Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Renewable Energy Bonanza: More Green Jobs

As reported by environmental correspondent Julia Whitty and posted at Grist's The Blue Marble Blog, strong growth in renewable energy projects is accelerating. A study conducted by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute included forecasts and statistics that should encourage individuals and businesses that are renouncing a fossil-fuel future. Among the promising stats:

Energy efficiency now employs 8 million, and renewable energy 450,000, in the U.S. • Renewable energy creates more jobs per megawatt of power installed, unit of energy produced, and dollar invested than fossil energy. • Generating 20 percent of U.S. electricity from new renewable energy by 2020 will add 185,000 new jobs, while cumulatively reducing utility bills $10.5 billion and increasing rural landowner income by $26.5 billion. • A national light vehicle efficiency standard of 35 mpg by 2018 will create 241,000 jobs, including 23,900 in the automotive sector, while saving consumers $37 billion in 2020 alone. • The Massachusetts clean energy sector employs 14,000 and will soon be the state's 10th largest economic sector.

Whitty also points out that renewable energy projects, such as wind farms on pastureland and small-scale methane-generating plants on diary farms, reinvigorate local communities and bring sorely needed revenue into rural areas.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Addressing the Climate Skeptics

The British refer to them as "sceptics" rather than "skeptics", but regardless of their geographic location their sceptical arguments tend to fall into predictible groups, as noted in this BBC News special report, which is prefaced as follows:

What are some of the reasons why "climate sceptics" dispute the evidence that human activities such as industrial emissions of greenhouse gases and deforestation are bringing potentially dangerous changes to the Earth's climate?
As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finalises its landmark report for 2007, we look at 10 of the arguments most often made against the IPCC consensus, and some of the counter-arguments made by scientists who agree with the IPCC.

In an accompanying piece, BBC environmental correspondent Richard Black queried the 61 "accredited experts in climate and related scientific disciplines" (as they described themselves) who wrote an open letter to Canada's newly elected prime minister, Stephen Harper. The letter essentially implored that the government revisit the current climate change plans and rethink the approach.

Of the respondents, Black summarized their positions in these terms:

So to the results. Ten out of the 14 agreed that the Earth's surface temperature had risen over the last 50 years; three said it had not, with one equivocal response.

Nine agreed that atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide had risen over the last century, with two saying decidedly that levels had not risen. Eight said that human factors were principally driving the rise.

Twelve of the fourteen agreed that in principle, rising greenhouse gas concentrations should increase temperatures.

But eight cited the Sun as the principal factor behind the observed temperature increase.

And nine said the "urban heat island" effect - where progressive urbanisation around weather stations has increased the amount of heat generated locally - had affected the record of historical temperatures.

Eleven believed rising greenhouse gas concentrations would not result in "dangerous" climate change, and 12 said it would be unwise for the global community to restrain production of carbon dioxide and the other relevant gases, with several suggesting that such restraint would bring economic disruption.

Black goes further into the nature of the responses and if you're interested in the varying rationales that climate skeptics employ, this piece is engaging and revealing.

One of the contributors to the Real Climate site (a group of scientists who blog about climate change issues--their tagline: Climate science from climate scientists), NASA climate modeler Gavin A. Schmidt, worked with Black to consolidate the contrarian arguments presented in the article, which he found weak and disappointing on the whole:

Alongside each of these talking points, is a counter-point from the mainstream (full disclosure, I helped Richard edit some of those). In truth though, I was a little disappointed at how lame their 'top 10′ arguments were. In order, they are: false, a cherry pick, a red herring, false, false, false, a red herring, a red herring, false and a strawman. They even used the 'grapes grew in medieval England' meme that you'd think they'd have abandoned already given that more grapes are grown in England now than ever before (see here). Another commonplace untruth is the claim that water vapour is '98% of the greenhouse effect' - it's just not.

So why do the contrarians still use arguments that are blatantly false? I think the most obvious reason is that they are simply not interested (as a whole) in providing a coherent counter story. If science has one overriding principle, it is that you should adjust your thinking in the light of new information and discoveries - the contrarians continued use of old, tired and discredited arguments demonstrates their divorce from the scientific process more clearly than any densely argued rebuttal.

If the few climate skeptics that remain hope to have any influence in governmental or societal changes in the decades ahead, they're going to have to marshall some better arguments--arguments that can't be so easily refuted.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Schizophrenia of Auto Manufacturers

As well documented in Who Killed the Electric Car, auto industry executives and manufacturers' spokespersons often speak out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to greener technologies. An illuminating example is Toyota advertising the benefits of their high-mileage vehicles while joining the Detroit Three in a lawsuit against California's attempt to legislate higher mileage standards for vehicles operated in the state.

In this article from the Minneapolis StarTribune, David Morris tells the story of Ford lobbying against legislative efforts to form a task force with a nefarious goal: investigating the possibility of using the soon-to-close St. Paul Ranger plant to produce plug-in hybrid Rangers.

Morris reports that under new management (Alan Mulally, formerly of Boeing) and under pressure from competitors, Ford is rethinking their attitude toward plug-in hybrids.

GM has announced a major effort to get its new plug-in vehicle, the Volt, on the road in 2010-2012. Several dozen plug-in Priuses are on the roads in Japan, a remarkable turnaround for Toyota, a company that for years used as its tag line in Prius ads: "You never have to plug it in." The company is also developing flexible-fuel technology that could use E85 ethanol for the back-up engine.

These changes can, and should, lead Ford, the UAW and Minnesota to revisit a plan to make the St. Paul plant the basis for a new, green transportation initiative. An electricity-biofueled vehicle makes very good sense. Traveling on electricity costs about a penny a mile, compared with more than 13 cents on gas. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that if every light-duty car and truck in America used plug-in hybrid technology, 75 percent could be plugged in and fueled at night by the electricity grid without the need to construct a single new power plant. Since we use very little oil to generate electricity, electric miles are essentially oil-free miles. If the backup engine were fueled by ethanol or biodiesel, the vehicle could reduce overall petroleum consumption by more than 90 percent.

Morris closes the piece with a tongue-in-cheek mixed metaphor: "The table is set. Will Ford step up to the plate?"

Nanotechnology Meets Solar

The energy world is abuzz with news of an advance that combines nanotechnology (an applied science that controls matter at the levels of molecules and atoms) with the vast potential of solar power. Nanosolar, which is building the world's largest solar cell factory in San Jose, California, also has a 507,000 square foot manufacturing plant close to Berlin, Germany.

One of the factors that has dampened enthusiasm for solar power has been the cost differential between solar and traditional technologies for generating electricity. Nanosolar has devised a technique for roll-printing thin-film solar cells, making it possible to inexpensively produce roof tiles, window coverings, and other surface covering materials that harvest energy from the sun.

Quoting from an article recently posted on CNBC:

"Solar panels have not been very popular to the American people because they've been too expensive. That's what we're changing now," says Martin Roscheisen, another of the company's co-founders.

Nanosolar's secret sauce is just that: a patented glop of metals and nanoparticles that work together once they're exposed to sunlight, absorbing light and then producing energy. The substance is then sprayed on a durable foil by machines that look like giant newspaper printing presses. The process dramatically speeds up the manufacturing process.

"We're trying to achieve fantastic scale," says an early Nanosolar investor, Eric Straser from Mohr Davidow Ventures. "But we're really doing it in a way that achieves a cost breakthrough at the same time."

The transformational possibilities of technologies such as this demonstrate where this country's research and investment dollars should be going, obviating the need to turn to moribund technologies such as nuclear power and liquid coal.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Quelling Consumerism

As Kelle Lasn, founder of Adbusters says, "Driving hybrid cars and limiting industrial emissions is great, but they are band-aid solution if we don't address the core problem: we have to consume less. This is the message of Buy Nothing Day.

Rampant consumerism is as big a threat to the planet as the dirty smokestack industries, exhaust-belching cars, and the globe-circling jetliners. Excess consumption is the Stegasaurus in the living room that most people don't even want to talk about because it cuts too close to habits that are near and dear.

So, celebrate this day in earnest. It's easy. All you have to do is buy nothing...


Thursday, November 22, 2007

If slaughterhouses had glass walls...

As millions of roasted turkey carcasses go on tables around the country, it's worth considering the relationship between the consumption of animal flesh and global warming. Those environmentalists who don't fall among the ranks of vegans or vegetarians (vegans number somewhere around 1 to 2.8 percent of the population by some estimates) have some explaining to do. As Bill Maher said in a recent column posted on Common Dreams:

Former Vice President Al Gore should be the first to take the meat-free Thanksgiving pledge. Since raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined, is it too much ask Mr. Gore to stop gazing at his Oscar and his Nobel Prize long enough to read the United Nations report that calls the meat industry “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”? has more to say on the topic:
Scientists also warn that global warming threatens the lives of millions of humans and countless other animals. Many conscientious people are trying to help reduce global warming by driving more fuel-efficient cars and using energy-saving light bulbs. Although this helps, science shows that going vegetarian is perhaps the most effective way to fight global warming.

In a groundbreaking 2006 report, the United Nations (U.N.) said that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Senior U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization official Henning Steinfeld reported that the meat industry is “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.

As Paul McCartney once commented, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian." Most people would rather fight off a hungry shark with their bare fists than consider dropping meat products from their diet, but someday maybe the notion will enter the popular consciousness: eating meat dramatically escalates global warming risks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Our Noocular Future

The AustralianGreens have their say in this nifty sequence that spells out the benefits of Noocular Power in no uncertain terms.

Monday, November 12, 2007

ZAP! Electric Car Showroom Tour

While this video dates back awhile (April 2007), it's still a good opportunity to get a peek at some of the innovative production models being sold by the automotive wizards of ZAP! in Santa Rosa, California.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Untapped Energy Solutions: Co-Generation

With a little ingenuity and some rethinking of the centralized infrastructures that dominate power distribution in the U.S., we could go a long way toward both easing climate change threats and stretching our energy resources. Waste and inefficiency are unforgivable at this stage of our accelerating descent into energy hell. This is the persepctive underlying Bill McKibben's latest article in Orion Magazine, The Unsung Solution, which explores the benefits of tapping waste heat from manufacturing processes to generate power.

McKibben profiles a firm, Recycled Energy Development, quoting one of the principals, Sean Casten, who said:

“Let’s look at Florida. Here’s a Maxwell House coffee roaster in Duval County. They’re roasting beans, so all that heat has to go somewhere. About twelve megawatts’ worth of potential electricity is going up the stack. Basically, there’s a network of tubes with water in them. The heat would hit one side of it, produce steam, and we’d use that to turn a turbine and generate electricity. It’s like any other boiler, just without a flame, because the heat is already there.”

This is not a poorly understood emerging technology that requires vast development resources and risky investment strategies. Co-generation techniques have been in use for decades and are a proven, successful means of making maximum benefit of available power resources. The article continues:

Does that sound suspiciously pie-in-the-sky? Casten can drive a few miles from his Chicago office to an East Chicago plant run by Mittal Steel. A few years ago, a predecessor energy-recycling company installed this kind of equipment on the smokestacks of the plant’s coke ovens. In 2004, this single steel plant generated roughly the same amount of clean energy as was produced by all of the grid-connected solar collectors throughout the world. Casten’s company estimates that recycling waste heat from factories alone could produce 14 percent of the electric power the U.S. now uses. If you took much the same approach to electric generating stations you could, says Casten, conceivably produce the same amount of energy we use now with half the fossil fuel.

Let’s cut the numbers in half to account for corporate enthusiasm. Hell, let’s cut them in half again. You’re still talking about one of the most effective ways to cut carbon emissions that we’ve got, a mature technology ready to go. You’re talking about a recycling project infinitely more important than all that paper we’ve been bundling and glass we’ve been rinsing for the last two decades. Why isn’t it happening everywhere? The first answer, says Casten, is that very few companies spend much time thinking about their waste heat. “How much time do you think about the useful things you could be doing with your urine?” asks Casten. “The guy at the coffee roaster is spending all day focused on roasting coffee beans so they taste good.”

Laws governing the operation of electrical utilities, which in most communities are essentially monopolies, tend to protect the profits of the utilities above all else, McKibben asserts. In such an environment, change is difficult or impossible. Therein lies the rub. Our energy salvation may require restructuring the counter-productive regulations that have gotten us into the predicament we're in today. The solutions are available if we're smart enough to utilize them.