Saturday, June 30, 2007

In Cuba "getting around is everyone's second job"

Cuba and, by extension Fidel Castro, has been praised for innovations in the areas of agriculture, medicine and health care delivery. The streets are clean and crime is way down. One problem that continues to elude the Cuban government's best and brightest is transportation. One of the main reasons for this can be attributed to their broken ties with the Soviet Union - their main source of fuel until a decade ago. Nonetheless, it has to be a source of disappointment and embarrassment for Castro that this critical function has yet to be successfully woven into Cuba's revolutionary socioeconomic fabric.

As far as I can tell, Curitiba, Brazil has developed one of the best overall transportation plans. (GW)

Cuba Tackles Transportation Challenges

By Circles Robinson
June 27, 2007

As the Cuban Parliament meets this week, Transportation Minister Jorge Luis Sierra is scheduled to present a report on one of the hottest issues on the agenda: public transportation. Cubans, especially those in the larger cities, await relief from one of their most pressing daily challenges.

Transportation problems reached a crisis point in the early nineties when Cuba lost its main fuel source, the Soviet Union, and the island came to virtual standstill. There was a partial recovery over the last decade but the public transportation situation is still critical.

To make matters worse, Washington’s nearly half-century blockade —further tightened under the Bush administration— prohibits US companies from doing business in Cuba, while sanctions are imposed on foreign firms that operate in the United States if they dare to trade with the island. This makes it especially difficult and expensive for Cuba to purchase buses, trucks, cars and spare parts.

Added to the scarcity of vehicles is the high price of fuel imports and the island’s ambitious national energy-saving program.

Cuba currently has a favorable trade pact with Venezuela, which provides a considerable amount of oil in exchange for the collaboration of thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers. However, the amount of oil is nowhere near the level provided by the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991, or that required by a dynamic population of 11.2 million.


Havana, the capital of Cuba has been the hardest hit. With a population of around 2.5 million spread out over an area of over 280 sq. miles, getting around the city requires a major effort.

People here say they have two jobs: one getting to and from work and the other at the actual workplace. The frustrations of the first have their repercussions on the second, affecting job motivation and productivity. The daily commute for an average worker in Havana can be as much as three to four hours. Going to a medical appointment at a hospital can be an all-day affair.

Like people all over Latin America, Cubans rely first and foremost on public buses. Yet according to an article published earlier this year in Bohemia magazine, only 13 percent of the 2,700 public buses in service in 1988 are currently operating in the city of Havana. That means ever more people on ever fewer buses.

Urban buses, all publicly owned in Cuba, are very cheap —one to two cents US a ride— but there just aren’t enough of them. This presents a crisis not felt in countries without a blockade, where profitability and fares are usually the main issue instead of an availability of buses.

Many workplaces in Havana, especially the larger ones, have their own buses. Nonetheless, the size of the capital city makes it necessary for many to catch their bus at 6:30 or 7:00 in order to arrive by 8:30 [the clock-in time for many jobs]. For households with small children the matter is further complicated by the fact that schools don’t open until 7:00 a.m.

Cubans have used their creativity and organizational savvy to confront their transportation dilemmas. Those who rely on the scarce buses have long since abandoned standing in lines. Each newcomer simply asks, “Who’s last?” and remembers their place. Bus stops may resemble an unorganized sea of people, but when the bus finally arrives people quickly line up to get on in order. Cubans are used to such waiting. It has been a part of their blockaded revolution where everyone is entitled but the supply is often limited, especially in the post-1990 period.

In Cuba’s provincial capitals the absence of buses is all the more apparent. The only advantage is that these are smaller and walking is more of an option. Horse-drawn carts move a lot people in places like Santa Clara, Las Tunas, Guantanamo, etc.


For those who have a little more money, or a little more daring, there are a number of other transportation options. The 1950s US cars still visible on streets and highways and have become a symbol of the capital city for many foreigners. Many of these are now collective taxis that squeeze in six or more people.

Having the ability to use the collective taxis is a big privilege in the capital and greatly increases one’s mobility. At 45 to 85 cents US a ride, those that can afford them on a regular basis either receive family remittances from abroad or have some income source other than their salary.

Pidiendo botella (hitchhiking) is another alternative for getting around the capital, mostly, but not exclusively, used by women. Students and office workers can be seen at most major intersections asking drivers for a ride. While women sometimes have to put up with propositions from the male drivers, assaults or sexual violence against hitchhikers are extremely rare.

There is also a government-sponsored type of hitchhiking, both within the capital and between provinces and municipalities. Officials with clipboards are posted on busy urban avenues and at the exits from cities and towns. They keep track of people’s destinations and flag down buses assigned to workplaces, or cars and trucks with state license plates. The drivers of these vehicles are obliged to give people a ride on the route they are traveling. If a driver fails to stop, the official jots down their license plate and reports it to the authorities. This method of transport is widely used by men and women of all ages.

Many private car owners also double as unlicensed taxis. Diesel fuel or gasoline is extremely expensive for a salaried worker in any trade or profession. Therefore, some car owners —many of whom received their Ladas and other Eastern European models via their workplaces before the 1990 crash— moonlight as taxis. They charge the same as the licensed collective taxis, or work out a fixed rate for a specific destination or address.

Not only work is affected

The packed buses and long waits have greatly reduced demand for the many recreational and cultural activities in the capital city.

Traveling in jam-packed buses where you have to squeeze your way to the back door to get out represents a health and safety risk, especially for the elderly, small children, and pregnant women.

Cubans love to go out to the cinema, theater, concerts, dance performances, museums, sporting events, parks and beaches. If transport were better in the capital, many more would do so. Efforts to improve public transportation must take into consideration the fact that improved transportation will also bring new demands on the system.

Dalia Acosta wrote about the issue in an IPS news service article titled: “Camels Fade into the Sunset.” She quotes City of Havana sources as saying the plan was to “ensure transport for 660,000 passengers a day in the first half of 2007 and to create conditions for modernizing the entire national transport system.”

“This will surpass the 400,000 passengers a day that were transported during 2006, but is still a long way from the nearly four million trips a day prior to the economic crisis. Formerly, most of the city’s residents took urban buses at least twice a day, but now they take them only as a last resort,” states Acosta.


Cuba’s institutions and state-owned businesses are currently on a crusade to improve on low work productivity in virtually all sectors of the economy. A measure that recently took effect establishes sanctions against workers who repeatedly fail to clock in on time.

Although seen as a worthy goal, the measure has been criticized at workplaces. Many workers feel that such a measure should not be implemented until the long-awaited supply of new buses are operating.

Progress in implementing the punctuality measure is one of the issues to be addressed at parliamentary hearings this week at the Havana Convention Center.

The transportation minister previously said a marked difference in urban transportation will not occur until sometime in 2008. In the meantime, he said his institution is making an effort to improve the use of buses still on the road, including those belonging to workplaces. He has said large quantities of new buses —representing a massive government investment— would be incorporated over the next three years, mainly from China.


Since 2005, Cuba has been in what President Fidel Castro dubbed an “Energy Revolution” that involves a massive campaign to increase awareness of the need to conserve fuel and electricity.

The Cuban leader sees the issue as crucial not only for Cuba but for humanity as a whole. He has sharply criticized waste in consumer societies, focusing particularly on the idea of the US government to turn food crops into ethanol to feed its cars, even if higher grain prices and increased hunger result.

Experts worldwide recognize the advantages of good public transport over private cars citing the improved air quality, a sharp reduction in per capita energy consumption and far greater safety.

If Cuba’s transport ministry is able to turn things around in the coming years, it will have resolved one of the essential problems facing the island and serve as an example to other nations.

*Circles Robinson is a US journalist living in Havana. His reports and commentaries can be read at

Friday, June 29, 2007


Climate change and the great urban migration are probably the two developments that will have the greatest impact on the world in the next decade. Much has been written and debated on the former, and you will undoubtedly be hearing lots more about the explosion of cities as we pass the milestone described in the article below. The 2007 edition of The Worldwatch Institute's "State of the World" is dedicated to Our Urban Future:

"In 1950, only New York and Tokyo had populations of more than 10 million. Today there are more than 20 of these so-called megacities, the bulk of them in Asia and Latin America...As early as 2030, four out of five of the world's urban residents will be in what we now call the "developing" world...The deomographic and poilitical impacts of this transformation will test us." (GW)

U.N. Predicts Urban Population Explosion

By next year, more than half the world’s population, 3.3 billion people, will for the first time live in towns and cities, and the number is expected to swell to almost five billion by 2030, according to a United Nations Population Fund report released yesterday.

The change is expected to be particularly swift in Africa and Asia, where between 2000 and 2030 “the accumulated urban growth of these two regions during the whole span of history will be duplicated in a single generation,” says the report, “State of World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth.”

This surge in urban populations, fueled more by natural increase, or births, than the migration of people from the countryside, is unstoppable, George Martine, who wrote the report, said in an interview.

Cities are predicted to edge out rural areas in more than sheer numbers of people. Poverty is increasing more rapidly in urban areas, and governments need to plan for where the poor will live rather than leaving them to settle illegally in shanties without sewerage and other services, the United Nations report says.

In Latin America, where urbanization occurred earlier than in other developing regions, many countries and cities ignored or tried unsuccessfully to retard urban growth.

“Now the levels of insecurity and violence are a product of this approach,” said Mr. Martine, a Canadian demographer and sociologist. “People have been left to fend for themselves and have created these enormous slums.”

Rather than just letting slums spring up, governments need to anticipate the expanding ranks of the urban poor and provide them with secure housing, water, sanitation and power, among other services, the report says. With decent housing and basic services, the poor can take advantage of the opportunities offered by city life, it says.

A billion people, about a sixth of the world’s population, already live in slums, 90 percent of them in developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 7 in 10 urban dwellers live in a slum, an area lacking services such as water, sanitation or legal rights to housing. The region’s slum population has almost doubled in just 15 years, reaching 200 million in 2005. Its urban population is already as large as North America’s.

In China, the world’s most populous nation, urbanites are expected to outnumber people in rural areas within a decade. China would then have 83 cities with more than 750,000 residents, but only five with a population of more than five million, the report says.

In fact, it predicts that the bulk of the urban population growth will be in smaller cities and towns, not the 20 megacities that dominate the public imagination. The future lies in places like Gabarone, Botswana, where the population is projected to reach 500,000 in 2020, up from 18,000 in 1971, as much as it does in chaotic, sprawling metropolises like Lagos, Nigeria.

Among the megacities with populations of more than 10 million, only Lagos and Dhaka, Bangladesh, are expected to grow at rates exceeding 3 percent over the coming decade. Such supersize cities today contain 9 percent of all urban inhabitants, while cities and towns of fewer than 500,000 account for more than half. “Many of the world’s largest cities — Buenos Aires, Calcutta, Mexico City, São Paulo and Seoul — actually have more people moving out than in, and few are close to the size that doomsayers predicted for them in the 1970s,” the report says.

The report notes that while rates of urban growth have slowed in most regions of the world, the story now lies in the expected growth in the sheer numbers of people through natural increases and migration from rural areas.

The first great wave of urbanization unfurled over two centuries, from 1750 to 1950, in Europe and North America, with urban populations rising from 15 million to 423 million. The second wave is happening now in the developing world. There, the number of people living in urban areas will have grown from 309 million in 1950 to an expected 3.9 billion in 2030. By 2030, developing nations are expected to have 80 percent of the world’s urban population.

If this population growth is helter-skelter, with inadequate services and sprawling slums, it could pollute urban watersheds with untreated sewage and contribute to increases in crime and violence, Mr. Martine said. The result of that approach is apparent in today’s slums.

“The poor settle in the worst living space, on steep hillsides or river banks that will be flooded, where nobody else wants to live and speculators haven’t taken control of the land,” he said. “They have no water and sanitation, and the housing is terrible. And this situation threatens the environmental quality of the city.”

But cities are also engines of economic growth, the report notes more optimistically. “Cities concentrate poverty,” it said, “but they also represent the best hope of escaping it.”

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Development in a cultural void

In his seminal and controversial book "After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation" George Steiner notes that "every people has in its language, a unique body of shared secrecy".

From the book's preface:

"For in fact it is language that speaks. Man begins speaking and man only speaks to the extent that he responds to, that he corresponds with language, and only in so far as he hears language addressing, concurring with him. Language is the highest and everywhere the foremost of those assents which we human beings can never articulate solely out of our own means."
Martin Heidegger, 'Dichterisch Wohnet der Mensch' (GW)

Stakeholders Brainstorm On Language, Culture

By Charles Abah
12 June 2007

Educationalists, language experts as well as linguistics from across the country converged on Lagos for three days last week, precisely from Wednesday, June to the Friday, June 8 to jaw-jaw on the way forward for education vis-à-vis culture.

And in truth, these conference of men and women came in large number, an indication that the first annual national summit entitled: "Language, culture and literary studies for technological emancipation: The 21st century challenges" held a fascination for them.

For on the minds of these stakeholders, the place of language, literature and culture is invaluable in society and therefore there is the need to give the get-together its deserved attention.

Among those who attended the conference put together by the department of Languages of the Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH) included Prof. Segun Adekoya, Dr. (Mrs.) Ranti Ogunbiyi, Dr. Dare Arokoya of North American University, Republic of Benin, Prof. Akinwumi Isola, YABATECH Rector, Mr. Olubunmi Owoso who was represented by the Dean School of Management and Business Studies, Mrs. C. O. Akindele, M. O. J. Ayodele, Ms Ify Marinze and a host of others.

Indeed, they are worried that, in language, religion, dress code, culture, economy and several other spheres of life, that there is crisis and that Nigerians have since jettisioned their own way of doing things.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Prof. Akinwumi Isola who presented the keynote address on the occasion could not hide his disenchantment about this abandonment, as it were.

Delivering a paper, "Development in a cultural void," the renowned academic pointed that there was need to win the citizenry back to their own literature, arguing that it is the only sure way to ensuring sustainable development.

According to him, in language, religion, culture, economy, Nigeria, nay the continent is in dire crisis, requiring urgent solution.

"What writers in African languages need now is a holistic approach to the problem of Africa's endangered cultural heritage. We need to win the people back to their culture by providing riveting stories on radio, television and video films. Another good idea is providing audio cassettes to accompany important novels in African languages to help those who have reading problems.

"We must also struggle to get local languages revitalized by intergrating them into the education system, beginning from the primary level. We can also organize reading system, beginning from the primary level. We can also organize reading competitors of literature in African languages and award good prizes. Established writers' organizations must organize writing workshops to encourage aspiring writers," he said.

Insisting, for instance, that language is the heart of a culture, Prof. Isola noted that God created a unique language for each culture to ensure effective and independent operation.

"When a language dies, the culture atrophies and dies. Language is the hub of the wheel of culture, while other aspects are the spokes operating a robustly effective feedback system . With language the people in a community posses the tool for creating and recording knowledge in memorable fashions to lay the groundwork for acceptable standards in all aspects of life to ensure sustainable development and authentic continuity.

Prof. Isola however, while charging the elite to lead in the vanguard of changing the trend, noted that it was time for all stakeholders to unite to safeguard the nation's cultural heritage.

Individuals, professionals and religion groups, he said can, set worthy cultural examples, speak out against cultural falsehood, seek revitalization of local languages in school as well as ensure the teaching of history to raise culture consciousness amongst youngsters.

"Many aspects of our culture have suffered atrophy. Decay has set in. Before death and petrification arrive, we must all unite in the task of safeguarding our cultural heritage. We can get involved individually by setting worthy cultural examples for our children and students We must fight for the revitalization of local languages by reintegrating them into the education system beginning from the primary level," he stated.

Earlier while declaring the summit open, Mrs. Akindele who represented the YABATECH rector, said the gathering was timely, declaring that language experts are now tinkering on how new words would be readily understood by native speakers.

"There cannot be a better time than now as I am aware that experts in various Nigerian languages are making effort to broaden the horizon of objects, situations, etc that were non-existent hitherto. These new words are now being positively accommodated by language experts to bring the essence of anything and everything under the sun within the general framework that would be readily understood by the native speaker," he noted.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bridge to prosperity?

The greatest human migration in history (from China's rural areas to its rapidly-growing cities/megalopolises) will soon be aided by the world's longest bridge. (GW)

World's longest bridge to trigger eastern China economic boom

By Sean O'Grady
The Independent
June 26, 2007

The Chinese are famous for building the biggest wall in the world and now they're building the largest bridge.

The Hangzhou Bay Bridge will span 36 kilometres across the East China Sea. When it opens next year, it will be the longest trans-oceanic bridge in the world, and seven times longer than the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, the pride of Europe. If it could be moved to the straits of Dover it would link England with France.

It is costing 11.8 billion renminbi (about £800m), of which 70 per cent is being put up by private sources and 30 per cent by state agencies. They will see their investment back via tolls and lower transport costs.

One partner, for example, is Youngor Group, with a 3.5 per cent stake in the scheme. Youngor is a huge conglomerate virtually unknown outside China. Yet Youngor more than likely made the Marks & Spencer or Next shirt you may be wearing. They need better infrastructure to export.

British shoppers are helping them pay for it: globalisation at work. Certainly, the bridge is an immense achievement. They're even building a roundabout in the middle of it with a visitors' centre for day trippers.

However, tourism is not the point. By shortening the journey time from the port of Ningbo to the economic powerhouse of Shanghai by a couple of hours, the bridge will further stimulate regional growth, (about 15 per cent a year).

This will mark another step along the road whereby eastern China, the Shanghai-Nanjing-Hangzhou triangle, becomes one vast sprawling conurbation, a "Greater Shanghai", sucking in poor migrant workers from the countryside. Think of 19th-century Manchester or New York at the turn of the 20th century and, with some multiplication, you have an idea of the scale of the movement of humanity fast approaching.

The bridge is also the last link in the motorway linking Beijing and the north to the booming eastern and southern seaboard including the super-wealthy Hong Kong and Shenzen, the latter the most spectacularly successful of the liberalised "Special Economic Zones" established by Deng Xiao-ping in the 1980s. Rolls-Royce has just opened a showroom there.

So the bridge is a fitting symbol of the new China, as well helping bring it about. It also demonstrates how skewed their economy is. Fixed asset investment accounts for more than 50 per cent of the Chinese national income (against 14 per cent in the UK) - more than any major economy anywhere in history in peacetime.

The mania for construction is all about. Clumps of tower blocks that make our council estates look bucolic; row upon row of villas, all new, many empty; underused Maglev railways. It gives the slight impression that China is one vast Potemkin village.

More seriously, this is an economy with domestic imbalances, every bit as serious as its external ones such as its celebrated trade surplus with the US ($200bn a year). Despite all the Starbucks and KFCs, the taste for Carlsberg and Chivas Regal and new Hyundais, Buicks and Audis on the roads, consumption in China is depressed and uneven.

The investment boom is mirrored by a savings boom, part of which has been channelled into the stock market, which, despite (or because of) its gyrations, is up 50 per cent this year. Everything seems geared to domestic industrial and infrastructure schemes that require huge amounts of energy (usually coal generated and dirty) and raw materials; relatively little is going into private consumption and foreign products and services. Hence that trade surplus and the inflated world price of copper, steel and oil.

Some 700 or 800 million farmers in rural areas and in the west of the country, the majority of China's 1.4 billion souls, don't do much "private consumption". Chinese leaders fret about these problems, not least because of the danger to political stability. The environment is less pressing but will move up the agenda as the air gets harder to breathe and the dusty haze hanging over the cities grows more toxic.

In China you often hear the word "harmony"used by officials. It's a Confucian concept being revived by the Communist Party to replace the Maoist egalitarian ideology quietly abandoned three decades ago. It's almost Blairite in its ambition to wash away class and geographical divisions with words. It's not enough.

The fundamental problem with China is that the market is simply not allowed to function properly. Subsidised energy prices, improving - but weak - private property laws, non-existent intellectual property rights, eccentric interest rate policies, a heavily regulated financial sector and equity and property market bubbles are good examples of dysfunctionality.

It all leads to prodigious waste. China needs £3 of investment to generate an extra £1 worth of output, a much higher figure than in the West. It also needs more energy to generate that output, and is inefficient even compared to rival India. Resources - human and capital - aren't allowed to flow smoothly into the most profitable projects. Greatest of all the muffled market signals is the exchange rate, which the government insists will alter only gradually.

A free-floating (and in effect revalued) renminbi would do much to restructure the economy (and improve relations with America). That, and more, is needed to bridge the gap between China's ambitions and her present condition. This is a nation that needs to create 27 million new jobs a year (roughly the UK's workforce) just to stay still. China is growing fast, but far too wastefully of funds, of commodities and of energy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Wind floating over water

Wind energy technology is moving offshore. This is already occurring in Europe and the United States has a number of offshore wind farms in the planning stages or in the queue.

Building wind farms offshore is decidedly more expensive than onshore. A great deal of that expense is in the support system. foundations have to be able to withstand the rigors of the ocean environment that can include some serious wave action.

As the price of steel increases, it becomes less feasible to consider conventional pile-driven monopile towers for offshore wind systems in waters deeper than 50 feet. As a result, engineers are focusing on floating platform designs.

The late William Heronemus, wind engineer at the University of Massachusetts was not only one of the first people to propose constructing wind turbines offshore, he was also the first to come up with conceptual designs for floating systems! That was back in the 1970's. (GW)

Floating wind turbine may be in sea by 2009

New Zealand News
June 27, 2007

The world's first floating wind turbine could be generating electricity in the North Sea in 2009 under a research pact between Norwegian energy group Norsk Hydro and German engineering firm Siemens.

Floating wind turbines would represent a technological breakthrough for offshore power generation, which has had to rely on shallow sites for turbines installed on the seabed.

"It's attractive to have windmills out at sea, out of sight of land, away from birds' migration routes," said Alexandra Bech Gjoerv, head of Hydro's New Energy division at a signing ceremony to develop floating wind turbine technology.

"We want to build the world's first offshore floating windmill," Bech Gjoerv said. "We want to produce a lot of energy, out of sight."

Under the plan, Hydro will combine its knowledge of floating installations, such as North Sea loading buoys for oil tankers, with Siemens' expertise in building turbines, both on land and standing in shallow waters offshore.

Floating wind turbines are more costly than on land but could supply power both to offshore oil or gas platforms or to coastal cities, cutting emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and defusing objections that turbines are eyesores.

Hydro said a prototype, costing 200 million crowns ($NZ44.5 million), could be in place in the North Sea in 2009 assuming the firm agreed funding this year. The timetable is two years' later than hoped when Hydro unveiled a floating design in 2005.

If tests of the 5 megawatt wind turbine were successful, a small offshore wind park could be built around 2013-14. Siemens said it would spend several million euros on the research project, on which Hydro has already spent 30 million crowns.

A Siemens unit built the first offshore wind park in 1991, with turbines standing on the seabed off Copenhagen.

"Windmills standing in waters deeper than about 30 metres become prohibitively expensive," said Henrik Stiesdal, chief technology officer of Siemens' wind power unit. Hydro's "is the most elegant and simple solution we have seen."

Hydro's design is an upright steel tube with a concrete base about 200 metres long with 80 metres jutting above the water and three blades 60 metres long.

The wind turbine is tied to the seabed by three cables to keep it steady in seas where waves can be 30 metres high. Hydro reckons it can work in waters 700 metres deep.

Stiesdal said other models for wind turbines at sea relied on more complex designs such as giant tripods mounted on the seabed or turbines mounted on floating boat-like structures.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Does a tree still grow in Brooklyn (or Detroit or Cleveland) today?

As the planet's population soars and becomes increasingly urbanized, common sense would suggest that we do everything to make city environments as clean and comfortable as possible. Human settlements, like natural ecosystems, depend upon Nature's critical "services" to sustain healthy local environments.

Many, if not most of the services that Nature provides are irreplaceable (humanly/technologically impossible to replicate) and invaluable (couldn't afford to do it even if were possible) as economists discover when they attempt to assign monetary value to tasks like plant pollination performed by honey bees. The many services provided by trees fall under this category. (GW)

The broad-shouldered maple you pass without notice on your way to the office each day is part of a sprawling urban canopy that helps absorb carbon dioxide, pull particulate matter from the air, prevent floods and keep temperatures at livable levels. How much tree cover a city needs depends on local climate, but in the U.S., the guidelines divide roughly along the Mississippi River, with cities to the east needing a 40% cover and cities to the west a less leafy 25%.

These days things aren't nearly that green. Tree cover from city to city has been measured by any number of studies, so direct comparisons of figures are hard, but across the country, things are trending downward. In the past few decades, Washington has lost half its tree cover; San Diego's is off about a quarter; the cover in cities in Michigan, North Carolina and Florida has fallen to about 27% of what it once was; Chicago and Philadelphia are just 16%. "Urban deforestation," says Ed Macie, an urban specialist with the U.S. Forest Service in Atlanta, "compares with what's going on in the world's rain forests."

As with so many other environmental problems, there are a lot of things causing the tree trouble. In the mid to late 20th century, Dutch elm disease wiped out millions of city trees, and now bark beetles, gypsy moths and emerald ash borers are chomping through millions more, thanks in part to climate change that makes cities more hospitable to the pests. The fact that so many trees exist in cities to be eaten in the first place is a tribute to our greener impulses. Many municipalities planted their now towering canopies right after World War II, but age is taking a toll as a lot of those trees simply reach the end of their life span.

Development too is a problem. In and around cities, single-family homes that once covered only a portion of their lot are being replaced by McMansions that don't leave enough yard space to support large-canopied trees. Sprawl is causing the footprints of cities themselves to increase, with what was once relatively lush land being bulldozed and paved over. Says Macie: "Some regions have been urbanizing at a pace of over 50 forested acres a day, 365 days a year for over 20 years. That's a pretty big deal."

Urban fiscal woes have had a hand as well. Cities unable to keep up with the maintenance of large roadside trees swap them for pygmy-statured hawthorns and crape myrtles. Newly designed parks are replacing trees with no-fuss tennis courts and playgrounds. "Budgets are tight, and no one is giving extra money to plant larger trees," says Greg McPherson, director of the U.S. Forest Service Center for Urban Forest Research.

All this hits the environment hard, starting with air quality. Every tree that's subtracted from a city's ecosystem means some particulate pollution that should have been filtered out remains. In Washington, that amounts to 540 extra tons each year. Simply replanting does not suffice because small, young trees require decades to grow to full size. "A big tree does 60 to 70 times the pollution removal of a small tree," says David Nowak, a project leader with the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Research Station in Syracuse, N.Y. The crown of a large tree is also a freestanding antiflood reservoir, in some cases intercepting so much rainfall that more than 1,500 gal. a year evaporates instead of hitting the ground. Chop down the tree, and you increase the volume of storm water a city must manage--something that affects older cities with aging drainage systems especially severely.

But it's the thermometer that most noticeably reflects the loss of trees. A high canopy prevents sunlight and heat from ever reaching the ground; by contrast, unshaded asphalt soaks up thermal energy and radiates it back, creating what is known as heat islands. In Atlanta, where developers bulldozed 380,000 acres from 1973 to 1999--much of it heavily forested--temperatures have climbed 5º to 8º higher than in the surrounding countryside, according to NASA, which studies global hydrology and climate. Scientists fear the heavily developed corridor between Boston and Washington could be the next big hot zone.

Local governments are finally responding to the problem. More than 2,000 big and small cities have launched long-term planting and preservation programs. In San Francisco, new laws treat mature trees like historic buildings. Los Angeles, whose plans are perhaps the most ambitious, is looking to plant 1 million trees over the next 30 years, though of course the effects would not be felt for a long time. Already 100,000 of those trees are in the ground, most of which should grow to have canopies 40 feet across. Boston, New York City and San Diego all have plans of their own.

For now, the most immediate answer is less the planting strategy than the preservation one, something that can best be achieved by curbing sprawl and downsizing our taste for too-big homes. For people who plan cities as well as those who live there, it's important to remember that most of the time, sidewalks and sycamores are equally important. AN URBAN TIMBERLINE The amount of tree cover U.S. cities need depends on their location. Whatever the goal, most of the cities fall short. [This article contains a chart. Please see hardcopy of magazine.] Goal West of the Mississippi River: 25% Goal East of the Mississippi River: 40% Atlanta: 36.7% Washington: 28.6% Minneapolis: 26.4% New York City: 20.9% San Francisco: 11.9% Denver: 10.4%

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Wetland farming

I'd like to point to a disturbing trend that I hope is on the radar screen of someone at the "highest levels of government" in Washington, though I do not believe that to be the case:
  • For decades now a series of perverse policies and incentives favoring agribusiness have succeeded in forcing local family farms in this countryout of business;
  • Lured by new federal incentives, agribusinesses are preparing to commit vast acreages of land to grow crops for fuels;
  • Now environmental organizations are promoting a "carbon-credit" program of their own for the purpose of enticing farmers in the case described below to convert their farmland to wetlands.

The goal of this effort is laudable, but it strikes me that it still offers the folks who are responsible for inflicting environmental harm to continue what they're doing while enticing those who may be performing the vital service of growing food (perhaps even sustainably) to clean up their mess. It seems like the only land use activity that doesn't make sense these days is growing food locally and responsibly. (GW)

Illinois Project Turns Farmland Into Wetlands

By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post
June 24, 2007

HENNEPIN, Ill. -- As steam rises from flat fingers of water reflecting an iron-gray sky, Donald Hey climbs to the top of an observation tower to watch a flock of American white pelicans huddled among the reeds. These reclaimed wetlands along the Illinois River, a man-made vista of corn and soybeans a few years ago, are now home to marsh grass, rare butterflies and 70,000 waterfowl.

But Hey and his green-minded colleagues have a greater hope for their 2,600-acre pilot project. They aim to prove the existence of a market lucrative enough to inspire landowners to surrender their fields for payments from agencies and companies that are required to comply with clean-water rules.

The untested theory, endorsed by a coterie of environmental groups and supporters, holds that restoring wetlands in the Midwest would be a cost-effective way to filter harmful nitrogen and phosphorous that damage ecosystems all the way down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.

If it works as intended, the system will also expand habitats for animals and waterfowl by returning farmland to its wilder roots, benefiting nature lovers and hunters. The organizers, led by the Chicago-based Wetlands Initiative, call it nutrient farming. The project's directors, now seeking state and federal permits, recently won a $15 million commitment from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Cook County.

"We think it's a good investment. We're confident that it'll work," said Richard Lanyon, the district's general superintendent. "We expect the state of Illinois will adopt water quality standards for nutrients and we will be obligated to meet those standards. We know wetlands remove nutrients."

The Wetlands Initiative project, backed by private donors and organizations including the Nature Conservancy, Argonne National Laboratory and several universities, is premised on cleaning water more cheaply and producing other benefits. It is grounded in science that shows wetland plants capture phosphorus and turn nitrogen into a gas that escapes into the air. They also can remove carbon dioxide from the air, thus reduce the greenhouse gases that many scientists say cause global warming.

"It's like dialysis for water systems," said Jim Nelson, the Nature Conservancy's vice president for public affairs.

Lanyon, whose $1-billion-a-year agency is responsible for treating wastewater from Chicago and 124 other municipalities in an 880-square-mile area, said the test for the nonprofit Wetlands Initiative is to show that a large-scale project can be established and perpetuated on a major river.

A critical challenge is developing an incentive strong enough to persuade landowners to go along.

Hey said the program's success hinges on the ability to create a market of "nutrient credits." Businesses and agencies that discharge waste into public waterways would compensate for fouling the water, the idea goes, by paying others to filter out harmful components.

In this case, the filters would be the grasses and other plant life in wetlands. The sellers of the credits would be the farmers, hunting clubs and other owners who devote their acreage to the network.

At first, the water district would be the main customer, paying farmers for converting their croplands to wetlands, said Hey, Wetlands Initiative's senior vice president. But, he said that would be only the beginning.

Farmers, he added, could also contract rights to hunters and anglers. And, because the wetlands take some carbon dioxide from the air, farmers, could sell carbon credits to industries such as power companies.

"And these are bottomlands that aren't ideal for farming anyway; they're flood areas," said Hey.

"Wetland farming," Nelson predicted, "would pay better than crops."

"There's been a lot of interest in this in Washington," said Albert Ettinger, a lawyer with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "A major pollution issue across the country is nutrients, and it will become more serious with ethanol demand and more corn going in. The problem will only get worse."

Ettinger said that environmentalists are "generally suspicious of trading deals" because the participants who promise to filter and reduce pollutants -- farmers and other landowners -- are often hard to monitor.

"The danger from our point of view is you have no way to enforce that promise," Ettinger said. "It can be a loosey-goosey thing. If the farmer blows it off, what do you do? But the Wetlands Initiative idea is more attractive to me than other trading schemes proposed. . . . They can monitor how polluted the water is going in and coming out."

A U.S. Interior Department study calculated that more than 70 million acres in the Mississippi Basin were drained for agriculture between 1780 and 1980. Six states, including Illinois, lost 80 to 90 percent of their wetlands.

Fertilizer runoff in the region is thought to be the major cause of the growing New Jersey-sized "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, where the flow of nutrients causes massive algae blooms that consume so much oxygen that it kills marine life.

The Chesapeake Bay, which has its own dead zone, is a similar laboratory for strategies to combat excessive nitrogen and phosphorus. Maryland legislators have proposed taxing new construction and using the money to curb runoff, partly by paying farmers to create strips of forest along bay tributaries. They also approved a measure mandating that dish detergent sold in the state must be virtually free of phosphorus.

In 2001 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that nutrient levels in the nation's waterways should be reduced. The government has mandated that state agencies enact water quality standards for phosphorus and nitrogen or adopt proposed federal limits on those nutrients, although there is no deadline yet. Illinois water reclamation districts have predicted it will cost $5 billion to install the necessary technology and $500 million a year to operate it.

Wetland ecosystems tend to be quick to restore themselves. At Hennepin, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, species including the rare Henry's Elfin butterfly and the endangered King Rail bird have returned, and the area has become a birdwatchers' destination.

The Wetlands Initiative, working with 5,000 acres in three parcels, has applied for an $11 million EPA grant.

"It's a tremendous accomplishment. We would love to see this take off all along the Illinois River," said Joyce Blumenshine, a Peoria-based member of the Sierra Club, which has been leading hiking trips at the Hennepin project.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The tides will turn

The oceans naturally play a critical role in moderating the Earth's weather and climate -- keeping temperatures of coastal communities milder in winter and cooler in summer than their inland counterparts.

Now that the global energy/climate crisis has even the United States Congress understanding the need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, there will undoubtedly be a lot of attention focused on the oceans as a source of clean renewable energy. Offshore wind burst upon the stage in a flurry of controversy in the United States seven years ago with the proposal by Cape Wind Associates to construct 130 wind turbines off the coast of Cape Cod.

Some opponents of offshore wind energy were quick to offer tidal and wave energy as more acceptable forms of ocean-based renewable energy, primarily because they promised to have less visual impacts. Some tidal and wave projects have already been constructed and more are on the drawing board. For a variety of reasons (some mentioned in the following article), I think siting of large-scale tidal projects may actually prove trickier and thornier than offshore wind.

Our goal should be to responsibly site offshore wind, wave, tidal and ocean thermal projects and create a sustainable portfolio of diverse ocean-based renewable technologies (GW)

The Next Wave

Ken Silverstein
EnergyBiz Insider
June 22, 2007

The next wave of hydropower may be tidal power, or harnessing the energy of the oceans and rivers to generate pollution-free electricity. It's a budding sector. And producers have come up with a host of new technologies that they say will speed development.

The products that create electricity from the tides include everything from spinning turbines to floating buoys. Like all emerging technologies, those within the tidal power sector are vying with other entities for investment dollars. But firm commitments are necessary not just from utilities to include it as a fuel mix, but also from governments to help the technology get over the hump and into the marketplace -- just as some nations are now trying to foster advances in nuclear and coal technologies.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) performed feasibility studies in this area. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based research arm of the electric utility sector said that unlike hydropower, tidal energy does not require the permanent impediment of water flow and the subsequent harm to aquatic life. Existing tidal plants, it adds, impound the water before releasing it into generators. And newer tools are even more progressive and use underwater turbines that ultimately connect to cables to transport the power.

Existing tidal power plants include a 240 megawatt facility in France, a 20 megawatt plant in Nova Scotia and a 0.5 megawatt one in Russia. EPRI says that not only would new tidal projects create electricity, but they would also bring about a host of new jobs and new economic development. With the proper permitting, it says that the power source is environmentally benign -- a necessity, given the rigors of getting new plants up and operating today. And, furthermore, ocean currents are a lot more predictable than other green energy forms such as wind and solar.

"A relatively minor investment today might stimulate a worldwide industry generating billions of dollars of economic output and employing thousands of people while using an abundant and clean natural resource," says Roger Bedard, ocean energy leader for EPRI. Bedard adds that widespread commercial use of the technology is a decade away. It could supply 10 percent of the nation's energy mix by mid-century, he adds.

In this country, New York's East River is home to the latest tidal power pilot project. There, the tides come in at about 6 feet per second and turn 2 underwater blades that are hooked to a generator to create the electricity. The power is then channeled into cables affixed to the seafloor and then into the electric grid. Right now, the project is just 35-kilowatts and feeds only a couple of businesses. But the project's developer, Verdant Power, says that if all goes well, it will install after 18 months about 200 more turbines that could produce as much as 10 megawatts of electricity.

Those developers add that they have implemented sophisticated tools that continually monitor the area to ensure that no fish are harmed. Since December 2006, none have been displaced or hurt, they say.


As the world's largest solar collectors, oceans in particular generate thermal energy. Waves are unending and therefore have the ability to produce power around the clock. Moreover, seawater is 832 times as dense as air, providing a six mile-per-hour ocean current with more kinetic energy than a 217 mile per hour wind, say experts. To bring the idea into the mainstream, however, scientists and engineers must still show that their work can be done on a large-scale basis.

Like other power projects, they have to go through a painstaking permitting process spearheaded by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Verdant, for example, started that process in 2002 and must spend $2 million to study the effect of its technology on fish.

According to FERC, the last five years have been slow. But the tide is turning. In 2006, it received about 40 applications. That's almost four times more applications than it received in the previous five years. Pacific Gas & Electric is the first major utility to file a permit. It is considering a tidal plant underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

Meantime, Portugal is home to a couple of tidal projects. One project, developed by Ocean Power Delivery, will provide about 2.25 megawatts of wave power. Another is to be built by Norsk Hydro. Annapolis Royal Station in Nova Scotia, Canada, meanwhile, already generates about 20 megawatts of power using tidal power.

But rough waters lay ahead. Environmentally, tidal power plants can impede sea life migration and can affect local ecosystems. The optimal solution, the Department of Energy says, is to carefully select sites that preserve scenic shorelines.

And, economically, there are barriers. Operating tidal plants is reasonable. But building and maintaining them is expensive. Therefore, the return on investment takes a long time. It is furthermore problematic when it comes to getting the power to shore.

The regulatory hurdles, in combination with the difficulty of attracting capital, are significant issues. But they can be overcome. If the current commercial and pilot projects are proven to be successful, then it would encourage other developers to get on board. With more experience and with the mass production of the essential technologies, prices would come down. At the same time, newer technologies that are around today are less problematic and don't block migratory paths.

"We've done our due diligence, and we think this has promise," says Kevin Walsh, who heads renewable energy for GE Energy Financial Services, in a USA Today story.

Without a doubt, tidal power's status has been lifted. Needless-to-say, it has much further to go. But scientists and engineers are working hard to develop newer and better tools to harness this never-ending source of energy. If they are triumphant, then wave power could become another arrow in renewable energy's quiver.

More information is available from Energy Central:

The Promise of Wave Power, EnergyBiz, March/April 2005

The Power of the Tides, EnergyBiz, March/April 2007

Friday, June 22, 2007

Star (as in solar) TREC

In 1972 The Club of Rome published what quickly became a very controversial report called "Limits To Growth". It modeled the consequences of a rapidly growing world population and finite resource supplies, and essentially predicted that the world was headed for some major problems. It was criticized for being too "Malthusian" in tone and for not taking into account human inventiveness and ingenuity.One of the main conclusions of the report was that within a time span of less than 100 years with no major change in the physical, economic, or social relationships that have traditionally governed world development, society will run out of the nonrenewable resources on which the industrial base depends. While some of the assumptions of the model used in the Club of Rome's analysis may not have been absolutely correct, leading to some miscalculations of target dates for milestones like peak oil, I think it would be hard to argue with their conclusion.

The report also concluded that piecemeal approaches to solving the individual problems will not be successful. TREC -- the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation is all about avoiding the Malthusian cul-de-sac by creating synergies via regional/global cooperation. This is the kind of (socio-cultural) innovation that demonstrates that we really do have more options than we think. Very exciting stuff! (GW)

The Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation

The Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) is an initiative, in the field of renewable forms of energy, of The Club of Rome, the Hamburg Climate Protection Foundation and the National Energy Research Center of Jordan (NERC).

The core of TREC is an international network of scientists, politicians and experts in the field of renewable forms of energy and their development. The members of TREC (nearly 50 in number including His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan) are in regular contact with national governments and with private investors, aiming to communicate the benefits that may be obtained from the cooperative use of solar and wind energy and promoting specific projects in this field.

Since it was founded in September 2003, it has developed the DESERTEC concept for energy, water and climate security in EUrope, the Middle East and North Africa (EU-MENA), building on the cooperation of sun-belt and technology belt. Now TREC is making this concept a reality in cooperation with people in politics, industry and the world of finance.

The DESERTEC concept of TREC is to boost the generation of electricity and desalinated water by Solar Thermal Power Plants and wind turbines in MENA and to transmit the clean electrical power via High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines throughout those areas and as from 2020 (with overall just 10-15% transmission losses) to Europe. The technologies that are needed for the realisation of this concept are already fully developed and have been in use for decades. Several studies by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) confirm the viability and usefulness of realising this concept very soon.

The DESERTEC Concept and the Studies

Download a Summary Version: 09 April 2007 (PDF, 350 kb) Arabic, English, German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish The Situation

On the one hand it's certain that up to the middle of the 21st century, humanity will have used up a majority of the fossil fuel resources available on Earth to meet the demands of power plants and vehicles (see also Peak Oil). A noticeable reduction in worldwide demands for fossil fuels is not in sight, although such a reduction is essential to contain the threat of Global Warming. And on the other hand it's also certain, that even if there was some reduction in demand, this would merely postpone the day when fossil fuels run out.

Consequently only a shift to renewable forms of energy can be a long-term solution to looming problems of energy shortages and damage to the environment. Even though there is great potential in the European continent for wind, hydro, geothermal and solar power, the utilization of these sources of energy has a range of limitations in Europe, densely populated as it is. When the renewable sources of Europe and The Middle East/North-Africa were combined, the EU-MENA region would be in a much improved position to shift to clean and secure energy rapidly and economically.

Two Studies by DLR

TREC was founded with the goal of providing clean energy for Europe and for sunbelt countries quickly and economically through a cooperation between the countries of EUrope, the Middle East and North Africa (EU-MENA). Power from deserts, as a supplement to European sources of renewable energy, can speed up the process of cutting European emissions of CO2 and it can help to increase the security of European energy supplies. At the same time, it can provide jobs, earnings, drinking water and other benefits for people in North Africa and the Middle East.

TREC has been involved in the conduct of two studies which have evaluated the potential of renewables in MENA, the expected needs for water and power in EU-MENA between now and 2050 and the potential for an intercontinental electricity transmission grid spanning the whole of EU-MENA. Those two studies were commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conversation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and, starting in 2004, they have been conducted by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The ‘MED-CSP’ study was produced in 2005 and the ‘TRANS-CSP’ study was completed in 2006.

The DESERTEC Concept

Satellite-based studies by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) have shown that, using less than 0.3% of the entire desert areas of the MENA region, Solar Thermal Power Plants can generate enough electricity to supply current demands in EU-MENA, and anticipated increases in those demands in the future. In addition, it has potential to alleviate shortages of fresh water in the MENA regions. The trade winds of southern Morocco may be harnessed to generate additional supplies of electricity. Clean electricity can be transmitted via High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines throughout EU-MENA with overall transmission losses that would be no more than 10-15%. The Club of Rome and TREC are both supporting this DESERTEC concept of putting technology and deserts into service for energy, water and climate security. Countries like Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and the United Emirates have already shown a strong interest in this kind of cooperation.

The Technology

The best solar power technology for providing secure capacity is solar thermal power plants (also called Concentrating Solar Thermal Power, CSP). They use mirrors to concentrate sunlight to raise steam and generate electricity. Excess heat from additional collectors can be stored in tanks of molten salt and then be used to power the steam turbines during the night, or when there is a peak in demand. In order to ensure uninterrupted service during overcast periods or bad weather, the turbines can also be powered by oil, natural gas or biomass fuels. An interesting by-product that can be a great benefit to the local population is that waste heat from the power-generation process can be used to desalinate seawater and to generate thermal cooling.

With the technology of High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) power, transmission losses can be limited to only about 3% per 1000 km. The better solar radiation in MENA outweighs by far the transmission losses across the Mediterranean of 10-15% to Europe. Although hydrogen has in the past been proposed as an energy vector, this form of transmission is very much less efficient than HVDC transmission lines.


The technologies that are needed to realise this concept are already fully developed and have been in use for decades. HVDC transmission lines up to 1.5 GW capacity have been utilized for many years by ABB and Siemens. If more power is to be transmitted, more than one line can be used. At the World Energy Dialogue 2006 in Hanover, Germany, both companies have confirmed that the implementation of a Trans-Mediterranean energy cooperative is, technically, not a problem at all.

Solar Thermal Power Plants such as, for example Parabolic Trough Power Plants, have been in use commercially at Kramer Junction in California since 1985. Further solar power plants are actually planned or in construction e.g. in Nevada and Spain, with German, Spanish and US companies playing a major role. Solar Thermal Power Plants can generate electricity in the deserts of MENA at all times of the day and night, throughout the year. The DLR has calculated that, if Solar Thermal Power Plants were to be constructed in large numbers in the coming years, the estimated cost (including transmission cost) will come down from 9-22 EuroCent/kWh to about 5 EuroCent/kWh.

In order to establish, by 2050, a transmission grid and a capacity of 100 GW of exportable solar power, over and above the domestic needs of Sunbelt countries, the required governmental financial support would be less than 10 billion Euros. Given that level of support for feed-in regulations, the construction of the solar power plants and the necessary transmission grid would very soon be attractive to investors, both private and public. The total investment that would be needed would be about 400 billion Euros over 30 years. An exact investment forecast for the TRANS-CSP scenario has been researched by the DLR.

Security of Supply

Imports of fuels such as uranium, natural gas and oil, are considered to be politically risky, since the global reserves are shrinking inexorably. This is leading to higher prices, to political dependencies and to limits on supplies. By contrast, solar power is plentiful and inexhaustible, and its extended use will lower costs and improve the technologies. Increased demand by Europe would lead to more business opportunities for the MENA countries. This in turn may help to increase political stability and improve relations between Europe and MENA.

Too large a dependence on one country and on only a few power plants can be avoided by diversifying the range of sources of renewable energy, as illustrated by the figures showing large numbers of solar power plants and wind farms in many countries — and by of the use of several different HVDC transmission lines to Europe. Possible worries about security of supply will also be reduced if there are many different owners of the facilities, both public and private.

By 2050, between 10-25% of Europe’s electricity may be clean power that is imported from the deserts. International trade in renewable energy will tend to increase the number of available sources and should help to strengthen international stability. The creation of new jobs in the MENA region should enhance its internal stability. Employment would be created in construction phase, in the maintenance of power plants, and in the generation of electricity and water for local people.

There is also the possibility of generating hydrogen through inexpensive and inexhaustible supplies of energy as a possible substitute for fossil fuels for transport. Furthermore there would be a lower need of biomass to generate electricity, so it could be used to a greater extent for transport.

A way to implement the DESERTEC concept

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The morally bankrupt politics of greed

Need more proof that U.S. foreign policy and national security decisions are held hostage by our addiction to oil? Neither the injustices of apartheid nor the ravages of the AIDS epidemic focused official U.S. attention on African affairs the way the continent's petroleum and natural gas reserves will -- reserves that will grow in importance as Mideast oil peaks and the heads of politicians determined to preserve the status quo remain buried in the desert sands searching for the last drops. (GW)

The Scramble for Africa's Oil

By Christopher Thompson
The New Statesman

Published 14 June 2007

Within a decade, the US will be heavily dependent on African oil. Little wonder the Pentagon is preparing a strategy for the region.

The Pentagon is to reorganise its military command structure in response to growing fears that the United States is seriously ill-equipped to fight the war against terrorism in Africa. It is a dramatic move, and an admission that the US must reshape its whole military policy if it is to maintain control of Africa for the duration of what Donald Rumsfeld has called "the long war". Suddenly the world's most neglected continent is assuming an increasing global importance as the international oil industry begins to exploit more and more of the west coast of Africa's abundant reserves.

The Pentagon at present has five geographic Unified Combatant Commands around the world, and responsibility for Africa is awkwardly divided among three of these. Most of Africa - a batch of 43 countries - falls under the European Command (Eucom), with the remainder divided between the Pacific Command and Central Command (which also runs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Now the Pentagon - under the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defence department - is working on formal proposals for a unified military command for the continent under the name "Africom".

This significant shift in US relations with Africa comes in the face of myriad threats: fierce economic competition from Asia; increasing resource nationalism in Russia and South America; and instability in the Middle East that threatens to spill over into Africa.

The Pentagon hopes to finalise Africom's structure, location and budget this year. The expectation is that it can break free from Eucom and become operative by mid-2008.

"The break from Europe will occur before 30 September 2008," Professor Peter Pham, a US adviser on Africa to the Pentagon told the New Statesman. "The independent command should be up and running by this time next year."

A Pentagon source says the new command, which was originally given the green light by the controversial former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is likely to be led by William "Kip" Ward, the US army's only four-star African-American general. In 2005, Ward was appointed the US security envoy to the Middle East and he is reportedly close to President George W Bush. He also has boots-on-the-ground experience in Africa: he was a commander during Bill Clinton's ill-fated mission in Somalia in 1993 and he served as a military representative in Egypt in 1998. Ward is now the deputy head of Eucom.

America's new Africa strategy reflects its key priorities in the Middle East: oil and counter-terrorism. Currently, the US has in place the loosely defined Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, incorporating an offshoot of Operation Enduring Freedom that is intended to keep terrorist networks out of the vast, unguarded Sahel. But the lack of a coherent and unified policy on Africa is, according to some observers, hampering America's efforts in the Middle East. US military sources estimate that up to a quarter of all foreign fighters in Iraq are from Africa, mostly from Algeria and Morocco.

Moreover, there is increasing alarm within the US defence establishment at the creeping "radicalisation" of Africa's Muslims, helped along by the export of hardline, Wahhabi-style clerics from the Arabian peninsula.

"The terrorist challenge [has] increased in Africa in the past year - it's gotten a new lease on life," according to Pham.

But it is the west's increasing dependency on African oil that gives particular urgency to these new directions in the fight against terrorism. Africa's enormous, and largely untapped, reserves are already more important to the west than most Americans recognise.

In March 2006, speaking before the Senate armed services committee, General James Jones, the then head of Eucom, said: "Africa currently provides over 15 per cent of US oil imports, and recent explorations in the Gulf of Guinea region indicate potential reserves that could account for 25-35 per cent of US imports within the next decade."

These high-quality reserves - West African oil is typically low in sulphur and thus ideal for refining - are easily accessible by sea to western Europe and the US. In 2005, the US imported more oil from the Gulf of Guinea than it did from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. Within the next ten years it will import more oil from Africa than from the entire Middle East. Western oil giants such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, France's Total and Britain's BP and Shell plan to invest tens of billions of dollars in sub-Saharan Africa (far in excess of "aid" inflows to the region).

But though the Gulf of Guinea is one of the few parts of the world where oil production is poised to increase exponentially in the near future, it is also one of the most unstable. In the big three producer countries, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Angola, oil wealth has been a curse for many, enriching political elites at the expense of impoverished citizens. Angola is now China's main supplier of crude oil, supplanting Saudi Arabia last year. The Chinese, along with the rest of oil- hungry Asia, are looking covetously at the entire region's reserves.

Realpolitik of what suits

Looming over West Africa is the spectre of the southern Niger Delta area, which accounts for most of Nigeria's 2.4 million barrels a day. Conflict here offers a taste of what could afflict all of sub-Saharan Africa's oilfields. Since 2003, the Delta has become a virtual war zone as heavily armed rival gangs - with names such as the Black Axes and Vikings - battle for access to pipelines and demand a bigger cut of the petrodollar.

Oil theft, known as "bunkering", costs Nigeria some $4bn (£2.05bn) a year, while foreign companies have been forced to scale back production after kidnappings by Delta militants. Such uncertainties help send world oil prices sky-high.

The Pentagon's new Africa policy is to include a "substantial" humanitarian component, aimed partly at minimising unrest and crime. But the reality is that a bullish China is willing to offer billions in soft loans and infrastructure projects - all with no strings attached - to secure lucrative acreage.

"It's like going back to a Cold War era of politics where the US backs one political faction because their political profile suits their requirements," says Patrick Smith, editor of the newsletter Africa Confidential, widely read in policy circles. "It's a move away from criteria of good governance to what is diplomatically convenient."

According to Nicholas Shaxson, author of Poisoned Wells: the Dirty Politics of African Oil, "[Africom] comes in the context of a growing conflict with China over our oil supplies."

Africom will significantly increase the US military presence on the continent. At present, the US has 1,500 troops stationed in Africa, principally at its military base in Djibouti, in the eastern horn. That could well double, according to Pham. The US is already conducting naval exercises off the Gulf of Guinea, in part with the intention of stopping Delta insurgents reaching offshore oil rigs. It also plans to beef up the military capacity of African governments to handle their dissidents, with additional "rapid-reaction" US forces available if needed. But - echoing charges levelled at US allies elsewhere in the "war on terror" - there are fears that the many authoritarian governments in sub-Saharan Africa might use such units to crack down on internal dissent.

Raising hackles

The increased US military presence is already apparent across the Red Sea from Iraq, where, in concert with Ethiopia, Washington has quietly opened up another front in its war on terror. The target: the Somalia-based Islamists whom the Americans claim were responsible for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Earlier this year, US special forces used air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda militants, killing scores.

FBI interrogators have also been despatched to Ethiopian jails, where hundreds of terror suspects - including Britons - have been held incommunicado since Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in December last year, according to Human Rights Watch. The problem with this more confrontational approach in Africa is apparent. "There's definitely a danger of the US [being] seen as an imperial exploiter," says Shaxson. "The military presence will raise hackles in certain countries - America will have to tread lightly."

Nonetheless, the Pentagon is hoping that Africom will signal a more constructive foreign policy in the region and a break with the past. "Politically [Africa] is important and that's going to increase in coming years," says Pham. "It's whether the US can sustain the initiative."

African oil: the numbers

22% of US crude oil imports came from Nigeria in the first quarter of 2007

25% of US crude imports came from Saudi Arabia in the same period

75% of the Nigerian government's income is oil-related

800,000 Nigerian estimate for barrels of oil lost each day through leaks, stoppages or theft by rebels

$2.3bn cost of building Chevron's Benguela Belize platform off the coast of Angola

Research by Jonathan Pearson

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Google's $10 million clean car challenge

You often hear renewable energy skeptics argue that solar and wind energy technologies don't contribute to lessening our dependence on fossil fuels because they are primarily used to generate electricity.

Google has figured out that one way to address that is to support the development of automobiles that run on solar and wind power. They've joined British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson in issuing a challenge to the general public to develop solutions designed to avoid the worst-case climate change scenario.

While President Bush and the galaxy of candidates vying to replace him struggle to articulate how we might lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, the folks at Google have some pretty good ideas that point in the right direction -- and they're backing them with some green of their own. (GW)

Google plugs in to hybrid car development with $10M

By James R. Healey
June 18, 2007

Internet search giant Google (GOOG) hopes to speed the development of plug-in hybrid cars by giving away millions of dollars to people and companies that have what appear to be practical ways to get plug-ins to market faster.

But the money, announced Monday afternoon at Google headquarters in Mountain Valley, Calif., totals just $1 million so far with another $10 million pledged, which might not be enough to move the needle.

Auto development is crushingly expensive, especially when it involves the kind of advanced battery and powertrain technology used in plug-in hybrids.

Though automakers are tight-lipped about what they spend, bringing a plug-in hybrid to market could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Google is not going to get into the business of building and selling hybrid electrics. Our focus is on accelerating their developing through research, testing and investment," says's Dan Reicher, who was assistant energy secretary under former President Bill Clinton. is the philanthropic arm of

General Motors is the only major automaker that has announced specific plans to market plug-in vehicles, as soon as 2010.

"We applaud them for the investment in plug-in hybrid vehicle technologies," says Brian Corbett, GM's hybrid powertrain spokesman. "Every little bit helps."

The federal government plans to spend $28 million on plug-in component research in fiscal 2008, he notes.

Plug-in hybrids have bigger-capacity batteries than regular gasoline-electric hybrids, so they can go farther using the battery-powered electric motor before they need to switch on the gasoline engine for more power or to recharge the batteries. Plug-ins, as the name implies, can be recharged by plugging them into normal household current, thus trimming even more the need for the internal-combustion engine.

"For plug-ins, which is everybody's goal right now, only lithium-ion batteries will work," because they are smaller and lighter than today's nickel metal hydride hybrid batteries, says Mary Ann Wright, CEO of Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions (JCS). "A plug-in with a 20- or 30- or 40-mile range, you're going to have your whole vehicle filled with nickel metal hydride," she says, making those impractical.

Lithium-ion battery packs have their own issues, beyond being costly. In sizes big enough for automotive uses, they generate considerable heat and require special cooling. And all cells in the battery pack have to be operating identically or fail-safe systems shut down the battery pack.

Nevertheless, "the technology is ready," and needs only a commitment from an automaker to use significant numbers of lithium-ion batteries, says Wright, who was in charge of the Escape hybrid program at Ford Motor before the JCS position.

JCS is a joint venture between U.S. component supplier Johnson Controls and French battery maker Saft. GM has contracted with JCS to develop lithium-ion for GM's Saturn Vue Greenline SUV, a plug-in that would go about 10 miles solely on battery power before the internal-combustion engine kicked in.

GM says the modest electric range is because Vue is an SUV, which weighs more than a regular vehicle and has to be able to carry heavier loads.

Other automakers are researching plug-in hybrids, and some individuals and companies are modifying hybrids into plug-in vehicles. Google says it has a small fleet of Toyota Prius and Ford Escape hybrids modified into plug-ins, and is recording 74 miles per gallon, vs. 41 mpg from its ordinary Prius hybrids.

Even though other car companies haven't announced plug-in plans, "There is a lot going on behind the scenes," Reicher asserts. "I would wager that three or four years from now we'll be looking at commercialization of these vehicles."

He acknowledges, however, that "there's no doubt there are challenges getting to large-scale commercialization of plug-in hybrids. This is quite a do-able step, but we're not there yet. I can't sit here today and tell you it's going to happen."

Google's timing is fortuitous. Congress is discussing ways to boost fuel economy. And gasoline still averages more than $3 a gallon in the U.S., high enough that Americans have been cheering efforts to cut fuel consumption.

The future, according to Google:

• Plug-in hybrids mass produced by major automakers.

• Fuel tanks filled not with gasoline but with bio-fuels, such as ethanol, for the internal-combustion engines to use when necessary.

• Solar carports, where plug-ins could recharge from power generated by the sun.

• Vehicle-to-grid links. The growing number of plug-in hybrid owners could sell the power stored in their cars' batteries to utility companies using special hookups to the utilities' power grid. Google believes utilities would be happy to buy that juice instead of paying very high prices for additional electricity during peak demand, such as 100-degree days when customers are running their home air conditioning full blast. announced six grants Monday of $100,000 to $200,000 each and totaling $1.05 million, to: advocate plug-ins, research vehicle-to-grid technology, promote federal policy that encourages plug-ins, educate people about plug-ins, promote research, design and development of plug-ins.

This summer, will publish on its website a request for proposals for another $10 million. The organization says it will "invest approximately $10 million in technologies and companies featuring plug-in hybrids, fully electric vehicles, vehicle-to-grid capabilities, batteries and other storage technologies, and the application of renewable energy and fuels to green vehicles."