Thursday, July 31, 2008

Roadmap to the future

Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Energy issued a report that describes how the country could generate 20% of its electricity by the year 2030. Not to be outdone, the European Wind Energy Association has just released a roadmap that puts the European Union on a path to generate 28% of its electricity from wind by 2030.

Offshore wind plays a major role in both scenarios.

This is very encouraging news. Not only have we identified viable options for averting climate change, we're actually taking bold steps to implement them.

But the world will need to commit to a many more serious efforts in the areas of energy efficiency, conservation, smart growth and renewable energy deployment to minimize the adverse impacts of climate change.

Roadmap for EU wind energy predicts 180 GW capacity by 2020

New Energy Focus
July 30, 2008

The EU wind industry has drawn up a new roadmap laying out research and development needed to see wind farm capacity in Europe growing to 180GW by 2020.

The European Technology Platform for Wind Energy (TPWind) said wind power could account for a quarter of all European electricity supply by 2030.

It has published a new Strategic Research Agenda and Market Deployment Strategy, which sets out priorities for efforts to bring down the costs of wind energy to compete with other sources of electricity.

The research agenda sets priorities for themes including wind conditions and forecasting, wind turbine technology as well as offshore deployment and operation.

It seeks to improve current techniques so that predictions can be made with an uncertainty of less than 3% concerning annual energy production of prospective wind farms and the weather or wave conditions for which an onshore or offshore wind farm must be designed to cope.

Predicting ever larger wind turbines, the agenda suggests priorities for research into the design of new technology, including issues like mechanical strength, reliability and generation efficiencies.

The TPWind strategy lays out new research and developments needed as a new generation of turbines are installed like this Siemens 3.6MW "Direct Drive" system set up at Ringkøbing in Denmark this month

The research should also look at transmission arrangements, including the development of new grids or "super-grids" and the alleviation of grid "bottlenecks" holding up the connection of new wind farms.

The Market Deployment Strategy looks into how to remove barriers in the European electricity markets that hold back wind farm developments.

Priorities include sorting out grid access and researching the range of skills that will be needed in the industry to meet the 2020 and 2030 goals.


The Strategy predicts three phases for the development of European wind energy. A first phase up to 2020 sees the market maturing in Western Europe and expanding into central and Eastern Europe with a "large" deployment offshore.

A second, "medium-term" phase from 2020 to 2030 will see wind energy maturing future, with cost reductions and technology improvements allowing deep offshore installations and growing exports from Europe.

A third, long-term phase from 2030 to 2050 will see Europe continuing to export wind power technology to the rest of the world, with most activity within Europe being the "re-powering" of older turbines.


TP Wind, which is coordinated by the European Wind Energy Association, was set up in 2006 with the backing of the European Commission to help the development of wind power in Europe.

Commenting on the new research agenda and market deployment strategy, TPWind chairman Henning Kruse said: "TPWind's vision and action plan for research, as presented in the SRA, are hugely important steps forward for the future deployment of wind energy in Europe.

"The time has now come to begin putting the action plan to effect, and for this the support of the European Commission and Member States will make all the difference," said Mr Kruse, who is also senior export manager at Siemens Wind Power.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

When smart meters meet smart grids good things happen

Seems like we've been talking about the value and desirability of smart metering forever. The concept makes a heckuva lot of sense: putting the electricity meter inside your home where homeowners can monitor their use of electricity based on real-time information they receive on both usage and rates. So why aren't they in everyone's home?

One reason is that smart metering is most effective if utilities cooperate by matching smart meters with smart grids that provide pricing information on timely information on electricity demand and pricing. However in most states electricity providers' profits are based on the amount of electricity they sell to consumers. The more electricity they sell, the higher their profits. That's certainly not going to motivate them to encourage efficiency and conservation.

Now more and more states have promulgated regulations that reward utilities for conservation.

Voila. (GW)

Finding and Fixing a Home’s Power Hogs

WHILE we all worry about where we’re going to get more energy in an increasingly energy-obsessed world, there’s also another alternative: Use less power. That may soon be simpler, thanks to the introduction of a bevy of inexpensive devices that let homeowners monitor how much energy appliances, TVs, PCs, and heating and cooling systems actually use.

Even energy-conscious people can go only so far in managing their home energy use. Sure, we can fiddle with our thermostats, shun incandescent light bulbs and bring in Energy Star appliances. Watching that new L.C.D. TV, however, might wipe out all those gains.

But we just don’t know.

“We have all the technology we want in our cellphones and plasma TVs and cars, but in electricity we’re still like our grandparents were,” says Ahmad Faruqui, an economist at the Brattle Group, a consultancy based in Cambridge, Mass.

Possibly coming to the rescue are home automation networks, which can help monitor all of our power-sucking devices (the typical American household has 27 that are always on, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, an energy research and consulting firm).

Some analysts expect so-called “smart metering” to boom nationwide. ABI Research, a technology firm, estimates that the market will jump to 52 million by 2013, from 560,000 this year — which would be more than a third of the nation’s meters.

Good home automation networks, which run all of the electronic and technologic gizmos in a home, have traditionally cost more than $30,000. Now, thanks in part to companies like Control4 and Colorado vNet, these systems can be had for as little as $5,000, says Sam Lucero, an ABI analyst.

Prices are expected to drop further. Will West, chief executive of Control4 in Salt Lake City, says that in October his firm will start selling a controller for $495, down from $695.

With such a network, “you can turn on your TV and see what your energy use has been like in the last few months, or compare your behavior to other people in your area,” Mr. West says. Consumers can also receive automated tips on how to save money on energy, based on their prior energy use and historical weather patterns. Then, by clicking a button on a screen — either the TV or a computer — they can act on those tips.

Power companies themselves also don’t know how much energy individual household devices use. But that information void is also poised to close, as inexpensive, standards-based technologies create a “smart” power grid that the companies — and consumers — can use to monitor home usage.

Among the technologies adding brainpower to the grid are nascent wireless protocols like ZigBee; Z-Wave from Zensys; and Echelon’s LonWorks, which tracks power use not only wirelessly but also over power lines.

ZigBee is on the verge of becoming the Wi-Fi of home power management, thanks to its inclusion in smart electric meters. But multiple wireless control technologies may coexist, as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth do. For both consumers and utilities, it’s like “going from an odometer to a speedometer,” says Paul De Martini, vice president of Edison SmartConnect, Southern California Edison’s next-generation metering project. It intends to introduce smart meters to its 5.3 million customers by 2012. This project is expected to help reduce peak power demand by 5 percent — about the output of an 1,100-megawatt power plant — and overall demand by 1 percent. That would cut carbon dioxide emissions as much as taking 79,000 cars off the road, Mr. De Martini says.

In 2005, when Southern California Edison developed a plan for smart meters, it would have lost a billion dollars on the project. Today, under a proposal on which the California Public Utilities Commission is expected to rule in August, Edison thinks it will at least break even on smart meters.

In power emergencies, such meters could allow the utility to automatically reduce energy demand to help avoid power failures.

Smart meters also would allow for tiered pricing, in which customers would pay more for power during high-use times and less during off-peak hours. Large companies have had such pricing for years.

Despite such momentum, utilities can’t just change direction the way many Internet companies do, cautions Bill Ablondi, director of home systems at Parks Associates, a market consultant based in Dallas. Mr. Ablondi doubts regulators and utilities will rapidly adopt smart grid technologies.

“The technology is here, but I think we’re looking at more like a 10-year horizon,” he says.

FOR a planet plagued by rising energy prices and rising temperatures, better energy management has gigantic potential. The McKinsey Global Institute, the economics research arm of McKinsey & Company, projects that aggressive investment in energy management could keep demand nearly flat between now and 2020.

But to depress growth in energy use on that scale would require more than just smart grids and smart homes. Governments would have to take steps like developing rate structures that reward efficiency, not power production, and eliminating write-offs for energy use. It will take a huge investment, too — McKinsey estimates $170 billion a year globally through 2020 (though it promises a 17 percent return on investment).

What smarter grids can do is help grease the rails of innovation for regulators and investors by showing just how much energy we waste, says Diana Farrell, director of the McKinsey Global Institute. The degree of waste, Ms. Farrell says, is so big that it makes investing in energy management look far more viable for fighting global warming than any alternative energy source. “The demand side is the answer, right now, with commercially available technologies that are scalable,” she says.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Time to wean the world economy off its addiction

So what makes the current situation different from prior oil "crises" that began back in 1973 with the Mideast oil embargo?

The simple answer is: supply, supply, supply.

That, of course, is a somewhat overly simplistic response. The Washington Post offers a more comprehensive answer to this important question. The major takeaway from their analysis: there's no time to act like the present to break our addiction to oil. (GW)

This Time, It's Different

Global Pressures Have Converged to Forge a New Oil Reality

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post
July 27, 2008

The two events, half a world apart, went largely unheralded.

Early this month, Valero Energy in Texas got the unwelcome news that Mexico would be cutting supplies to one of the company's Gulf Coast refineries by up to 15 percent. Mexico's state-owned oil enterprise is one of Valero's main sources of crude, but oil output from Mexican fields, including the giant Cantarell field, is drying up. Mexican sales of crude oil to the United States have plunged to their lowest level in more than a dozen years.

The same week, India's Tata Motors announced it was expanding its plans to begin producing a new $2,500 "people's car" called the Nano in the fall. The company hopes that by making automobiles affordable for people in India and elsewhere, it could eventually sell 1 million of them a year.

Although neither development made headlines, together they were emblematic of the larger forces of supply and demand that have sent world oil prices bursting through one record level after another. And while the cost of crude has surged before, this oil shock is different. There is little prospect that drivers will ever again see gas prices retreat to the levels they enjoyed for much of the last generation.

Unlike the two short, sharp oil jolts of the 1970s, the latest run-up has been accelerating over several years as ample supplies of crude oil have proven elusive and the thirst for petroleum products has grown. The average price of a barrel of oil produced by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries doubled from 2001 to 2005, doubled again by March this year and jumped as much as 40 percent more after that.

For American motorists, a full tank of gas costs nearly twice what it did at the start of last year, racing past the $4-a-gallon mark, and has begun cutting into other household spending.

"What can you do? You need gas," said Barry Modeste, a construction worker who stopped his van at a Shell station in Takoma Park one recent morning to add $15 worth. It was enough, he said, to get him to a cheaper station in Rockville. "If you don't have gas, you can't get to work. And if you can't get to work, you don't get paid. And if you don't get paid, you can't buy food. We're at their mercy."

Last month, 51 percent of the respondents in a Washington Post poll said rising gas prices were causing a serious financial hardship for them or others in their household. It was the first time a majority had said that since the poll began posing that question eight years ago.

The rising prices are also adding to inflation, aggravating the U.S. trade deficit -- oil now accounts for about half of it -- and taking a toll on businesses already struggling with the economic slowdown caused by the housing and financial crises.

"I'm a very small businessman. If I get any smaller, I'll be out of business," said independent trucker Lee Klass, who was driving through the Texas Panhandle this month with a 33,000-pound load of plastic containers bound for Colorado. Klass had just paid $636 for fuel, enough for the trip but no more. Filling the tank would cost nearly twice that much.

Abroad, riots shook India after the government trimmed fuel subsidies. Truckers in Britain, France, Spain and South Korea have clogged the roads to protest rising fuel prices. In the Philippines, soaring prices for oil and petroleum-based fertilizer have derailed the economy and ignited calls for a cut in the tax on oil imports. With her popularity at a record low, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is expected to confront the issue in a nationally televised speech scheduled for tomorrow.

Even after oil prices have tumbled more than $24 in the past two weeks, largely as the result of easing tensions in the Middle East and slowing U.S. economic activity, crude is still trading near historic highs.

In a series of articles starting today, The Washington Post examines the economic forces that have unhinged oil prices from their longtime cyclical patterns, propelling fuel costs to once unimaginable levels that are now both fraying the lifestyles of our recent past and speeding the search for an energy source of the future.

* * *

Earlier oil shocks have had obvious causes. In October 1973, OPEC raised prices and declared an oil embargo against the United States and other countries that had supported Israel in its war earlier that month against its Arab neighbors. The embargo ended in March 1974, but pricing power had shifted from the oil companies to the producing countries. In 1979, prices soared again after the Iranian Revolution curtailed output and consumers and oil companies went on a spree of panic buying.

Now, however, there is no one culprit and no single international crisis to blame. Instead, world demand has been increasing faster than supply, steadily squeezing oil markets.

This in turn has signaled to investors that prices are inevitably heading higher. Financial players, such as Wall Street banks and hedge funds, have bet just that, investing tens of billions of dollars in oil futures. Critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere say this speculation has turbo-charged the market, helping lift prices even more.

The tightening of the oil market reflects decisions made a decade ago, when conditions looked radically different. Regular unleaded gas was less than a dollar a gallon. Oil was little more than $10 a barrel. And the Economist magazine, predicting prices could soon be half that, ran a cover story with the headline: "Drowning in Oil."

Those low prices sent the wrong signals to consumers and oil companies alike.

Demand for oil jumped as U.S. sales of gas-guzzling cars soared and China's breakneck economic expansion picked up pace.

Daniel Yergin, a historian of the oil business and head of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said that over the five years from 1998 to 2002, world oil demand grew 1.1 percent annually, raising daily consumption by 4.2 million barrels. But in the following five years from 2003 to 2007, world oil demand grew 2.1 percent annually, boosting consumption by about 8.2 million barrels per day.

The low prices of the late 1990s also dampened the impetus for finding new supplies. Oil companies delayed exploration for new fields. Capital spending dropped 15 percent at the biggest oil companies in late 1998 and plunged as much as 70 percent at the smaller ones. Too few drilling rigs were built. And refineries weren't expanded or upgraded, making it hard for them to use the lower-quality crude oils that have become a larger portion of supplies or to produce the right balance of products as gasoline use is stagnating and diesel fuel use growing.

Investment slackened just as finding new supplies was becoming more difficult and costly. Most of the world's big, easy-to-tap fields have already been discovered and largely drained.

Some analysts argue that peak oil production has already been reached. Others say the peak remains a ways off but perhaps not very far. Though capital spending by big oil companies has again picked up pace in the past couple of years, spurred by higher prices, exploration is still falling short.

"It's not that we're going to run out of oil or hydrocarbons, but it's not going to become available as fast as uninhibited, unrestricted demand," said Sadad Husseini, a consultant and former petroleum geologist at Saudi Aramco.

Just two decades ago, the world could pump 15 percent more oil than it needed. Today, that spare production capacity has practically vanished -- it's now about 2 percent beyond the world's total daily consumption of 85.5 million barrels. That makes the market very sensitive to rumors about anything that might endanger existing production.

Earlier, oil-rich nations opened their spigots to prevent run-ups in prices. In the early 1980s, oil from the British and Norwegian North Sea started to flow in large volumes and helped push down prices even as war raged between Iran and Iraq, disrupting Mideast supplies. During the Persian Gulf War after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia increased production to head off a spike in oil prices.

But now, the cushion is all but gone. And Saudi Arabia, which is home to what little spare capacity remains, has become reluctant to temper price increases by boosting production. Quite the reverse, the kingdom and its fellow OPEC members have trimmed production on those few occasions when prices showed signs of slipping, most recently in late 2006.

That has left the global oil market particularly vulnerable to threats as varied as hurricanes in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico, the potential for war with Iran and pipeline attacks by small groups of insurgents in remote parts of the Niger Delta.

* * *

At the beginning of the pipeline, high oil prices have been a gusher of good news.

Any company that owns oil in the ground or a share of what's pumped out of it is swimming in profit. Exxon Mobil, the biggest of the independent oil giants, last year broke records for U.S. corporate profits, chalking up $40.6 billion. This year, it is on track to earn even more.

Thanks to the rapid and sustained rise in prices, oil-producing countries are also accumulating vast reservoirs of money in one of the most massive transfers of wealth in history. Every day, oil consumers pay $6 billion to $7.5 billion more for crude oil than they paid six years ago. At the current rate, they will pump more than $1.5 trillion a year into the coffers of OPEC, Russia and other oil exporting countries.

Some Middle Eastern countries are already on a shopping spree: indoor ski facilities on the edge of the desert, water-borne hotel complexes, new industrial cities.

The new balance of petro-power was evident at a meeting of oil producers and consumers in late June in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The body language and setting said it all.

Grim-faced, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown followed a half-step behind a smiling Saudi King Abdullah as they entered a palatial conference room with marble walls and glittering chandeliers.

Dignitaries in flowing robes and business suits from 35 nations, seven international agencies and 25 companies were seated in a horseshoe arrangement. The king, flanked by Brown and China's vice president, was perched on a dais in the center and politely listened to entreaties from U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and others for higher oil output. In the end, Abdullah bestowed only modest assurances while admonishing consuming countries for "selfish interests, increased consumption."

This exercise in oil diplomacy did nothing to stop the relentless rise of petroleum prices. If anything, the summit showed the inability of consuming nations to change today's prices and the relative indifference of producing countries, who blame high prices on Western "speculators."

But Bodman insisted that high prices were a question of supply and demand, and he urged the Saudis to boost output. "I believe that most of us agree on one thing: Prices are too high at present," he said. "And unless we act, the situation will remain unsustainable."

* * *

What makes it unsustainable is that cheap oil has been a building block of the American economy and society, from big cars and big planes to interstate highways and commuters living in remote exurbs.

For the better part of a century, U.S. policy contributed to this pattern of development. Taxes on gasoline were set aside for highways, which opened up more vistas for new communities. This in turn promoted even more driving, more gasoline consumption and more tax revenue for highways. Today U.S. automobiles use more than 9 million barrels of gasoline a day, more than any other country.

The high price of oil has sparked recent efforts by technology experts, venture capitalists, alternative energy firms and even some oil companies to come up with ways to wean the world economy off its addiction.

Developing countries like China and India, however, are in no hurry to embrace this new vision. They want to join the ranks of economic powerhouses and question why they should be forced to temper their aspirations, why their oil use should be more constrained than those who came before.

A century after Henry Ford's Model T revolutionized American life, Tata's Nano could do the same for India. Unveiling his company's concept for the car early this year, Chairman Ratan Tata placed the Nano in a narrative of technological endeavors that led from bicycle to jet. He called it "a journey that embodies the human spirit of change . . . the drive to stretch the envelope . . . the quest to lead and the quest to conquer."

But in an era of scarce oil, the Nano could take the world down a rough and costly road.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Conspiracy theory

A confluence of events seems to be conspiring that validate Bucky Fuller's strong sense that Nature is determined to make a success of humanity (despite our best efforts to bring about our extinction). The latest in a series of "energy crises" combined with the growing acknowledgement that climate change is real has in part led to the independent development of solutions that together have the potential to form the foundation of a sustainable global energy system.

Bottom line: we are witnessing the end of the oil era. Renewable energy is poise to emerge not only as the primary source for generating electricity but as the cornerstone for the transformation of our transportation system as well. (GW)

Texas to Tel Aviv

What would happen if you cross-bred J. R. Ewing of “Dallas” and Carl Pope, the head of the Sierra Club? You’d get T. Boone Pickens. What would happen if you cross-bred Henry Ford and Yitzhak Rabin? You’d get Shai Agassi. And what would happen if you put together T. Boone Pickens, the green billionaire Texas oilman now obsessed with wind power, and Shai Agassi, the Jewish Henry Ford now obsessed with making Israel the world’s leader in electric cars?

You’d have the start of an energy revolution.

The only good thing to come from soaring oil prices is that they have spurred innovator/investors, successful in other fields, to move into clean energy with a mad-as-hell, can-do ambition to replace oil with renewable power. Two of the most interesting of these new clean electron wildcatters are Boone and Shai.

Agassi, age 40, is an Israeli software whiz kid who rose to the senior ranks of the German software giant SAP. He gave it all up in 2007 to help make Israel a model of how an entire country can get off gasoline and onto electric cars. He figured no country has a bigger interest in diminishing the value of Middle Eastern oil than Israel. On a visit to Israel in May, I took a spin in a parking lot on the Tel Aviv beachfront in Agassi’s prototype electric car, while his sister watched out for the cops because it is not yet licensed for Israeli roads.

Agassi’s plan, backed by Israel’s government, is to create a complete electric car “system” that will work much like a mobile-phone service “system,” only customers sign up for so many monthly miles, instead of minutes. Every subscriber will get a car, a battery and access to a national network of recharging outlets all across Israel — as well as garages that will swap your dead battery for a fresh one whenever needed.

His company, Better Place, and its impressive team would run the smart grid that charges the cars and is also contracting for enough new solar energy from Israeli companies — 2 gigawatts over 10 years — to power the whole fleet. “Israel will have the world’s first virtual oilfield in the Negev Desert,” said Agassi. His first 500 electric cars, built by Renault, will hit Israel’s roads next year.

Agassi is a passionate salesman for his vision. He could sell camels to Saudi Arabia. “Today in Europe, you pay $600 a month for gasoline,” he explained to me. “We have an electric car that will cost you $600 a month” — with all the electric fuel you need and when you don’t want the car any longer, just give it back. No extra charges and no CO2 emissions.

His goal, said Agassi, is to make his electric car “so cheap, so trivial, that you won’t even think of buying a gasoline car.” Once that happens, he added, your oil addiction will be over forever. You’ll be “off heroin,” he says, and “addicted to milk.”

T. Boone Pickens is 80. He’s already made billions in oil. He was involved in some ugly mischief in funding the “Swift-boating” of John Kerry. But now he’s opting for a different legacy: breaking America’s oil habit by pushing for a massive buildup of wind power in the U.S. and converting our abundant natural gas supplies — now being used to make electricity — into transportation fuel to replace foreign oil in our cars, buses and trucks.

Pickens is motivated by American nationalism. Because of all the money we are shipping abroad to pay for our oil addiction, he says, “we are on the verge of losing our superpower status.” His vision is summed up on his Web site: “We import 70 percent of our oil at a cost of $700 billion a year ... I have been an oil man all my life, but this is one emergency we can’t drill our way out of. If we create a renewable energy network, we can break our addiction to foreign oil.”

Pickens made clear to me over breakfast last week that he was tired of waiting for Washington to produce a serious energy plan. So his company, Mesa Power, is now building the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle, where he’s spent $2 billion buying land and 700 wind turbines from General Electric — the largest single turbine order ever. The U.S. could secure 20 percent of its electricity needs from wind alone.

But Pickens knows he’s unique. Unless, he says, “Congress adopts clear, predictable policies” — with long-term tax incentives and infrastructure — so thousands of investors can jump into clean power, we’ll never get the scale we need to break our addiction. For a year, Senate Republicans have been blocking such incentives for wind and solar energy. They vote again next week.

If only we had a Congress and president who, instead of chasing crazy schemes like offshore drilling and releasing oil from our strategic reserve, just sat down with Boone and Shai and asked one question: “What laws do we need to enact to foster 1,000 more like you?” Then just do it, and get out of the way.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Salicornia here we come?

In his classic "Cadillac Desert" Mark Reisner describes the true costs of America's experiment with redirecting the Colorado River and other bodies of water in the west to feed quench the thirst of the country's industrial agriculture system. Bottom line: the experience has hopefully taught us never to repeat that kind of thing again. Diverting ocean waters inland to support the growth of a seawater-loving plant does not strike me as either wise or necessary.

Rather than trying to redesign Nature, we should make it our business to to understand her design principles and apply them to the development of sustainable life-support strategies.

It sounds as if Carl Hodges is clearly motivated by a sincere attempt to address the very serious problem of climate change. There are,I feel, less disruptive/drastic options available to us if we choose to act sooner than later. (GW)

The old man who farms with the sea

Carl Hodges is growing salicornia, a crop nourished by ocean water that holds the potential to provide food and fuel to millions.
By Marla Dickerson
Los Angeles Times
July 10, 2008

Tastiota, Mexico

A few miles inland from the Sea of Cortez, amid cracked earth and mesquite and sun-bleached cactus, neat rows of emerald plants are sprouting from the desert floor.

The crop is salicornia. It is nourished by seawater flowing from a man-made canal. And if you believe the American who is farming it, this incongruous swath of green has the potential to feed the world, fuel our vehicles and slow global warming.

He is Carl Hodges, a Tucson-based atmospheric physicist who has spent most of his 71 years figuring out how humans can feed themselves in places where good soil and fresh water are in short supply.

The founding director of the University of Arizona's highly regarded Environmental Research Lab, his work has attracted an eclectic band of admirers. They include heads of state, corporate chieftains and Hollywood stars, among them Martin Sheen and the late Marlon Brando.

Hodges' knack for making things grow in odd environments has been on display at the Land Pavilion in the Epcot theme park at Walt Disney World in Florida and the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona.

Here in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, he's thinking much bigger.

The Earth's ice sheets are melting fast. Scientists predict that rising seas could swallow some low-lying areas, displacing millions of people.

Hodges sees opportunity. Why not divert the flow inland to create wealth and jobs instead of catastrophe?

He wants to channel the ocean into man-made "rivers" to nourish commercial aquaculture operations, mangrove forests and crops that produce food and fuel. This greening of desert coastlines, he said, could add millions of acres of productive farmland and sequester vast quantities of carbon dioxide, the primary culprit in global warming. Hodges contends that it could also neutralize sea-level rise, in part by using exhausted freshwater aquifers as gigantic natural storage tanks for ocean water.

Analyzing recent projections of ice melt occurring in the Antarctic and Greenland, Hodges calculates that diverting the equivalent of three Mississippi Rivers inland would do the trick. He figures that would require 50 good-sized seawater farms that could be built within a decade if the world gets cracking.

"The only way we can stop [sea-level rise] is if people believe we can," said Hodges, whose outsize intellect is exceeded only by his self-assurance. "This is the big idea" that humanity has been waiting for, he believes.

With his trademark floppy hat, an iPhone wired perpetually to his head and a propensity to assign environmental reading homework to complete strangers, Hodges might be dismissed by some as an eccentric who has spent too much time in the Mexican sun.

"When I first met Carl, I thought he was a philosopher," said actor Sheen, a longtime friend.

Still, experts including Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center, say seawater agriculture could prove to be an important weapon in the fight against climate change.

Hodges has already built such a farm in Africa. Political upheaval there shut much of it down in 2003. That's why he's determined to construct a showcase project in North America to demonstrate what's possible.

All he needs now is $35 million. That's where salicornia comes in.

A so-called halophyte, or salt-loving plant, the briny succulent thrives in hellish heat and pitiful soil on little more than a regular dousing of ocean water. Several countries are experimenting with salicornia and other saltwater-tolerant species as sources of food. Known in some restaurants as sea asparagus, salicornia can be eaten fresh or steamed, squeezed into cooking oil or ground into high-protein meal.

Hodges, who now heads the nonprofit Seawater Foundation, plugged salicornia for years as the plant to help end world hunger. Do-gooders applauded. The private sector yawned.

Then oil prices exploded. Hodges saw his shot to lift his fleshy, leafless shrub from obscurity.

That's because salicornia has another nifty quality: It can be converted into biofuel. And, unlike grain-based ethanol, it doesn't need rain or prime farmland, and it doesn't distort global food markets. NASA has estimated that halophytes planted over an area the size of the Sahara Desert could supply more than 90% of the world's energy needs.

Last year, Hodges formed a for-profit company called Global Seawater Inc. to produce salicornia biofuel in liquid and solid versions. He lugs samples of it around in a suitcase like some environmental traveling salesman.

The enterprise recently planted 1,000 acres of salicornia here in rural Sonora, where Hodges has been doing preparatory research for decades. That crop will provide seed for a major venture planned 50 miles north in the coastal city of Bahia de Kino. Global Seawater is attempting to lease or buy 12,000 acres there for what it envisions will be the world's largest seawater farm.

The plan is to cut an ocean canal into the desert to nourish commercial ponds of shrimp and fish. Instead of dumping the effluent back into the ocean, the company would channel it further inland to fertilize fields of salicornia for biofuel. The seawater's next stop would be man-made wetlands. These mangrove forests could be "sold" to polluters to meet emissions cuts mandated by the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

"Nothing is wasted," Hodges said.

Global Seawater already has a small refinery to process salicornia oil into biodiesel fuel, which Hodges believes can be produced for at least one-third less than the current market price of crude oil. Leftover plant material would be converted into solid biofuel "logs" that he said burned cleaner than coal or wood.

NASA is interested in testing fuel from Hodges' halophyte. So are cement makers and other heavy industries. Retired executives from some major corporations are so encouraged by the potential that they are helping Global Seawater raise capital and focus on generating returns for investors.

Fernando Canales Clariond, former Mexican secretary of the economy and member of one of the nation's most powerful industrial families, recently joined the board. "The world doesn't move because of idealism," he said. "It moves because of economic incentives."

Fellow board member Anthony Simon, former president of marketing for Unilever Bestfoods, put it more bluntly. "Carl is a wonderful scientist," he said of Hodges. But he "is a lousy businessman."

Hodges has sold assets and maxed out credit cards over the years to keep his seawater dreams afloat. But it's not for the prospect of a big payday. A lifetime of studying the Earth's ecosystems has convinced him that the planet is in peril. He's determined to help get things back in balance.

Driving through the sun-scorched Sonora countryside, he pointed to abandoned grain silos and crumbling concrete irrigation channels, tombstones of failed efforts at conventional farming.

"It's a dust bowl," Hodges said. "We're going to making it bloom again . . . with a new kind of agriculture."

Some environmentalists are dubious. Wheat and cotton flourished here until farmers pumped aquifers nearly dry. Shrimp aquaculture operations have fouled the Sea of Cortez with waste.

Channeling millions of gallons of seawater inland could have similar unintended consequences for fragile deserts, said biologist Exequiel Ezcurra, former head of Mexico's National Ecology Institute. "We have had catastrophes in the past, so we have reason to be concerned," he said.

Hodges says his project has met all environmental requirements posed by Mexico. The biggest catastrophe, he said, would be to do nothing in the face of climate change.

"My father once told me, 'Carl, there is a special place in hell reserved for fence sitters.' "

The son of a horse trainer, Hodges grew up around racetracks. His dad once traded their Phoenix home for some thoroughbreds, moving the family briefly into a shed.

A stomach for risk-taking landed the young scientist in the top spot at the Environmental Research Lab in 1967 at the age of 30. There he decided that farming must be adapted to utilize saltwater, which accounts for 97% of the world's water supply.

His team's work on shrimp cultivation fueled the explosion in Mexico's aquaculture industry. The leader of Abu Dhabi sent his lab $3.6 million on a handshake to build a saltwater greenhouse system for growing vegetables in that arid emirate. Brando took a shine to Hodges after meeting him at an environmental gathering in the late 1970s. The reclusive star hosted the wonky scientist several times at his private island retreat of Tetiaroa in the South Pacific, an area especially vulnerable to sea-level rise.

"Marlon understood global warming," Hodges said. "He thought we were running out of time."

Hodges' model for the Mexico project is a seawater farm he designed for the government of Eritrea, an impoverished, bone-dry East African nation perched on the Red Sea. Opened in 1999, the farm consisted of ocean-fed ponds of shrimp and fish, whose waste was used to irrigate 250 acres of salicornia that the Eritreans converted into animal feed. A 150-acre mangrove wetland provided habitat for wildlife.

Political upheaval crippled the operation. But at its peak the farm generated hundreds of jobs and turned famine-prone Eritrea into a modest exporter of shrimp. Video footage of the endeavor shows a lush oasis of green in the desert.

"It was a miracle," said Tekie Teclemariam Anday, an Eritrean marine biologist who now works with Hodges in Mexico. "People viewed him like a messiah."

Whether Hodges' Big Idea wins a wider group of converts remains to be seen.

NASA's Bushnell says seawater agriculture has enormous potential. He praised Hodges' science as "superb." Still, he said algae might ultimately prove to be the best plant-based biofuel because it can produce much more fuel per acre.

Hodges is "a pioneer," Bushnell said. "But first-movers generally aren't the successful ones at the end."

Hodges contends that all manner of renewables are needed to wean the planet from its oil addiction. Still, his talk of stopping sea-level rise and reinventing agriculture is so audacious that some of his own backers have cautioned him to tone it down.

But longtime friend Sheen says Hodges isn't likely to. "We have to be outrageous in our efforts to solve" climate change, the actor said. "Carl is on a mission to save the world."

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Products from clones "on the verge of widespread commercial use"

It really does sound like science fiction doesn't it? Who would have imagined that we'd actually be having discussions/debates about the ethical, environmental and public health implications of allowing food from cloned animals into the marketplace. Well obviously lots of folks. And according to the following story, the discussions are nearing and end and cloned beef and chicken could be on supermarket shelves around the world as early as 2010!

You can bet that the impacts of global climate change on food production will, at some point, be used in defense of supporting cloning. It's already been done in attempts to rationalize the use of bovine somatotropin to increase milk production in cows.

"Brave new world" doesn't come close to describing what's going on. (GW)

EU experts say 'yes, but' to animal cloning for food

July 25, 2008

While the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has found no clear safety concerns related to food products from clones of cattle, pigs or their offspring, it strongly underlines that no way near enough scientific data on the subject exists as yet and that the practice has major repercussions on animal health and welfare.


Cloning is not a commercial practice in Europe and products from clones are not known to have entered the European food chain as yet. However, according to the Commission, products from clones are "on the verge of widespread commercial use" and are "expected to spread within the global food chain before 2010".

This is why the Commission asked the EU's Food Safety Authority (EFSA ) for a scientific opinion on the implications of animal cloning on food safety, animal welfare and the environment. In parallel, the EU executive also asked the European Group on Ethics for Science and New Technologies (EGE ) to give an opinion on the ethics of cloning.

These requests for opinions also came shortly after the United States Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) draft risk assessment stated, in December 2006, that meat and milk products from cloned cattle, pigs and goats were safe for consumption.

The EGE group concluded that no argument exists to ethically justify the production of food from clones and their offspring.

The EFSA's draft opinion , published in January 2008, stated that "it is very unlikely that any difference exists in terms of food safety between food products from clones and their progeny compared with conventionally-bred animals".

EFSA's final scientific opinion on the implications of animal cloning on food safety, animal health and welfare and the environment, adopted on 15 July, concludes that "for cattle and pigs, food safety concerns are considered unlikely," but acknowledges that the scientific committee's work was challenging due to the lack of data on the subject.

The opinion only concerns risk assessments on clones of cattle and pigs and their offspring, as assessment for other animals is not possible based on current knowledge, according to the committee.

"The committee wants to strongly highlight the issue of uncertainties characterising this risk assessment," said Vittorio Silano, the chair of the EFSA Scientific Committee, when presenting the opinion on 24 July. These uncertainties arise from the limited number of studies available, the small sample sizes investigated and the absence of a uniform data approach to allow consideration of all relevant issues, he added.

Therefore, Silano said, the opinion should be updated and reconsidered in the light of new data and developments in cloning.

The opinion puts a lot of emphasis on animal health and welfare. The committee notes that "significant animal health and welfare issues" exist for cloned animals compared to conventionally bread ones.

Interestingly, an EU Directive on the protection of animals kept for farming purposes states that "natural or artificial breeding or breeding procedures which cause or are likely to cause suffering or injury to any of the animals concerned must not be practiced".

"The reality is that everyone involved understands that healthy food comes from healthy animals," said John Collins, a member of EFSA's scientific committee, commenting on the opinion.

The committee recommends, among other issues, further investigation into the "susceptibility of clones and their offspring to diseases and transmissible agents when reared and kept under conventional husbandry conditions".

As for the environmental impact, the committee said none is foreseen, underlining that there is not enough data available on this aspect either. Regarding biodiversity, the opinion notes that "cloning does not appear to have a direct effect on genetic diversity in that no new genetic modifications are introduced, but there could be an indirect effect due to overuse of a limited number of animals in breeding programmes".

Asked how much consideration the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave to animal health and welfare before giving a positive opinion on the market authorisation of food products from clone offspring in early 2008, Silano said the FDA was not really looking into animal welfare aspects as that is not part of its mandate.

He also added that the EU and US regulatory systems are quite different regarding the animal welfare aspects of the food sector and acknowledged that this could lead to differences in their approach to hazard management.


The EFSA opinion complements, to some extent, the opinion of the European Group on Ethics for Science and New Technologies ( EGE ) on the issue. Earlier this year, EGE argued that "considering the current level of suffering and health problems" of animal clones, there is no ethically justified reason for cloning animals for food supply.

The Eurogroup for Animals hopes that the EFSA opinion - examined in the light of the EU Directive on the protection of animals kept for farming purposes - will lead the Commission to ban both cloning as well as the trade and import of products from cloned animals and their offspring.

"Cloning is an incredibly wasteful process with only about five animals out of a 100 being born alive. The ones who do live die earlier and suffer from more defects than normal animals," it stated.

"The EU is now obliged to follow its own rules. Under the general Farm Directive, a breeding technique that causes suffering should not be allowed. The treaty protocol on animal welfare says full regard should be paid to the welfare of animals," noted the director of the Eurogroup for Animals, Sonja Van Tichelen. Accordingly, the EU has the legal obligation to ban animal cloning for food, she added.

The United States Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Final Risk Assessment , published on 15 January 2008, concluded that "meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats, and the offspring of clones from any species traditionally consumed as food, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals," but did not reach any conclusion on the safety of food from clones of other animal species, such as sheep, due to insufficient information.

After the FDA's final assessment, the US Department of Agriculture still asked American farmers to voluntarily keep their cloned animals off the market. Its stance is backed by the federation of the nation's dairy manufacturing and marketing industries and their suppliers, who argue that it would be prudent to wait until all major foreign trading partners have reviewed and approved the same cloning technology in their respective countries and consumers have become comfortable with the idea of buying milk from cloned cows.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Germany prepared to take the deep green plunge

Germany is a world leader in the deployment of renewable energy technology, having set the standard for both photovoltaics and wind energy. One area where they have been relatively slow to get off the dime has been in offshore wind development. The reasons for this are understandable. While offshore wind development holds tremendous potential, the successful and sustainable deployment of the technology faces formidable challenges.

But Germany has made the decision to take the plunge. An ambitious project designed to ultimately deploy thousands of offshore wind turbines is scheduled to commence next month. Enhanced incentives to Germany's Renewable Energy Law (EEG) supported by the German parliament has succeeded in jump-starting offshore wind activity off the country's northern coast. (GW)

A Green Revolution off Germany's Coast

By Anselm Waldermann

Spiegel Online

July 24, 2008

The German government envisions thousands of wind turbines in the waters off the country's northern coast. Construction on the first project begins in August. And many more are in the planning stages. Has Germany's offshore energy revolution finally arrived?

The official blessing came from the very top. "Wind energy is a very important prospect for the future," Germany's President Horst Köhler said. Green energy, he added, is "in tune with nature."

The industry is in need of Köhler's encouraging words. For the last 10 years the German government and companies have been working on plans to build enormous offshore wind farms. And, yet, not a single blade currently turns off the coast of Germany. The reasons? Technical difficulties, a lack of money and problems with the power cables.

The breakthrough, though, could finally come this summer. In the North Sea, 45 kilometers north of the German island of Borkum, the first offshore wind farm in Germany -- called Alpha Ventus -- is finally taking shape. "Construction starts in August," Lutz Wiese, a spokesman for the project, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Every single wind turbine will weigh 1,000 tons -- and rise nearly as high as the Cologne Cathedral (see graphic).

The firms behind the project are German energy companies E.ON and EWE along with Swedish power company Vattenfall. It's an odd collection -- the trio of companies are hardly known for their interest in green energy, operating mainly coal and nuclear power plants. That, though, looks to be changing. The companies' top executives are hoping to develop a multi-billion euro business in renewable energies.

A German Electricity Revolution

The official line is that Alpha Ventus is intended merely as a research project with no current plans to turn it into a commercial operation. The project isn't especially big either: Only 12 wind turbines will be erected, with a combined capacity of 60 megawatts -- enough to provide power to 60,000 homes during a good breeze.

Nevertheless, Alpha Ventus could be the beginning of a German electricity revolution. Experts predict that the new wind park will be just the first of many in the North Sea and Baltic Sea off the coast of northern Germany.

By 2020, 10,000 megawatts-worth of offshore wind turbines -- the output of 10 nuclear power plants -- will be connected to the grid, according to the German government. As a result, the share of renewable energies in the German electricity mix will shoot up from 12 percent to 20 percent. No other energy source has such growth potential. In addition to helping reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases in Germany, such an increase in wind power would also make Germany less dependent on foreign energy sources.

The Federal Office of Maritime Navigation and Hydrography has already opened up 20 areas in the North and Baltic Seas for the construction of wind turbines. Most of the projects are still in the planning phase, but some are more advanced:

  • The company Bard Engineering is developing Germany's first commercial offshore wind farm -- around 100 kilometers off Borkum. On top of that Bard has applied to build seven further wind farms in the North Sea.

  • US private equity and asset management firm Blackstone is getting into the German wind energy business on a large scale. The company recently announced it was investing over €1 billion ($1.6 billion) into a proposed wind farm, called the Meerwind project. The wind farm is supposed to be built northwest of the German island Helgoland and provide electricity for 500,000 households in a few years time.

  • In the Baltic Sea, plans for Park Baltic I are the most advanced. Twenty-one wind turbines are to be built off the coast of Fischland-Darss-Zingst, a peninsula on the east German coast.

  • All big energy companies have expressed interest in the offshore market. German energy firm EnBW alone wants to erect 260 wind turbines over the next five years; on the long term it plans to build another 500. E.ON, RWE and Vattenfall have expressed similar interest. The planned investments amount to several billion euros.

What has sparked this boom is Germany's Renewable Energy Law (EEG) -- or more precisely, the changes Germany's parliament's made to it in early June. The EEG sets fixed rates which have to be paid for renewable energy. Until now, the rate was 9 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity coming from offshore wind parks. The change means that operators can now bank on 15 cents per kilowatt hour. "That has an impact," Ulf Gerder of the German WindEnergy Association says.

The first electricity from the flagship project Alpha Ventus is supposed to hit the grid in October. The 12 wind turbines are supplied by manufacturers Repower and Multibrid, and they will be erected in a lattice-like formation at a distance of 800 meters (a half mile) apart, meaning the wind farm will stretch over an area of four square kilometres (1.5 square miles) -- the size of 550 football fields.

'World Premiere'

The advantages of such an offshore wind farm are clear. The ones currently being planned in Germany won't be visible from land, so people are unlikely to complain about them. And, because of the strength and consistency of sea winds, wind turbines located off the coast generate more power.

On the other hand, the challenges are greater as well. The water at the site of the proposed Alpha Ventus wind turbines in the North Sea is 30 to 40 meters deep -- and the turbines have to be anchored in the seabed with steel posts. Spokesman Wiese talks about a "world premiere", as the existing offshore wind farms off Scotland and Denmark stand in much shallower water.

Such difficulties also up the price tag. Alpha Ventus is to cost €180 million ($282 million) to build -- nearly three times as much as a similar installation on land. The government is channelling €50 million ($78.7 million) into research. E.ON is footing the €40 million ($62.9 million) bill for the connection to the grid.

Such sums mean that offshore wind parks are likely to remain the province of established energy giants. To reach the government's targets, €20 billion to €30 billion will have to be spent on wind turbine construction in the North and Baltic Seas. Smaller wind farms funded by local investment groups -- a major part of the land-based windmill boom -- won't have a chance.

Maintenance promises to be expensive as well. Indeed, keeping offshore wind parks up and running makes up some 20 to 30 percent of total costs, according to industry estimates. Plus, the turbines have to be built to withstand gusts of 160 kilometers per hour and 15 meter high waves. On top of that there is the salty air -- the Danish manufacturer Vestas, for example, has found corrosion to be a major problem on its offshore turbines.

Taken together, it is unsurprising that offshore wind farms remain something of a rarity. At the moment wind turbines with a capacity of 100,000 megawatts are in operation around the world, of which a mere 1 percent are offshore. The rest are on land.

In Germany, environmental protection must also be factored in. As does the fact that new power lines would be needed to transport large quantities of offshore energy to major urban areas in the country's south and west. Indeed, the list of obstacles means that many view the government's goal as overly ambitious: To produce 10,000 megawatts in 2020 would -- using today's technology -- require 2,000 to 3,000 wind turbines. "We're building 12 such turbines," E.ON CEO Wulf Bernotat said, referring to Alpha Ventus. "Who is going to build the other 2,988?"

Fritz Vahrenhot, former head of wind power firm Repower, is also skeptical. In the coming five years, Germany will produce at most 4,000 megawatts, he said, "if we do our best."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Being Barack Obama

Reams have been written about the historic significance of Barack Obama's amazing presidential bid. Much of the focus has been on whether or not this represents a radical transformation of the American political landscape. Those discussions place a tremendous amount of pressure and responsibility on Obama's motives and abilities: is he really an agent of change or merely a variation on the same old political theme? Is he "Black enough" to heal the nation's racial wounds? Can his very candidacy improve America's tarnished image around the world?

Following is a critique on the Obama campaign that appeared in "The Left Turn", a "national network of activists engaged in exposing and fighting the consequences of global capitalism and imperialism". It was part of a special issue entitled Turning Up the Heat: Ecology and the Left & Elections 2008. (GW)

Openings and Possibilities: The Meaning of Obama

By Kazembe Balagun and Hank Williams

Left Turn

June 14, 2008

How does the Black left engage and understand the historic presidential campaign of Barack Obama? This question is in the hearts and minds of African-American radicals around the country.

With the nomination of Barack Obama increasingly likely, there seems to be a significant block forming within the Black left community agreeing to lend a kind of “critical support” to his campaign. Activists Bill Fletcher and Danny Glover —two principal authors of the widely circulated Progressives for Obama (PFO) statement—as well as other notables such as Amiri Baraka see Obama’s candidacy as an opening to reinvigorate social movements and the see possibility of pushing him to the Left. The PFO call argues that the emerging movement, “even though it is candidate-centered…is a social movement, one greater than the candidate himself ever imagined.”

The PFO is certainly not the only perspective within Black activist circles. On the other side of the aisle are those such as the Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford who has written a series of sharp critiques on Obama’s foreign policy, his ties to traditional party politics, and his role within the machinery of capitalism. Ford and others point out that elections do not resolve the fundamental issue of power and that the US is based on a patriarchal, capitalist, racist framework. While many would agree with this critical framework put forward by Ford, they draw different conclusions on how to relate to the Obama campaign. To paraphrase historian Robin DG Kelly, political movements are not solely built on critiques or a laundry list of oppressions. One thing that is lacking in this particular critique of Obama has been acknowledgement of the very real excitement his campaign offers and the sense of agency that many are finding there. To dismiss this outright is to close the very doors we may want to open.

New openings

Obama’s campaign is a living force, bringing millions into political life for the first time. The question facing the Black Left is not only whether or not to engage with the campaign, but how does Obama’s popularity bring into focus the current political context? What is our current political moment? How do we define race, class, and gender in this time period? Can the campaign offer the opening for a radical transformation of society? How do we take advantage of what openings might be created and, more importantly, do we have the forces necessary to do the needed work to make this happen without being wholly consumed by the campaign itself? In other words, we have to ask how much of the “Obama movement” really can be said to be independent of the campaign and if there is enough people power being developed on the ground to make the uncoupling from the Obama campaign a reality after the elections?

As the primary election draws to a close, the challenge ahead will be developing an anti-racist response to the almost certain conservative White backlash, particularly if Obama is nominated. This doesn’t mean defending Obama, but using the opportunity to deepen the public’s understanding of the intersections of race, gender, and class oppression.

At the same time, given an Obama victory, the Black left must not be swept up in the initial euphoria, but rather seize the time and develop multiracial alliances to pressure Obama from the left.

Black enough?

Barack Obama is not the first major African-American leader of mixed heritage. WEB Dubois and Malcolm X had bi-racial ancestry, however where the latter were ambiguous about their relations to White ancestry, Obama has embraced his lineage as a symbol of multicultural identity and tied this to his packaging as a unifier who can bring the US together across lines of race, class, and political parties. While he has the right to embrace whatever identity he wants, much of his broad support is conditional on one premise, as Gary Younge aptly wrote in The Nation: “Don’t scare white people. At least not too many [of them] and not too much.” As Younge points out, questions of whether or not Obama is really “black enough” are really shorthand for more basic concerns of whether or not he will actually represent voters’ interests and not sell them out like so many other politicians have before.

Obama is walking a racial tightrope in his campaign. His lack of critical engagement with key issues affecting Black people in the country, such as the continuing legacy of Hurricane Katrina and the Jena 6, can’t be ignored or excused by the left.

After Obama’s idealizing moment in Iowa that suggested a post-racial future, the campaign’s racialization via the Clinton campaign’s suspected darkening of his pictures and the media uproar about Rev. Jeremiah Wright shows us that we are not in such a post-racial moment. “To think the idea that Obama’s candidacy, or presidency, will somehow move us beyond race or racism, is not only absurd, but dangerous,” says New York City-based writer and activist Kenyon Farrow.

At a time when legal racial constraints have been eliminated and people on both the right and liberal left look to a colorblind future, the Obama campaign offers an oasis of hope. For conservatives, the campaign is proof positive that inequality has been eliminated. Liberals and many on the left see an opportunity to get past the pesky demands of “identity politics,” which is usually code for sweeping demands to deal squarely with issues of gender, race, and sexuality under the rug; subsuming everything under ill-defined calls for change.

One of the major challenges for Obama’s left supporters is figuring out how to further the dialogue regarding the fundamentals of racism in the US. Rather than marginalize Wright’s comments it is imperative for left activists, particularly left intellectuals, to be able to contextualize and explain his position. The recent debate over Wright illustrates the mainstream media’s continued attempts to push issues of institutionalized racism off the agenda.

Shifting landscape

While Obama’s campaign has been able to root itself in the mass discontent with President Bush’s policies, it would be wrong to look at Obama in and of himself as the catalyst for change.

Indeed, Obama’s rise has taken place within the context of grassroots movements around the country like voter registration drives sparked by the hip-hop generation and the antiwar movement. Since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, millions of people have taken to the streets in protest. The mass mobilizations have led to a major shift in public opinion: A clear majority of people in the US are opposed to the war, and many more are making connections between the trillions spent in military aid and the growing economic crunch at home.

The second major force has been the bookending of generations. Millions of baby boomers that grew up in the revolutionary 1960s are met with a new generation of “millennials” who are coming into political consciousness. Such a radical mix, aided by the renewed study of the civil rights/Black Power movements, has allowed for a re-articulation of left politics. Development of mass voter rights campaigns like the League of Young Voters has generated a new sensibility around issues of community involvement and empowerment, which could serve as a bridge for further radicalism.

In short, it has been this hot mix of protest, grassroots organizing, and generational shifts that has given Obama the opening to even run his campaign. Indeed, for the first time since the Reagan revolution, the presidential campaign has shifted to the left and toward populism, giving Obama the space to declare the return of troops by 2010.

The key question the Obama campaign raises is whether the Left can begin to break with the Democratic Party’s hegemony and develop democratic grassroots movements that actually build people’s power rather than subvert long-term strategy through corporatized electoral campaign politics. If we are going to talk about building a mass movement, the campaign itself is less important than whether or not it helps us develop a new praxis for organizing and struggle. Key questions we should ask are how to engage those who will emerge from the Obama experience with a politically advanced view, seeing that there are structural problems with capitalism that loom larger than the Obama campaign, or any other, can tackle. Equally important are those who may not fully realize the flaws of capitalism, but will be energized enough to want to continue some sort of political work beyond November. Large community forums like the one recently hosted in New York City by the Harlem Tenants’ Council, bringing together leaders, activists, and youth to begin critical discussion around long-term political strategy within the Black community, will play an important role as we move forward.

Further south, in the tradition of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, we saw thousands of students from the historically Black college, Prairie View A&M in Waller County, TX, march from their homes and campus to the voting booth. The demonstration was a protest against attempts by Texas to disenfranchise the students by placing the one and only polling station seven miles away. This is an example of the type of organic activity that the Obama campaign has sparked throughout the country, even as actions that are not directly tied to it. This country has long witnessed a history of Black people’s abilities to self-organize both at the margins of society as well as on the national political stage, sometimes in harmony with each other.

Two important tasks for the Left to confront are those of developing scenarios for dealing with mass demoralization if Obama loses or celebrating and pushing him to the Left if he wins. Left organizations and individuals need to continue the type of grassroots organizing work that created the critical moment for the Obama phenomenon to even exist. Grammy-award winning singer Lauryn Hill asks, “what does it mean to gain the world for the price of your soul?” History will only judge this political moment positively if a transformative vision takes root throughout the country, which means looking past November and tapping the energy that the Obama campaign has created for struggles in the future.

Much of the hope for the future is contained in the sense of possibility. The road map is being created with fire, breath, and desire. The question is no longer “What is to be Done” but rather, as Erykah Badu asks, with both boldness and trepidation, “What we going to do?”

    About the Authors

    Kazembe Balagun is Outreach Coordinator for the Brecht Forum in New York City ( Hank Williams is a PhD candidate at the City University of New York.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Electrifying transportation

Permit my presumptuousness as I suggest one addition and one change to billionaire oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens' bold and visionary energy plan for America that he recently announced. His plan would break our dependence on foreign oil by tapping the enormous wind energy resource that flows along the corridor between Texas and the Dakotas and by encouraging the development of automobiles that run on natural gas.

First my addition: Offshore wind. The Texas-Dakota corridor is the Saudi Arabia of (onshore) wind in the U.S. However there are other vast and accessible wind resources and they are flowing over the waters of the nation's outer continental shelf and its Great Lakes. That's almost equal to the country's total installed capacityThe U.S. Department of Energy conservatively estimates these to be more than 900,000 megawatts.. What's more it's very close to major urban load centers. The development of these wind resources could address major sources of electricity demand without exorbitant investments in transmission lines.

Now for my recommended change: Develop cars that run on electricity not natural gas. Natural gas emits carbon dioxide. Electric vechicles (running on electricity generated from wind turbines) do not.

Curious minds reading the following piece on General Motors' latest interest in electric cars will undoubtedly want to know what's changed since the halcyon days of EV1?(GW)

GM Teams With Dozens of Utilities on Plug-In Cars

By Rebecca Smith and John Stoll

Wall Street Journal

July 22, 2008

Three dozen electric utilities and General Motors Corp. agreed to collaborate on smoothing a path for a plug-in electric vehicle that is slated to roll out in about two years.

The collaboration is the first major effort by the two industries on an electric vehicle and includes some of the biggest names in the power sector, so far spanning utilities that operate in nearly 40 states: American Electric Power Co., Austin Energy, Consolidated Edison Inc., Dominion Resources Inc., Duke Energy Corp., DTE Energy Co., Edison International, New York Power Authority, PG&E Corp., Progress Energy Inc. and Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., to name a few.

Both industries have a lot riding on the success of plug-in cars that will run largely on electricity, with gasoline or other fuels filling a supplementary role. Auto makers need a hot-selling product to revive sales and hope the technology will slash gasoline consumption and reduce reliance on imported oil. GM plans to introduce the Chevrolet Volt and Saturn Vue as its first models. Other auto makers, including Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co., are working on versions of plug-in cars.

After more than a century of relying on gasoline as the main fuel for automobiles, GM and its rivals are scrambling to diversify energy sources. The Chevy Volt, due in late 2010, is intended to be the boldest effort yet, designed to run at full speed for at least 40 miles solely on lithium-ion batteries. Unless plugged in for a recharge, the gasoline engine kicks in at that point.

Auto makers need the cooperation of utilities since they control the new technology's primary fuel -- electricity -- and must make sure that the vehicles' recharging processes mesh with the electricity grid and don't inadvertently undermine grid reliability. GM first started courting utilities and other energy-related companies last year, knowing it needs the cooperation of several players, including battery makers, to produce plug-in vehicles that function as well as conventional cars and trucks.

"GM is introducing production cars that have to work in all 50 states and Canada," said Mark Duvall, program manager for electric transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., an industry research group that is participating in the collaboration. "But every electric system is a little bit different, so there are a lot of little issues to work out."

At the most basic level, intelligence that will be embedded in the cars in the form of computer chips and software needs to be met with equal intelligence on the utility side. That way, a car that plugs into a garage electric outlet will be recognized as a car by the utility and recharged when it is best for the electric system and, perhaps, at a price that will be lower for cars than other appliances.

What utilities don't want is for cars to recharge during hot summer afternoons, when they could push wholesale electricity prices into a more expensive tier. Off-peak recharging actually could make the electric system more efficient by slightly increasing production at power plants with capacity to spare. Research shows there is enough excess electrical capacity at night to recharge tens of millions of vehicles.

Intelligence in the systems is important for another reason. Congress is considering climate-change legislation that would set a price on carbon-dioxide emissions. Utilities might get special consideration if they can prove their electricity is replacing gasoline and cutting overall emissions.

GM would like to take special rates and incentives and use them to build sales. According to current projections, it should be much cheaper to recharge a car overnight than to buy the equivalent amount of gasoline. Cars recharged daily could go 600 miles or more between fill-ups.

As utilities begin to confront the integration issues, they also are considering how much they want to encourage deployment . Austin Energy, a city-owned utility that serves the Texas capital, has decided to offer a $1,000 incentive to people who buy plug-in cars.

Electric-industry research shows electrifying transportation cuts emissions even if electricity is made by burning coal. That is because power plants burn coal more efficiently than the internal-combustion engine consumes gasoline.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Your money or your statistical life

True confession: I've never liked the concept of the "cost/benefit analysis". I mean, just how much is a human life worth? The answer probably depends on who you ask. If our value was based on the ecosystem services we provide (like the honeybee's service to Nature as pollinators, for example), the answer might very well be a negative number for most of us.

I can only think of a handful of people I know personally for whom that would not be the case.
For many life is more than the measure of our physical contributions to maintaining ecosystem integrity (thank God).

But does the EPA have the right perspective on this? (GW)

Cosmic Markdown: EPA Says Life Is Worth Less

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post
Saturday, July 19, 2008

Someplace else, people might tell you that human life is priceless. In Washington, the federal government has appraised it like a '96 Camaro with bad brakes.

Last week, it was revealed that an Environmental Protection Agency office had lowered its official estimate of life's value, from about $8.04 million to about $7.22 million. That decision has put a spotlight on the concept of the "Value of a Statistical Life," in which the Washington bureaucracy takes on a question usually left to preachers and poets.

This value is routinely calculated by several agencies, each putting its own dollar figure on the worth of life -- not any particular person's life, just that of a generic American. The figure is then used to judge whether potentially lifesaving policy measures are really worth the cost.

A human life, based on an economic analysis grounded in observations of everyday Americans, typically turns out to be worth $5 million to $8 million -- about as much as a mega-mansion or a middle infielder.

Now, for the first time, the EPA has used this little-known process to devalue life, something that environmentalists say could set a scary precedent, making it seem that lifesaving pollution reductions are not worth the cost.

"By reducing the value of human life, which is really a devious way of cooking the books, the perceived benefits of cleaning up the air seem less," said Frank O'Donnell of the District-based group Clean Air Watch. "That has the effect of weakening the case for pollution cleanup."

To grasp the mind-bending concept of a Blue Book value on life, government officials say it is important to remember that they are not thinking about anyone specifi c. That happens in lawsuits, when plaintiffs seek to be compensated for a life lost -- and there, it can involve personal factors such as the deceased's lost income.

Here, officials say, they are trying instead to come up with the value of a typical life, without any personal information attached.

They might know, for instance, that a new cut in air pollution will save 50 lives a year -- though they don't know who those people might be. Still they want to decide whether saving them is worth the cost, officials say, and it helps to assign a dollar value to each life saved.

An example of this kind of analysis was used by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission this year:

A proposal to make mattresses less flammable was expected to cost the industry $343 million to implement. But, a spokeswoman said, the move was also expected to save 270 people. The commission calculated that each life was worth $5 million, which meant a benefit of about $1.3 billion.

That was greater than the expense, she said, so the move made sense.

"It is, sometimes, a weird idea" to weigh lives against other costs, acknowledged Jack Wells, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Transportation. "But, if you think about it, people behave that way all the time. . . . We could eliminate a lot of the [highway] fatalities by imposing a 10-mile-per-hour speed limit." But, he said, society implicitly tolerates greater highway deaths in return for the economic benefits of faster travel.

But how do you put a dollar value on a life, even in a generic sense?

It wouldn't work for researchers to survey Americans at gunpoint and ask how much they would pay not to die. Instead, an unlikely academic field has grown up to extrapolate life's value from the everyday decisions of average Americans.

Researchers try to figure out how much money it takes for people to accept slightly bigger risks, such as a more dangerous job. They also look at how much people will pay to make their daily risks smaller -- such as buying a bike helmet or a safer car.

"How much are you willing to pay for a small reduction . . . in the probability that you will die?" asked Joe Aldy, a fellow at the D.C.-based think tank Resources for the Future.

The rest is more or less multiplication: If someone will accept a 1-in-10,000 chance of death for $500, then the value of life must be 10,000 times $500, or $5 million.

But it is one thing to calculate the numbers and another to explain them to the public. The EPA has been fighting that battle since last week, when the Associated Press revealed that the agency's air office had reduced its Value of a Statistical Life.

Al McGartland, the director of the agency's National Center for Environmental Economics, said the air office had revised the old figure in 2004 after new academic research showed it was skewed too high.

"It's based on better methods," McGartland said of the air office's assessment. He said the new number would increase over time, in part because of inflation.

The EPA's value for life remains one of the highest. Earlier this year, the Department of Transportation raised its value -- but even after the increase, it stood at $5.8 million, more than a million dollars less than the EPA's.

Still, environmental activists said the decision made it more likely that the EPA's regulations would allow greater air pollution, because deaths triggered by the pollution would seem to count for less. Experts say serious air pollution can make heart and lung conditions worse, sometimes resulting in death.

One of the researchers whom the EPA cited said he was puzzled at the agency's calculations on the value of a human life.

"Nobody's ever lowered it," said W. Kip Viscusi of Vanderbilt University. EPA came closest: In 2003, it tried to count senior citizens' lives as worth less than those of other adults. After a loud outcry from seniors, the agency backed off.

Viscusi said most researchers believe the value should generally be going up, as Americans have become wealthier and more willing to spend money to avoid risks.

"I personally wasn't in favor of lowering the value of life, let's put it that way," he said.

Lowering the value of life. In some bureaucratic corners of Washington, it is the kind of phrase that nobody blinks at anymore.

But it still can sound odd to those accustomed to thinking of life's worth in other ways.

Daniel Zemel, rabbi at Temple Micah on Wisconsin Avenue NW, said Wednesday that the idea of a dollar value on life brings to mind the teaching that "you put one human life on the scale, and you put the rest of the world on the scale, the scale is balanced equally."

Zemel said h e could understand officials' logic for making decisions this way. But he said he would counsel anybody whose job involved "Statistical Lives" to think about what they really represent.

"Numbers on a piece of paper are, at the end of the day, somewhere out there," Zemel said, "real people whose lives are being impacted."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.