approval from state utility officials in Massachusetts, but the prospects look encouraging.

As this article in the Boston Globe indicates, the program has some unique advantages over earlier programs of a similar nature.

The two major differences with NStar's plan is that it will have the direct marketing power of the $3 billion utility behind it, and customers will be paying for electricity from the 195-turbine Maple Ridge wind project near Camp Drum in upstate New York and from a 44-tower wind project now under development at Kibby Mountain in Maine expected to open by 2009.

"We have something real and tangible, and we can take you up there and show you the source of where your power is coming from,'' NStar chief executive Thomas J. May said. NStar is signing 10-year contracts to buy a total of 30 megawatts of power from each installation, in total equal to the electric demand of about 45,000 average homes or small businesses. That's about 2 percent of the utility's average total demand, and May said, "We hope the program is oversubscribed and we have to go back and buy more.''

Alan Nogee of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, one of several environmental groups that advised NStar on developing the plan, said, "We are very excited by NStar's long-term commitment to wind energy and their green power program. They're helping customers say yes to choosing a responsible energy future and a more stable climate.''

The viability of shaping our energy future around wind and solar becomes more clear with each program like this that is launched.

Monday, August 06, 2007

David Suzuki Talks About Climate Change

This Real News piece dates back a few weeks, but it's worthwhile in that David Suzuki speaks with conviction and passion about climate change and the difficulties in getting the message across to the public.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Benefitting Energy Consumers with RPS

Amidst the schemes and proposals and attempts to resurrect dead technologies (witness the nuclear power boosters practicing their arcane arts), some progress may be near at hand in the form of the renewable energy portfolio (RPS). A standard requiring that utilities produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources is in the works, as reported by blogger David Roberts.
A brief excerpt from a reference extract he highlights:
So for those of you who don't want to read the long post that follows, here are some key takeaway points:

Right now there is a patchwork of over 20 state RPSs. Each has slightly different and sometimes incompatible standards and rules, which prevent interstate trading of energy credits. This inhibits the development of renewable energy and presents a "free rider" problem, with power producers in non-RPS states benefiting unjustly. A national RPS is far preferable to today's patchwork of state RPSs.

Electricity consumers in every region of the country would save money under a national RPS -- up to $49 billion nationwide.

A national RPS would create 80% more jobs than comparable investment in fossil fuels -- the greatest number of jobs in the states that have been hardest hit by the loss of manufacturing.

All states have renewable resources that can be developed.

A national RPS would save billions of gallons of water, reduce air pollution, reduce total land occupied by power generation, and lower CO2 emissions.

Solutions are out there if we recognize them and take action.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

When Electric Cars Ruled the Road

Imagine driving down a boulevard in New York City in a clean, quiet electric car. You park in front of your favorite department store and plug in your vehicle to the charging station right at the curb. The air smells sweet, without the oily smell of exhaust, and the thrumming of internal combustion engines is replaced by the gentle whir of electric motors and the swoosh of vehicles gliding by like a soft breeze.

The scene isn't from New York City in 2025, but sometime around 1914, when electric cars shared the roadways with their noisy, stinky, gasoline-powered cousins. In this article from the New York Times (registration required), Back to the Future in a 98-Year Old Elecrric Car, it's clear that the proof of concept for electric vehicles was resolved almost a century ago.

At the turn of the 20th century, quiet, smooth, pollution-free electric cars were a common sight on the streets of major American cities. Women especially favored them over steam- and gasoline-powered cars.

In an era in which gasoline-powered automobiles were noisy, smelly, greasy and problematic to start, electric cars, like Jay Leno’s restored 1909 Baker Electric Coupe, represented a form of women’s liberation. Well-dressed society women could simply drive to lunch, to shop, or to visit friends without fear of soiling their gloves, mussing their hair or setting their highly combustible crinoline dresses on fire.

“These were women’s shopping cars,” said Mr. Leno, who is a serious hands-on collector of autos and motorcycles dating from the 1800s to the present. “There was no gas or oil, no fire, no explosions — you just sort of got in and you went. There were thousands of these in New York, from about 1905 to 1915. There were charging stations all over town, so ladies could recharge their cars while they were in the stores.”

Baker Electrics, Detroit Electrics, Rausch & Langs and other similar electric cars were comparatively reliable and easy to drive. Even the wives of legendary car company owners drove electrics.

Clara Ford, Henry’s wife, drove a 1914 Detroit Electric Brougham until the 1930s, using it to visit friends and make her rounds on the family’s Michigan estate. Helen Joy, wife of Henry Joy, president of the Packard Motor Car Company, drove a 1915 Detroit Electric.

Mr. Leno’s Baker stands — and stands is the correct word — more than 7 feet tall. “It looks like a giant phone booth,” he said. Twelve 6-volt batteries are under the front and rear covers, six under each, to power the car’s 72-volt motor.

Even much of the battery technology was worked out in those early days.

The Edison batteries were the result of a research program the inventor conducted at the turn of the century to create lighter, more powerful batteries that would extend the range and speed of electric cars, just as inventors are trying to do today.

Instead of the lead plates and sulfuric acid used in batteries from the mid-19th century on, the Edison batteries used iron and nickelic oxide electrodes, and an alkaline electrolyte of potassium hydroxide. Early tests were promising, but the first production batteries were prone to leaking and electrode failure. Edison closed the factory in 1905 and reworked the batteries, finally resuming production four years later. The effort was obviously effective.

“I have modern lead-acid batteries in the car now, but I can still run the original Edison batteries,” Mr. Leno said. “You can just rinse them out, replace the electrolyte, and they’re ready to go. They still work fine, after almost a hundred years.”

The car’s electric motor, about the size of a watermelon, is visible under the car, driving the rear wheels via an enclosed-chain reduction system and a now-conventional driveshaft and differential.

Are we going backwards or forwards? Something to consider as electric cars struggle to gain a foothold in an industry dominated by petroleum-powered thinking.

Friday, August 03, 2007

When the Oil is Gone, There is Still Vivoleum

I've read this article about three times now and I still wind up shaking my head in wonderment. It highlights in a nutshell everything that is wrong about our energy policy, as well as our culture, and as the author, Eric Francis Coppolino, points out, while our societal values are being turned inside out, "Hardly anyone is paying attention."

On June 14 of this year in Calgary, Canada, a roomful of oil industry listened with rapt attention to a conference presentation about a promising, sustainable replacement for petroleum: Vivoleum.

The concept was very straightforward:

They proposed that the bodies of climate change victims, who they said now number about 150,000 a year, could be rendered into a burnable product, particularly as combustion of fossil fuels sped up ecological disasters. To demonstrate the efficacy of this, they distributed candles throughout the audience, which were allegedly made of the stuff. The candles were lit, and the oil execs passed the flame from one to another.

The presenters claimed to be top executives from ExxonMobil and the National Petroleum Council. In reality, they were a couple of high-octane hoaxsters, the Yes Men, engaged in a culture-jamming practice they call "identity correction."

The business leaders watched attentively as animations showed how the human flesh would be rendered into fuel. The logic was compelling:

“Vivoleum works in perfect synergy with the continued expansion of fossil fuel production,” said “Florian Osenberg,” claiming to be an ExxonMobil representative. “With more fossil fuels comes a greater chance of disaster, but that means more feedstock for Vivoleum. Fuel will continue to flow for those of us left.”

The presentation continued to unfold smoothly until the level of absurdity finally reached a breaking point:

The two then showed a video tribute to an ExxonMobil janitor, “Reginald Spanglehart Watts,” who had purportedly died of toxic exposure after a chemical incident at a company facility. Before passing away, the kindhearted worker had donated his body to be made into one of the candles, so that he could do some good and be useful to others after he died. “Osenberg” lit the candle made of Watts’s flesh and held it up.
The tear-jerking tribute to “Reggie Watts” (with “You Light Up My Life” sung out of tune by Reggie as its theme song, as he mopped and swept) finally pushed the presenters’ credulity a shade too far. At that point, realizing the presentation was a hoax, Simon Mellor, commercial and business development director for the company putting on the event, walked up and physically forced the two imposters from the podium. The police were called, but the pair could only be charged with trespassing.

Many of the other identity readjustments staged by this group are equal parts funny and disturbing. The worldwide BBC broadcast where one the Yes Men, appearing as a Dow employee, explained how the victims of the Bhopal disaster were finally going to compensated is a genuine eye-opener (as was the response from Dow).

This is journalism at its best, as published by Chronogram. More power to them...

So, we had best not stake our energy futures in Vivoleum. The “o” in the Vivoleum logo was a drop of blood.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Nuke Plants Unable to Compete in the Free Market

Unable to gain financing on their own, power companies pushing nuclear power plants want the government (AKA you and me, unwitting taxpayers) to provide full loan guarantees, as discussed in this N.Y. Times article.

Power companies have tentative plans to put the 28 new reactors at 19 sites around the country. Industry executives insist that banks and Wall Street will not provide the money needed to build new reactors unless the loans are guaranteed in their entirety by the federal government.

Grossly overexpensive, short-lived, unreliable nuclear power plants have no place in the mix of energy options we need to combat global warming. And the safety issue is pretty well summed up by insurance companies, world's greatest assessors of risk, that refuse to insure plants beyond a limited liability cap--the rest of the tab, as might be expected, is dropped in the lap of none other than John Q. Public, thanks to the Price-Anderson Act.

A Look at Some Clean Cars

Roland Hwang, Vehicle Policy Director for NRDC, talks about emerging clean car technologies that are being designed, all of which share one trait in common: no tailpipes.