Monday, June 30, 2008

Cape Wind's long and winding road

You have to read between the lines of the recently released U.S. Department of Energy Report: "20 Percent Wind Energy By 2030" but the feds are finally acknowledging that offshore wind must play a major role if the U.S. is to meet its future energy needs and at the same time responsibly address the challenge of climate change. In fact, the report which predicts that the U.S. can generate 20% of its electricity from wind by the year 2030 assumes that turbines operating off the east coast will be supplying as much as 54 gigawatts of electricity by that time.

That's pretty ambitious given that entrepreneur Jim Gordon has been battling for nearly eight years to construct the nation's first offshore wind project. Opponents of his project say they want to help Mr. Gordon find an alternative site to install his 130 turbines -- preferably where they cannot see them.

But that won't wash. The nature and scope of the climate challenge will require everyone and every region to contribute what it can to help achieve a secure and sustainable energy future.

In order to meet the goals set forth in the US Department of Energy "20 by 2030" scenario, all viable sites that pose no environmental or socioeconomic threat will need to be considered for development. That would most certainly include Horseshoe Shoal. (GW)

June 26, 2008

Wind farms are springing up in Midwestern fields, along Appalachian ridgelines, and even in Texas backyards. They're everywhere, it seems, except in the windy coastal waters that lap at some of America's largest, most power-hungry cities. That's partly because the first large-scale effort to harness sea breezes in the U.S. hit resistance from an army led by the rich and famous, waging a not-on-my-beach campaign. For almost eight years the critics have stalled the project, called Cape Wind, which aims to place 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound about five miles south of Cape Cod. Yet surprisingly, Cape Wind has largely defeated the big guns. In a few months it may get authorization to begin construction. Meanwhile, a string of other offshore wind projects is starting up on the Eastern Seaboard, in the Gulf of Mexico, and in the Great Lakes.

Much of the credit—or blame—for this activity goes to Jim Gordon, the man who launched Cape Wind in 2000. His goal is to provide up to 75% of the electric power on Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard by tapping the region's primary renewable resource: strong and steady offshore breezes. He has methodically responded to every objection from Cape Cod property owners and sometime-vacationers, ranging from heiress Bunny Mellon and billionaire Bill Koch to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "This is like trying to put a wind farm in Yellowstone National Park, as far as we're concerned," says Glenn Wattley, CEO of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the opposition's lobbying arm.

Since 2000, Cape Wind's Gordon has burned through $30million of his own wealth, much of it to pay for studies of the site. The result is a four-foot-high stack of environmental reports, including three federal applications looking at the wind farm's potential impact on birds, sea mammals, local fishermen, tourism, and more. "We've gone through a more rigorous evaluation process than any prior energy project in New England," says Gordon, who built natural-gas-fired power plants before starting Cape Wind.

Victory is by no means certain. Cape Wind could yet bog down in litigation or be nixed by the feds, Gordon concedes. Even if Washington O.K.'s the project, he must find a way to finance it. Expected costs have more than doubled in the last eight years, to over $1.5billion, by some estimates. And assuming the funding comes through, engineering and construction could drag on for three or more years.

Regardless of how this all plays out, Gordon has secured his spot as one of U.S. wind power's pioneers. When it comes to building natural gas and oil rigs in federal waters, energy companies must follow clear government rules. But until Cape Wind floated its first proposal, Washington had never spelled out how to develop an offshore wind farm. Gordon's plan prodded the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that oversees energy extraction from public lands, to take action. The regulators hope to release detailed rules for utilizing wind, wave, and tidal power by yearend, at which point the path will be cleared for applications from a dozen or so wind projects in federal waters, with nearly as many under way in state areas. "We'll see an incredible flurry of proposals to tap ocean resources for clean and renewable energy," says Maureen A. Bornholdt, program manager at the MMS's Office of Alternative Energy Programs.

It's easy to understand why entrepreneurs are rushing in. Winds at sea blow stronger and more steadily than on land, where they are slowed by forests, hills, and tall buildings. Unlike terrestrial winds, sea breezes also tend to keep blowing during the hottest times of the day, when the most power is needed. Within a few miles of much of the U.S. coastline, in almost any direction, wind resources are more abundant and dependable than anywhere outside the Great Plains. Exploiting this resource could supply about 5% of all U.S. electricity by 2030, says the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Putting turbines in open water is not a cheap proposition. It costs up to twice as much as in rural expanses. But the economics still work well in the Northeast, where open land is scarce, electricity is pricey, and demand for power keeps surging as populations swell. The Northeast is heavily dependent on electricity from natural gas, which has doubled in price in the past year. What's more, most state governments in this region have passed laws dictating that a growing share of power must come from renewable resources. These states "have to build offshore," says Bruce Bailey, president and CEO of AWS Truewind, which assesses wind resources. "They won't be able to meet their [renewables goals] if not."

In Hull, Mass., a faded Victorian-era beach town just across the bay from Boston, there's already a windmill spinning above the local high school and another over the dump. Four more turbines are planned for the waters just a mile and a half from one of Greater Boston's busiest public beaches. Thanks to the two functioning windmills, power rates in the town haven't risen in seven years, although they've doubled statewide. With four more, Hull could meet all of its needs with homegrown energy, says town manager Phil Lemnios.

Throughout New England, shrunken shipbuilding and fishing towns have begun to view offshore wind power as a source of investment and jobs. In Rhode Island, a consortium of fishermen is vying with Bluewater Wind, a unit of wind-farm developers Babcock & Brown (BNB), to put turbines in state waters near Block Island. Across the region, planners hope to reanimate shipyards by building not just turbines and foundations but also the specialized ships needed to transport and erect supersized towers and blades. In Delaware, Bluewater Wind has a project in development that could produce as much as 600 megawatts 12 miles from Rehoboth Beach; it scored an industry first in late June, when it inked a long-term contract to supply electricity to Delmarva Power. Bluewater's project may well become the first functioning offshore wind farm in North America.

The shores of the Great Lakes, with their strong winds and shallow waters, are also luring developers. Cleveland is among a handful of cities planning wind farms. With offshore wind as a driver, the Rust Belt city wants to remake its waning industrial base into a launchpad for green energy projects.

Down in the Gulf of Mexico, a consortium of oil-and-gas-industry veterans has leased tracts stretching from Galveston, Tex., to the Mississippi Delta to develop offshore wind. Their startup, Wind Energy Systems Technology, plans to adapt retired oil rigs to cut the cost of building offshore plants to a fraction of current prices, says CEO Herman J. Schellstede. The rigs also let them site the turbines farther out at sea. Today's offshore windmills are built on gigantic steel tubes bored into the seabed. It's a proven approach, but it demands a lot of costly steel and can't go too deep. Moving farther offshore on rigs allows developers to tap stronger winds—and the turbines are out of sight.

Europe is some 15 years ahead of the U.S. in exploiting offshore wind. Hundreds of giant windmills already dot the North Sea, with more than 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity. This head start provides an edge to equipment suppliers such as Denmark's Vestas Wind Systems and Germany's Siemens (SI), the only two companies building offshore turbines in large volumes today. By 2020, Europe hopes to generate a quarter of all its electricity offshore.

As wind farms are moved into deeper water, they can take advantage of the oil sector's offshore drilling knowhow, says John Westwood, CEO of Douglas-Westwood, a London-based market analyst that focuses on offshore energy. The U.S. has decades of expertise in this area, he adds. Schellstede's company, for example, is looking at a new design that adapts multilegged platforms from the oil business. These rigs could be stable enough to withstand a hurricane and would use less steel than the current generation of coastal wind farms.

Back in Cape Cod, the talk is all about deep water, too. In June, real estate agents, marina managers, and property owners met at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast to discuss the latest proposal. BlueH Technologies of the Netherlands has dreamed up a project roughly the size of Cape Wind but over 30 miles out to sea, in depths of 160 feet. BlueH is testing a design with novel two-bladed turbines that uses floating windmills chained to huge anchors. The company faces years of costly development. Still, the region's die-hard opponents of Cape Wind have embraced the plan as a better solution for Cape Cod. In a decade or so, those foes may find themselves enjoying ample supplies of green power from not one, but four or more offshore farms.

Aston is Energy & Environment editor for BusinessWeek in New York .

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Is the sky the limit?

Yesterday's post was a plea to free one's imagination. Today's is one example of the result of such an exercise.

Are rotating skyscrapers designed to generate electricity even practical/sustainable? (For example, it's not clear to me how much energy it will take to rotate the building and where that will come from. Bucky Fuller would want to know how much the darn things weigh).

We'll never know the answers to these and other questions and design practical solutions to our growing list of "crises" if we don't "dare to be naive".

When I visited China last December I was struck by the number of high rise apartment buildings that were being constructed to accommodate the historic rural-urban migration that's underway. They were going up almost side-by-side with new coal-fired electricity plants -- one new plant each week.

One thing's for sure the concept is a heck of a lot more interesting than the status quo. (GW)

Rotating skyscraper plans for Moscow, Dubai -- N.Y.?

By Sinead Carew
June 24, 2008

NEW YORK (Reuters) - After taking in an expansive view of Manhattan from a friend's apartment, architect David Fisher came up with a way to make the most of a good location -- a rotating building.

Fisher now hopes to build his so-called dynamic towers -- prefabricated sun- and wind-powered skyscrapers that will keep changing shape as each floor rotates around a central axis -- in Moscow and Dubai by the end of 2010.

A 70-floor building has received planning approval for Moscow, and an 80-floor building in Dubai is awaiting approval. Instead of just one revolving floor, like other buildings around the world, every floor in Fisher's towers will rotate.

The Florence-based Israel-born architect, who has never built a skyscraper before, says he would also like to build a third dynamic tower in New York City, but currently has no firm plans for such a project.

"I call this building a machine for living," he told a news conference at New York's more traditionally designed Plaza Hotel on Tuesday.

Russian real estate developer Mirax Group is behind the Moscow tower, while the planned Dubai building is backed by Fisher's Rotating Tower Technology Company.

Along with swimming pools and gardens, the buildings will also be fitted with car elevators so that residents can park right outside their homes.

The towers are expected to generate enough electricity for themselves and other nearby buildings from solar panels and wind turbines fitted horizontally between each floor.

People who own an entire floor will be able to simply speak to control the rotation, with speeds varying from an hour to three hours for each full rotation.

Leslie Robertson, who was the structural engineer for New York's World Trade Center Twin Towers, which collapsed in September 2001 after being hit by two hijacked planes, is an engineering consultant for Fisher's project.

Asked if New Yorkers would feel queasy about a dynamic high-rise, Robertson conceded it would not suit everybody. "If you're concerned about issues like that you don't take the apartment at the top, you take a townhouse," he said.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Freedom to imagine

Time out. Society is facing a veritable plethora of serious problems. No question about it. It's important that we give them our serious attention. But maybe we could do ourselves (and perhaps even the world) a favor by not taking ourselves too seriously all of the time.

I've always thought that there's real value in occasionally loosening up and allowing ourselves to transcend the "real world" in order to gain a different perspective on things. At last my suspicions have been validated.

It's the weekend. Sit back, kick off your shoes, put your feet up and feel free to let go.

Who knows where an epiphany might be hiding? (GW).

Inspired by a Bunny Wabbit

By Billy Collins

Wall Street Journal

June 28, 2008

The freedom in cartoons to transcend the laws of basic physics, to hop around in time and space, and to skip from one dimension to another has long been a crucial aspect of imaginative poetry.

There he leans:
cracking wise,
biting his bright orange carrot
bugging the world
speed demon
and master of disguise
he is everywhere at once
and spectacularly eared
he is armed with dynamite
he is the only one
who really knows what's up.

Whenever a writer is interviewed or subjected to a Q&A session after a reading, one of the questions that always comes up has to do with influence. If only we knew who made the author jealous enough to move him to emulation, a secret would be revealed and the mysteries of the creative process would be clarified. Such a curiosity is akin to wanting to trace the lineage of a foundling abandoned one snowy night on the steps of a convent. Locate the parents and discover the nature of the child. The question of literary influence itself is a tricky one. For one thing, it offers the author the opportunity to duck it by substituting for his actual influences certain names the dropping of which is designed to impress. Thus, an author may actually choose his parents by devising a more respectable list of forebears than the stuff that really formed his imagination or made him reach for a pen. A poet, for instance, might stroke his chin thoughtfully, look up at the ceiling, as if his influences resided there like putti, and say "Well, Yeats, of course. And Eliot. We mustn't leave out Eliot."

Another tendency that limits and skews the discussion is that writers almost invariably stay within their own genre when pressed to identify influential predecessors. Poets name poets. Novelists nod to other novelists. But the truth is that influence enters us from all sides. It is the chlorine in the flood of experience that spills continuously into the conscious mind. A short-story writer may have been influenced by 18th-century Dutch painting as much as anything else -- or by his mother's cooking. A painter may have been marked by her love of album covers or the childhood love of her cousin. And with that said, I am free to confess that my own poetry would have not developed in the direction it did, for better or worse, were it not for the spell that was cast over me as a boy by Warner Bros. cartoons. The very first time I heard the pulse-quickening blast of the zany theme music by Carl Stalling -- enough to bring any American boy to attention -- and saw the colorful bull's-eye emblazoned on the big screen, I was hooked.

Happy only
when he is gardening alone
far from conversation
and the terrible stammering
far from Petunia, nag and tease
just resting on a hoe
as he contemplates
the blue background of his flat world --
a Zen pig.

I think what these animations offered me besides some very speedy, colorful entertainment was an alternative to the static reality around me that dutifully followed the laws of the physical world. The brothers Warner presented a flexible, malleable world that defied Newton, a world of such plasticity that anything imaginable was possible. Bugs Bunny could suddenly pull a lawn mower, or anything else that might come in handy, out of his pants pocket, and he wasn't even wearing pants. Flattened by a 500-pound anvil, Wile E. Coyote could snap back into shape in a heartbeat. A box containing a pair of Acme rocket-powered roller skates would arrive in the desert with no sign of a delivery service (though you suspected it would be called Ace Delivery).

Plus, characters could jump dimensions, leaping around in time and space, their sudden exits marked by a rifle-shot sound effect. Anticipating the tricks of metafiction, these creatures could hop right out of the world of the cartoon and into our world, often Hollywood itself to consort with caricatures of Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Monroe. Or Bugs would do the impossible by jumping out of the frame and landing on the drawing board of the cartoonist who was at work creating him. This freedom to transcend the laws of basic physics, to hop around in time and space, and to skip from one dimension to another has long been a crucial aspect of imaginative poetry. Robert Bly developed a poetics based on the notion of psychic "leaping," where the genius of a poem is measured by its ability to leap without warning from the conscious to the unconscious and back again. Bly's short poem "After Long Busyness" provides an example of leaping by association and captures the skittish motions of thought:

I start out for a walk at last after weeks at the desk.
Moon gone, plowing underfoot, no stars; not a trace of light!
Suppose a horse were galloping toward me in this open field?
Every day I did not spend in solitude was wasted.

As an early devotee of Looney Tunes cartoons, I was fascinated by the strange freedoms of these characters, especially their ability to shape-shift -- like Ovid on speed. Clearly, Bugs Bunny knows as much about leaping, not to mention whirling, zooming and, of course, hopping, as any of the great Spanish poets whom Bly credits with the knack of slipping through walls from one room of the psyche into another. Bugs can be in two places at once, which he is whenever Elmer Fudd points his shotgun down one of the two holes of the rabbit's underground residence. And just as Pirandello and other modern dramatists sought to break down the actor/audience barrier, so Looney Tunes allowed an animated character to talk directly to the movie house audience or to criticize the very hand of its animators, thereby betraying the text itself. In one cartoon which mixes animation with a live action sequence, Porky Pig barges into producer Leon Schlesinger's office demanding to be let out of his contract. Another cartoon opens quietly with the figure of Elmer Fudd in full hunting regalia tip-toeing left to right through the woods. Then, as if noticing a noisy late-comer to the theater or the sound of a shaken box of candy, Fudd stops, turns to face the audience, puts one of his four fingers to his lips and says in a seething whisper: "Shhhh! It's wabbit season." Ah, Elmer, you unlikely modernist! What were your creators reading? Was animator Chuck Jones curling up at night with a volume of French surrealist poetry?

He tears across the landscape, blabbering
in lunatic flight
from those who would
pluck his jet feathers
wring the stem of his neck
twist his yellow beak
flatten him under steamrollers
his brain is a gumball and with it
he tears across the landscape, haywire
jabbering and amok
outdistancing clouds of dust.

Strange as it may seem, these cartoons also provided me with an education about things that were not part of the curriculum of a Catholic grammar school of the 1950s. The nuns at St. Joan of Arc in Queens were adroit at teaching me spelling, geography, and lots of catechism, but Looney Tunes cartoons (despite their frivolous name) introduced me to much that lay beyond the precincts of a fairly sheltered childhood. They gave me my first taste of worldliness itself.

As unsophisticated as any nine year old, I had never been to an opera when I saw Chuck Jones's Wagnerian parody in which Bugs sings Brünnhilde's role in a blonde wig stuffed under a helmet with horns. The first symphony orchestra I ever saw was a cartoon one with a fat man playing a tiny flute and a studious-looking dog with triangle duties -- plus, a conductor wielding a "baton" and wearing "tails." There I saw my first bassoon. Before I had ever been to a French restaurant, there on the movie screen was a canine waiter twirling his mustache and pouring wine for a poodle and his date at "Café de Paris." I was innocent of undertakers until I saw a large dog in a black suit measuring Daffy Duck for a coffin. I didn't know what "running away from home" meant until I saw Porky Pig walking toward the vanishing point with a stick over his shoulder, a polka dot kerchief tied to it containing the sum of his material possessions. I'm not sure I knew what Champagne was until I saw Pepé Le Pew popping a bottle while dressed in smoking jacket (huh?) and fancy slippers. A bullfight, badminton, a punch-clock, a barbershop complete with hot-towel cooker and razor strop -- all of these pieces of the adult world were delivered to me in Technicolor episodes six minutes long. This was the length that was set as a minimum for a "short" by movie theatre exhibitors and as a maximum by a frugal Leon Schlesinger. In the labor-intensive days before digital, one second of film involved 12 to 24 drawings. A good animator could produce just 15 seconds per week. In the end, it was the perfect-size package to deliver all this wacky news.

The mailbox in front of the neat cottage
spells out the unfortunate name.
This morning the homebody
is singing in his sunny kitchen
dum-dee-dum, waiting
for the tea water to boil.
Later he will have his nap,
the enormous pink head
rolling on the pillow
dreaming again of the wabbit,
the private carrot patch.
Waiting by his bed
is the shotgun and the ridiculous hat
for he is the human.

The Mount Rushmore of Warner Bros. cartoons would be composed of the not-so-solemn faces of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and the token human, Elmer Fudd. As a young viewer, I had no doubts about the superiority of this gang to the characters of Disney. Disney cartoons were tame, conventional, Apollonian. Warner Bros.' were manic, unnerving, iconoclastic, spastic, Dionysian. The most telling difference was that the Disney characters had romantic partners, spouses, even families of a kind. There was something treacly about the scenes where Mickey and Minnie's smooches were accompanied by all those little red hearts floating in the air. Donald had his Daisy and somehow three nephews even though their parent, the duck's brother or sister, was never mentioned. The Disney characters were socialized, domesticated, bourgeois. Warner Bros. characters, with the exception of hen-pecked Porky and his Petunia, were mavericks -- unregenerate, anti-social. There is no Mrs. Fudd. And a Mrs. Daffy Duck? Inconceivable. Sex in the Warner toons was more likely to be transgressive and connected to deception, especially cross-dressing. Bugs is quick to put on a frock and kiss Elmer on the mouth but only for the purpose of fooling his perennial victim. Disney-romance led to marriage. Warner Brothers-romance was linked to guile and aimed at redress.

My taste for these cartoons would grow into adulthood obsession, which I shared with a few friends. One fellow addict was Todd McEwen, whose novel "Arithmetic" ends with a tour-de-force paean to these cartoons, his language keeping pace with the pictorial speed of animation. My pal Michael Shannon was not only a fan but a brilliant re-enactor of many famous Looney Tunes scenes. He and I would habitually visit the Museum of Cartoon Art, then housed in a castle-like building in Rye, N.Y., where we would ignore Popeye, Pogo, Archie, and other distractions to sit in an otherwise empty screening room and order from a menu of Warner Bros. classics. I remember several debates we had on the directorial merits of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, always arriving at the same conclusion: Freleng's work was energetic and zany, but Chuck Jones was blessed or cursed with a touch of divine madness.

Mr. Jones's illustrated autobiography, "Chuck Amuck," is peopled by a group of illustrators and idea-men like Tex Avery, Robert McKimson and Mike "Road Runner" Maltese, plus musical director Carl Stalling, sound-effects genius Treg Brown, and, of course, Mel Blanc who did nearly all the voices. Strange to think of these grown men, usually photographed in dark suits and ties, gathering in their own shack on the Warner Bros. lot to devise new ways for a rabbit to hoodwink a duck. But under the zaniness, Mr. Jones saw only human behavior. As he puts it: "Bugs Bunny is simply...trying to remain alive in a world of predators; Elmer Fudd considers himself a simple sportsman -- he hunts only for the "thwill" of it...Wile E. Coyote and Sylvester are simply trying to get something to eat." And what could be more human than the allegorical battle of cat and canary? Incidentally, one gem found in his book is that the actual camera crane used in the animation studios (up to 6,000 drawings had to be photographed per cartoon) was indeed an Acme product.

And speaking of the good people who supplied the hungry coyote -- dinner napkin hopefully tied around his neck -- with his anvils, TNT plungers, and helicopter-in-a-backpack, one sign of the unflagging interest in Looney Tunes is the recent publication of "The Acme Catalog." Now anyone can purchase a Rocket Sled, a Y-Shaped Branch, or -- my favorite -- Instant Tunnel Paint. In his introduction, the Vice-President of Customer Service claims that the business "is guided by a simple two-word philosophy: caveat emptor -- 'the customer is always right,' or something." And that is evidence enough to reassure me that the Looney Tunes flag still flies high -- the unmistakable bull's-eye and Porky Pig letting us know that that is, indeed, all, folks.

The four accompanying poems appeared in Billy Collins's first publication, "Pokerface," from 1977.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Renewable realism, vision and courage

I was in the UK recently visiting with energy officials as part of a clean energy tour arranged by UK Trade & Investment. I was impressed and encouraged by the level of commitment and political courage that government officials are displaying as thet approach the challenges of climate change. I had opportunities to speak with representatives from the UK Trade and Investment Office, The Crown Estate, UK National Grid and Members of Parliament. To a person they cited the absolute need to pursue an aggressive strategy to install an additional 25 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030.

They clearly understand that this will not be easy. They also understand that this is their best sustainable option.

Realism, vision and courage. What a refreshing and hopeful combination. (GW)

Renewable optimism

Thousands of turbines, millions of electric cars: a wind of change has swept through energy policy

By Fred Pearce

Guardian UK

June 26, 2008

Britain's renewable energy policies are in a mess. Last year the government "obligated" power companies to make 6.7% of their electricity renewable; the industry could manage only 4.7%. We lag ever further behind Germany, Denmark and many others. Something had to be done. And this time, just maybe, the government is serious with its new consultation document on renewables, published today.

There are plenty of reasons to be cynical. Twenty years ago Chris Patten, the then Tory environment secretary, promised a renewable Britain. A decade ago Labour's Michael Meacher pledged 10% renewable electricity by 2010.

So why the optimism this time? Why should we believe ministers' promises to deliver 15% of all our energy (not just electricity) from renewables by 2020, and to construct7,000 wind turbines – an enterprise they say will cost £10bn?

Three reasons. First, the announcement comes from the business department, which is in charge of keeping the lights on, and not the environment ministry. Second, there are signs of joined-up thinking, for example in how to connect all those turbines to our homes. Earlier this week ministers announced plans for a new offshore national grid, costing £3bn, to collect the 10%-15% of our power they say will be generated by offshore wind turbines by 2020.

And third, as John Hutton, the business secretary, puts it, there is no alternative. Britain is committed, as a downpayment on decarbonising the EU, to that 15% target. And with transport mired in biofuels controversy, the strategy document suggests 30%-35% of our electricity generation will have to come from renewables: mostly wind, but with walk-on parts for solar and perhaps tidal and wave power.

Does the government have the guts for the job? There will certainly be opposition. The Daily Mail is already complaining that the fleet of wind turbines "will cost each home £4,000". And for all the talk of offshore wind power, the government is still planning a sixfold increase in onshore turbines, mostly in Scotland, which will create a formidable new army of tartan nimbys.

The energy industry says the main reason it has failed to hit its renewable targets is that thousands of wind turbines are mired in planning delays. So this week the government spun its plans for streamlining planning as a green initiative. But short-circuiting planning inquiries will create a lot of enemies among the very people it needs to back its plans.

Might locally generated power be easier? Germany has solar panels on hundreds of thousands of roofs, generating power for homes and selling spare to the grid. Some dream of an entirely "distributed" energy generation system, with a mini power plant in every backyard, and big power stations redundant.

The government's strategy is notably cautious here, and that makes sense. The economies of scale in large electricity production are considerable. Big is beautiful, small is costly and inefficient.

Though one question is: how big? Ministerial enthusiasm extends to reviving a decades-old scheme to tap the phenomenal tidal range of the Severn estuary, which some see as Britain's equivalent of China's notorious Three Gorges hydroelectric dam. My bet is that will never be built.

How far can renewables go? Britain may only rarely have days when the wind blows nowhere, but renewables can be unreliable. Witness the current plight of New Zealand, which is rationing power because drought has emptied its hydroelectric reservoirs.

Some say the old warhorses of the energy age, coal and nuclear power stations, will still be needed to cope with windless, sunless, waveless days. Probably so. But one solution – oddly barely touched on in the strategy — is electricity storage.

Right now, the only really big electricity store in Britain is dug into the north Welsh mountains at Dinorwig. When there is spare power, the system pumps water to a reservoir at the top of the hill; when the grid needs an urgent top-up, the water is poured downhill through turbines. It is neat and hugely effective. We need more of those to make the most of our renewables.
We could take a leaf from Norway, whose energy council this week announced plans to turn the country into "Europe's battery", by generating power from huge new offshore wind farms and storing it by pumping water between its many hydroelectric reservoirs.

And one day soon we could all be storing power for the grid – thanks to electric cars. Those plug-in city runabouts are getting bigger. A new generation of lithium-ion batteries will be powering new hybrid vehicles by 2010.

Electric cars will change everything, as the government's plan acknowledges. First, we won't need oil or liquid biofuels. By 2020, millions of cars could run on wind or solar, or whatever was supplying the grid at the time. But just as important, by charging their batteries at night, every car would be acting as a power store for the grid, balancing periods of high and low demand.

However, what is needed most is in fact none of the above, which all address our supply-side fixation. It is the cutting of energy consumption via increased efficiency that is most essential, unglamorous as it is. So one of the most encouraging features of the strategy is its promotion of energy efficiency to the front rank of energy policy. And one of the most depressing is that it postpones decisions on how to do it for another day.

After two recent white papers and a host of half-hearted initiatives, this government's energy policy has been a laughing stock, with rising imports of coal the only beneficiary. This new strategy is coherent and makes environmental, industrial and economic sense. And yet it is only a consultation document. The high winds and choppy waters of public opinion await.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Global warming early warnings

It's hard to believe that it was twenty years ago that NASA's James Hansen testified before Congress and warned the nation that global warming was real and underway. I wish I could say that we've come a long way since then, but it's actually alarming how little the U.S. has done in response to Dr. Hansen's 1988 clarion call.

In hindsight history will probably not be kind to us when the last decades of the twentieth century are reviewed.

Nature may be even less forgiving during the first two decades of the 21st. For a bit more perspective: earlier this week in New York at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge celebration honoring John Todd, Bucky's grandson read a passage from his introduction to a new edition of Bucky's "Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth" (originally published in 1969). Bucky was speaking at a US Department of Labor meeting in 1965:
"...It is also dawning upon industrial society that it could be even more successful while depending exclusively upon the potentially enormous energy-income -- in contradistinction to living almost exclusively by burning up our capital principal, that is our "savings-account" energy in the form of fossil fuels.

The natural energy "income" for instance, the harnessable ocean tides, wind, sunpower and alcohol-producing vegetation, can be made to flow through the wires and pipes to bring adequate energy to bear on the levers, to step-up man's physical advantage efficiently to take care of all of humanity."

Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near On Global Warming

By James Hansen

25 June, 2008
The Huffington Post

I testified to Congress about global warming, 20 years after my June 23, 1988 testimony, which alerted the public that global warming was underway. There are striking similarities between then and now, but one big difference.

Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public. Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next president and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

Otherwise it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity’s control.

Changes needed to preserve creation, the planet on which civilization developed, are clear. But the changes have been blocked by special interests, focused on short-term profits, who hold sway in Washington and other capitals.

I argue that a path yielding energy independence and a healthier environment is, barely, still possible. It requires a transformative change of direction in Washington in the next year.

On June 23, 1988 I testified to a hearing, organized by Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado, that the Earth had entered a long-term warming trend and that human-made greenhouse gases almost surely were responsible. I noted that global warming enhanced both extremes of the water cycle, meaning stronger droughts and forest fires, on the one hand, but also heavier rains and floods.

My testimony two decades ago was greeted with skepticism. But while skepticism is the lifeblood of science, it can confuse the public. As scientists examine a topic from all perspectives, it may appear that nothing is known with confidence. But from such broad open-minded study of all data, valid conclusions can be drawn.

My conclusions in 1988 were built on a wide range of inputs from basic physics, planetary studies, observations of on-going changes, and climate models. The evidence was strong enough that I could say it was time to “stop waffling.” I was sure that time would bring the scientific community to a similar consensus, as it has.

While international recognition of global warming was swift, actions have faltered. The U.S. refused to place limits on its emissions, and developing countries such as China and India rapidly increased their emissions.

What is at stake? Warming so far, about two degrees Fahrenheit over land areas, seems almost innocuous, being less than day-to-day weather fluctuations. But more warming is already “in the pipeline,” delayed only by the great inertia of the world ocean. And climate is nearing dangerous tipping points. Elements of a “perfect storm,” a global cataclysm, are assembled.

Climate can reach points such that amplifying feedbacks spur large rapid changes. Arctic sea ice is a current example. Global warming initiated sea ice melt, exposing darker ocean that absorbs more sunlight, melting more ice. As a result, without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic soon will be ice-free in the summer.

More ominous tipping points loom. West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming. These two-mile-thick behemoths respond slowly at first, but if disintegration gets well under way, it will become unstoppable. Debate among scientists is only about how much sea level would rise by a given date. In my opinion, if emissions follow a business-as-usual scenario, sea level rise of at least two meters is likely within a century. Hundreds of millions of people would become refugees, and no stable shoreline would be reestablished in any time frame that humanity can conceive.

Animal and plant species are already being stressed by climate change. Species can migrate in response to movement of their climatic zone, but some species in polar and alpine regions will be pushed off the planet. As climate zones move farther and faster, climate change will become the primary cause of species extinction. The tipping point for life on the planet will occur when so many interdependent species are lost that ecosystems collapse.

The shocking conclusion, documented in a paper2 I have written with several of the world’s leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million), and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Shocking corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation.

These conclusions are based on paleoclimate data showing how the Earth responded to past levels of greenhouse gases and on observations showing how the world is responding to today’s carbon dioxide amount. The consequences of continued increase of greenhouse gases extend far beyond extermination of species and future sea level rise.

Arid subtropical climate zones are expanding poleward. Already an average expansion of about 250 miles has occurred, affecting the southern United States, the Mediterranean region, Australia and southern Africa. Forest fires and drying-up of lakes will increase further unless carbon dioxide growth is halted and reversed.

Mountain glaciers are the source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people. These glaciers are receding world-wide, in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky Mountains. They will disappear, leaving their rivers as trickles in late summer and fall, unless the growth of carbon dioxide is reversed.

Coral reefs, the rainforest of the ocean, are home to one-third of the species in the sea. Coral reefs are under stress for several reasons, including warming of the ocean, but especially because of ocean acidification, a direct effect of added carbon dioxide. Ocean life dependent on carbonate shells and skeletons is threatened by dissolution as the ocean becomes more acid.

Such phenomena, including the instability of Arctic sea ice and the great ice sheets at today’s carbon dioxide amount, show that we have already gone too far. We must draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide to preserve the planet we know. A level of no more than 350 ppm is still feasible, with the help of reforestation and improved agricultural practices, but just barely — time is running out.

The steps needed to halt carbon dioxide growth follow from the size of fossil carbon reservoirs. Coal towers over oil and gas. Phase out of coal use except where the carbon is captured and stored below ground is the primary requirement for solving global warming.

Oil is used in vehicles, where it is impractical to capture the carbon. But oil is running out. To preserve our planet we must also ensure that the next mobile energy source is not obtained by squeezing oil from coal, tar shale or other fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel reservoirs are finite, which is the main reason that prices are rising. We must move beyond fossil fuels eventually. Solution of the climate problem requires that we move to carbon-free energy promptly.

Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including disguised funding to shape school textbook discussions.

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature. If their campaigns continue and “succeed” in confusing the public, I anticipate testifying against relevant CEOs in future public trials.

Conviction of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal CEOs will be no consolation, if we pass on a runaway climate to our children. Humanity would be impoverished by ravages of continually shifting shorelines and intensification of regional climate extremes. Loss of countless species would leave a more desolate planet.

If politicians remain at loggerheads, citizens must lead. We must demand a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. We must block fossil fuel interests who aim to squeeze every last drop of oil from public lands, off-shore, and wilderness areas. Those last drops are no solution. They provide continued exorbitant profits for a short-sighted self-serving industry, but no alleviation of our addiction or long-term energy solution.

Moving from fossil fuels to clean energy is challenging, yet transformative in ways that will be welcomed. Cheap, subsidized fossil fuels engendered bad habits. We import food from halfway around the world, for example, even with healthier products available from nearby fields. Local produce would be competitive if not for fossil fuel subsidies and the fact that climate change damages and costs, due to fossil fuels, are also borne by the public.

A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.

Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making our products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly. Black soot, mercury and other fossil fuel emissions will decline. A brighter, cleaner future, with energy independence, is possible.

Washington likes to spend our tax money line-by-line. Swarms of high-priced lobbyists in alligator shoes help Congress decide where to spend, and in turn the lobbyists’ clients provide “campaign” money.

The public must send a message to Washington. Preserve our planet, creation, for our children and grandchildren, but do not use that as an excuse for more tax-and-spend. Let this be our motto: “One hundred percent dividend or fight! No more alligator shoes!”

The next president must make a national low-loss electric grid an imperative. It will allow dispersed renewable energies to supplant fossil fuels for power generation. Technology exists for direct-current high-voltage buried transmission lines. Trunk lines can be completed in less than a decade and expanded analogous to interstate highways.

Government must also change utility regulations so that profits do not depend on selling ever more energy, but instead increase with efficiency. Building code and vehicle efficiency requirements must be improved and put on a path toward carbon neutrality.

The fossil-industry maintains its stranglehold on Washington via demagoguery, using China and other developing nations as scapegoats to rationalize inaction. In fact, we produced most of the excess carbon in the air today, and it is to our advantage as a nation to move smartly in developing ways to reduce emissions. As with the ozone problem, developing countries can be allowed limited extra time to reduce emissions. They will cooperate: they have much to lose from climate change and much to gain from clean air and reduced dependence on fossil fuels.

We must establish fair agreements with other countries. However, our own tax and dividend should start immediately. We have much to gain from it as a nation, and other countries will copy our success. If necessary, import duties on products from uncooperative countries can level the playing field, with the import tax added to the dividend pool.

Democracy works, but sometimes churns slowly. Time is short. The 2008 election is critical for the planet. If Americans turn out to pasture the most brontosaurian congressmen, if Washington adapts to address climate change, our children and grandchildren can still hold great expectations.

Dr. James Hansen directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and is Adjunct Professor of Earth Sciences at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Since the mid-1970s, Dr. Hansen has focused on studies and computer simulations of the Earth’s climate, for the purpose of understanding the human impact on global climate. He is best known for his testimony on climate change to Congress in the 1980s that helped raise broad awareness of the global warming issue. In recent years Dr. Hansen has drawn attention to the danger of passing climate tipping points, producing irreversible climate impacts that would yield a different planet from the one on which civilization developed. Dr. Hansen disputes the contention, of fossil fuel interests and governments that support them, that it is an almost god-given fact that all fossil fuels must be burned with their combustion products discharged into the atmosphere. Instead Dr. Hansen has outlined steps that are needed to stabilize climate, with a cleaner atmosphere and ocean, and he emphasizes the need for the public to influence government and industry policies.

Copyright © 2008, Inc.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Black holes in the ocean

The list of reasons why the country's agricultural sector must wean itself from its dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides grows longer (and more worrisome) each day. What once could honestly be called the unintended impacts on the environment and our health resulting from our energy-intensive agribusiness system have become all too common and predictable.

Conventional economics rationalizes/justifies these practices by classifying them as externalities.
Externalities are excused as the necessary consequence of doing business and making money. This works for those in power as long as their wealth and privilege can insulate them from the results of their actions.

Eventually it is impossible to escape the fact that we live on a finite planet. Profits "earned" by poisoning the land and water is surely fool's gold. (GW)

The Gulf's Growing "Dead Zone"

By Bryan Walsh


June 17, 2008

The American Midwest is essentially the granary of the world, supplying corn, wheat and other crops to markets from Chile to China. But all that food doesn't grow by itself. In 2006 U.S. farmers used more than 21 million tons of nitrogen, phosphorus and other fertilizers to boost their crops, and all those chemicals have consequences far beyond the immediate area. When the spring rains come, fertilizer from Midwestern farms drains into the Mississippi river system and down to Louisiana, where the agricultural sewage pours into the Gulf of Mexico. Just as fertilizer speeds the growth of plants on land, the chemicals enhance the rapid development of algae in the water. When the algae die and decompose, the process sucks all the oxygen out of the surrounding waters, leading to a hypoxic event — better known as a "dead zone." The water becomes as barren as the surface of the moon. What sea life that can flee the zone does so; what can't, dies.

Since 1990 the dead zone, which begins in summer and lasts until early fall, has averaged about 6,046 sq. mi. But the threat is growing. A study released last week by scientists from Louisiana State University (LSU) and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium estimated that this year's dead zone would be more than 10,000 sq. mi., roughly the size of Massachusetts. But that prediction was made before massive floods hit the Midwest: with the flow of the Mississippi at dangerous levels, and with rains sweeping fertilizer off drowned farms, the dead zone could grow even bigger. The Louisiana fishing industry, the second largest in the nation, is already hurting, with shrimp catches falling in the dead zone's wake. The U.S. is not alone in grappling with this aquatic byproduct. As modern, chemically intensive agricultural practices spread around the globe, so does hypoxia; a 2004 U.N. report documents nearly 150 dead zones globally. But none compare to the black hole in the Gulf of Mexico. "This year would be the largest since we've started keeping records," says R. Eugene Turner, a zoologist with LSU who led the modeling effort. "It's definitely getting worse."

In response to the growing problem, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — along with several other federal groups and the governments of states that feed into the Mississippi — released a plan of attack on Monday to reduce the Gulf's dead zone. The plan, an update of an effort launched in the waning days of the Clinton Administration in 2001, looks to harness state and federal action to reduce the flow of fertilizer into the Mississippi, much of which comes from agricultural sources that aren't covered by the regulations of the Clean Water Act. The ultimate goal is to shrink the size of the dead zone, averaged over five years, to 1,930 sq. mi. or less by 2015 — considerably smaller than the 7,900 sq. mi. the zone reached last year. "This plan has greater accountability and specificity [than 2001]," says Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water. "This is urgent."

But not so urgent that the government seems ready to spend what it would take to truly revive the dead zone. Although Grumbles points out that an action plan isn't the same thing as a budget allocation, there's little evidence that anyone is prepared to bear the financial burden of drastically reducing fertilizer runoff in the Midwest. (It doesn't help that 31 states feed into the Mississippi River basin, or that multiple federal agencies are involved with the dead-zone task force.) A 2007 report by the National Research Council called for more aggressive leadership by the EPA to coordinate and oversee state activities along the Mississippi, but the agency doesn't seem ready or able to seize that role. The plan itself reports that "resources are insufficient to gain the goals" of the task force. "We seem to be going in the opposite direction," says Donald Scavia, a professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of Michigan. "We don't seem committed to fixing the problem."

Not that it's an easy one to fix. Most of the nutrient pollution that ends up in the Gulf comes from the hundreds of thousands of farms in the Midwest. The only sure way to shrink the dead zone is to reduce the amount of fertilizer running off those farms. But thanks in part to the push for corn-based ethanol and the skyrocketing price of food crops, U.S. farmers are planting more acres for corn than they have since World War II — including 15 million more acres last year than in 2006. Although there are measures farmers can take to limit fertilizer runoff, those changes are expensive, and there's little federal funding to support such conservation. The just-released action plan relies mostly on voluntary activities. "We need Congress to act as if this is going to get done," says Doug Daigle, a member of the task force. "The state governments will contribute, but this has to be initiated by the Federal Government."

Unfortunately, the dead zone isn't simply an environmental failure, but also a consequence of our national agricultural policy, which subsidizes farmers to grow vast, heavily fertilized quantities of corn and other grains. The pork-laden farm bill, which recently passed Congress over President George W. Bush's veto, will only worsen the problem. And even if we can begin to reduce the future flow of fertilizer, repeated dead zones are having a cumulative effect, with smaller amounts of nitrates and other chemicals in the Gulf having a larger hypoxic impact than in the past. "We have to decide how much we're willing to spend to save the Gulf fisheries," says Daigle. "Right now, we don't seem to be willing to invest much." Put simply, the Gulf is running out of air — and we're running out of time to fix it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dishing some serious solar energy

Never underestimate the good old Yankee (sorry Red Sox Nation) ingenuity. Especially when it's housed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

There's no better sign that our future may indeed have a future than to see young people like the students in the following article focusing on helping to solve some of society's most pressing problems -- like energy. (GW)

MIT group makes low-cost dish to tap solar energy

By Christine McConville
Boston Herald
June 22, 2008

Spencer Ahrens, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer, was on MIT’s campus last week, holding a wooden plank, surrounded by onlookers.

Slowly, he turned that wooden plank before a series of mirrors that had been placed inside an aluminum frame, until the wood caught fire.

That was quite a moment, recalled Matthew Ritter, one of the onlookers.

“Let’s just say it was a small combustion for wood materials, but a giant explosion of solar energy,” he said.

Ahrens, Ritter and the other people who helped create the solar-powered dish that harnessed the sunlight that eventually burned the wood say they’ve just created the world’s most cost-efficient solar power system.

They also say these dishes may revolutionize global energy production.

“You can stick these things wherever there is a piece of sunlight, and power a home or an industrial plant,” said Ahrens, who just received his master’s degree from MIT.

Since January, he’s been working with Ritter, an Olin College student; Micah Sze, a recent graduate of MIT’s Sloan School of Management; University of California-Berkeley graduate and Broad Institute engineer Eva Markiewicz and MIT materials science student Anna Bershteyn.

Together, they built a 12-foot wide solar panel by piecing together lightweight aluminum tubes to make the frame. Inside, they arranged a series of mirrors and then attached a water-filled coil at the bottom of the frame.

When the frame is properly positioned, the mirrors will direct concentrated sunlight toward the coil.

As the water heats up, it is converted to steam, and that steam, the creators say, can be used to generate electricity to heat and cool homes and power machines.

They now say its design is so simple, it can be built and placed just about anywhere the sun shines.

“We made it by hand and transported the parts by car or by bike,” Ritter said.

The crew spent about $5,000 to build the dish, and according to MIT Sloan School of Management lecturer David Pelly, it is the cheapest way he’s seen to harness that much sun power.

“I’ve looked for years at a variety of solar approaches, and this is the cheapest I’ve seen,” he said.

Ahrens, Ritter and the others are now packing up and moving to California, where they plan to mass-produce the dishes, probably for less than it cost to build the first one.

Their new company is called RawSolar, and Ahrens said its possibilities are endless.

“The energy crisis affects so much of what we do,” Ahrens said. “It’s driving food prices and water problems and airline fares, and we are trying to work through these things in an environmentally and economically sustainable way.”

After all, he said, “Sunlight is free.”

Monday, June 23, 2008

Got wheat?

Give Vermont farmers credit for trying to find their way out of their economic woes by diversifying their operations. In some cases farmers are eschewing dairying altogether and shifting into -- of all things -- wheat and other grains.

It's exciting to think that New England might have a significant source of grains.

While applauding this newest installment of Yankee ingenuity, I must admit I'm feeling more than a little uneasy at the possibility that New England may eventually be swapping one local food product for another. This should be especially troubling to those of us living on the east coast since California is now the largest milk-producing state in the nation. There's no question that the current economic system favors large corporate dairy farms. That's a tough arena for New England to play in.

Might there come a day soon when the scales tip too far and we'll find ourselves importing powdered milk from the west coast and reconstituting it by adding water here in the east?

I hope not. (GW)

Catching an amber wave
RANDOLPH, Vt. - Set in the green hills of this dairy farming state, where a single white church spire rises in the distance, the Beidler family farm looks - and sounds - like an archetype of Vermont agriculture. Twice a day, farmer Brent Beidler calls his cows into the shingled barn for milking, a regular cycle that links him to the state's long dairy tradition.

But later this summer, in a sign of changing times across the region's rolling farmland, Beidler will do something new. He will climb into his big red combine to harvest an American staple rarely seen in a century in the Green Mountain State, wheat.

Spurred to action by sharply rising prices for transportation and animal feed, and surging consumer demand for locally grown foods, more farmers in New England are deciding to grow grains.

In the last five years, the number of Vermont farms producing traditional Midwestern crops, including wheat, rye, barley, oats, soybeans, and corn, has increased from a handful to as many as 15, and more are poised to join them, according to a state estimate. This spring, at a statewide grain-growers meeting where farmers formed a new group, the Northern Grain Growers Association, organizers had to turn away would-be participants after 80 to 100 people showed up, including some from Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

"Vermont has primarily been a dairy state, and in some ways, that's our commodity - Kansas is wheat, and Vermont is milk," said Heather Darby, a crops specialist with the University of Vermont Extension who is helping to develop grain farming in the state. "Now there's a need and a demand for a product that has not been grown here for a long time, or not at all."

Amber waves of grain were not always unfamiliar here. In the 1800s, when there were no supermarket bread aisles and families fed themselves, small wheat plots and local mills for grinding flour were common, Darby said. At one time, when the United States stretched no further west than the Mississippi River, Vermont was known as "the bread basket of America" - though the state never grew enough wheat to meet its own needs.

Disease and pests were so rampant, farmers saw a good wheat crop only once every five years. So as Midwestern farming developed, and grains became easy to ship, Vermonters gave up growing them. For most of the last century, wheat crops disappeared, but for a few fields tended by scattered homesteaders.

The resurgence of interest in regional grain-growing picked up momentum about five years ago, as Vermont dairy farmers faced escalating costs for grain shipped from the Midwest to feed their cows. Costs have doubled while supplies have grown more scarce, farmers said, because of a host of factors, including crop failures in the American heartland, increasing global food demand, unprecedented fuel costs, and a shift from grain to corn production in the United States, driven by subsidies for ethanol, a fuel made from corn.

In the last two years, other factors have further fueled demand for local wheat, especially the sudden, explosive growth of the local food, or "localvore," movement. Increasingly, local food is seen as a safer, more reliable source. More and more Vermonters, from all walks of life, are turning to locally grown foods, farmers and bakers said, creating new markets for, among other products, Vermont-grown wheat for making flour and bread.

At an annual farm festival in Randolph this spring, a lunchtime crowd cheered at the announcement that the flour used to make the rolls came from wheat grown half a mile away at the Beidler farm.

"We have people calling us all the time to make sure we're still growing wheat, that we're going to be grinding it, because they're counting on us," Beidler said.

In Western Massachusetts, the same enthusiasm greeted Ben and Adrie Lester, owners of Wheatberry bakery in Amherst, when they planted 4 acres of wheat this spring, to fill what they saw as a hole in the local food supply, after watching flour prices triple in three years. Next year, they plan to let the public buy shares in their wheat fields, in return for a portion of the crop. In Northern Maine, farmers have started growing organic wheat in the last five years and will harvest as many as 1,000 acres this year, said Peter Sexton, a crops specialist at the University of Maine Extension.

New England will never match Midwestern grain production, where massive farms in top-producing states like Kansas and North Dakota turn out hundreds of millions of bushels of wheat every year. In Vermont, about 500 acres are planted with wheat, Darby said. But more grains are planted every year.

Beidler and his wife, Regina, bought their Vermont farm in 1998, converted to organic dairy, becoming part of the farmer-owned Organic Valley cooperative, and planted their first quarter-acre of grains four years ago. This summer, they are growing 5 acres of wheat, its small green shoots still grasslike after two months in the ground, and 20 acres of corn, millet, potatoes, and beans, plus canola and camelina to press for cooking oil. Next year, they expect to double the size of their wheat crop.

Spencer and Jennifer Blackwell started growing wheat, buckwheat and rye on leased land in Burlington in 2004, and plan to expand their grain production on a 50-acre vegetable farm they recently bought in Middlebury through a land trust conservation program.

"It's impractical here but not impossible," said Spencer Blackwell.

"There are more of us than I can count on two hands doing it in the state now, and we're learning and getting better every year."

The learning curve for growing grains is steep, with few resident specialists to rely on, farmers said. Combines and other equipment are expensive and hard to find - the Beidlers started out with a 1950s combine from Iowa - and hard to share, because their size makes them difficult to transport. The state's hilly, rocky terrain is difficult to manage, and grain storage facilities and mills, for grinding wheat into flour, are practically nonexistent.

Even harder to overcome, Vermont's humid climate fosters rot and diseases, and lowers the protein and gluten content of locally grown wheat, which can be a problem for bakers. To develop seeds better-suited to East Coast conditions, farmers like Jack Lazor, a veteran dairy producer and grain grower with 50 acres of wheat near the Canadian border, are test-growing dozens of heirloom varieties. In a good year, he can harvest 50 bushels of wheat per acre, enough to mill 2,500 pounds of whole wheat flour.

Proponents are also developing other uses for grains.

A small biofuel refinery is already up and running in Vermont, and tests are underway to see if canola, soybeans, and sunflowers could be grown and made into biofuels, to be used by farmers to run their equipment, said Allen Matthews, farm enterprise coordinator for the University of Vermont's Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Farmers say there is a potent sense of possibility around grain growing - an optimistic feeling that has been as scarce as wheat for many decades in the region's agriculture.

In Vermont in the last decade, Matthews said, dairy farms have disappeared at a rate of 80 to 100 every year, throwing the pastoral landscape into jeopardy.

"Creating local food systems creates opportunities for more farms, and that's exciting, because what we've seen in Vermont and everywhere else is decline," Darby said.

"It gives people hope when you talk about things coming alive again."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Not just talkin': UK is walkin' the green revolution walk

In yesterday's posting I mentioned how urgent it is for governments to develop strategic plans that demonstrate that they are serious about mitigating climate change.

You can't get much more serious or strategic than the UK. They are certainly leading by example.

Revealed: UK's blueprint for a green revolution

· Massive increase in wind power planned
· One in four homes to have solar heating
· Owners may be forced to insulate homes

By John Vidal
The Guardian
June 21, 2008

One in four British homes could be fitted with solar heating equipment and 3,500 wind turbines could be erected across Britain within 12 years as part of a green energy revolution to be proposed by the government next week.

The long-awaited renewable energy strategy, a copy of which has been seen by the Guardian, will say Britain needs to make a £100bn dash to build up its clean power supply if it is to reach its EU-imposed target of producing 15% of the country's energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The UK could cut its greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 20% and reduce its dependency on oil by 7% within 12 years if it conducts the massive overhaul of energy production and consumption outlined in the strategy document, according to the government.

But at a time of mounting consumer anger over rising fuel prices, it also concedes that greening Britain's power supply will push up energy bills and increase fuel poverty.

The proposals include:

· New powers to force people to improve the energy efficiency of their homes when they renovate them;

· A 30-fold increase in offshore wind power generation;

· New loans, grants and incentives for businesses and households;

· An area the size of Essex to be planted with trees and other crops to produce biomass energy;

· Forcing people to replace inefficient appliances such as oil-fired boilers.

Although the proposals are contained in a consultation document, the government has committed to hitting the 15% target and ministers accept most of the measures will have to be introduced to achieve it.

The government says the transformation of the country's energy policy will have "significant impacts on all our lives" but claims it will create big new markets and 160,000 jobs.

In what would be the most ambitious change of energy policy in 50 years, the government says 30-35% of all electricity generated in the UK will have to come from renewable sources to meet the 15% renewable energy target set by Europe to try to stem the effects of climate change.

The renewables strategy concedes that the target will only be achievable if there is a completely new approach to generating energy.

"We might just possibly reach 15% renewable energy by 2020. It will require maximum build rates and a very rapid response from the supply chain," says the document.

The government proposes jump-starting emerging technologies by removing all barriers to generation of renewables and providing substantial incentives. It will also require the National Grid to be greatly expanded. Loans and grants would almost certainly be made available for people and buinesses to install solar roofs and other green technologies.

The document says that getting to 15% could cost as much as 1% of GDP but under the most plausible climate scenarios it might be able to avoid having to pay up to 20% of GDP.

"We must make hard choices. The scale of the increase in renewable energy we propose over the coming decade will have significant impacts on all our lives. Not all of these will be positive; indeed there will be significant costs," it says.

The document, expected to be released on Thursday, will raise the political stakes. Last week, David Cameron said the Conservatives would apply new standards for power generation which would effectively reduce the chances of a new generation of coal-fired power stations being built until new technologies have been developed.

Leoni Greene, spokeswoman for the Renewable Energy Association, said: "We applaud the breadth of the imagination and good ideas shown but we urgently need action and not more consultation. Government must take hard measures now."

John Sauven, director of Greenpeace, said: "If this plan becomes a reality, Britain will be a better, safer and more prosperous country. We'll create jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and use less gas, and in the long run our power bills will come down."