Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ride like the wind

Momentum for plug-in electric vehicles powered by renewables (with wind energy bearing the brunt of the load, at least at the outset) continues to build.

That's encouraging.

The electric car has to be the centerpiece of any serious proposal designed to free us from 0ur addiction to foreign oil.

Are you listening, Washington?(GW)

Want a Better Way to Power Your Car? It's a Breeze

By Lester R. Brown

Washington Post

August 31, 2008

Legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens is half right. We do need to harness this country's wind resources for a homegrown source of electricity, as he has been urging this summer in expensive television ads. And we do need to reduce the $700 billion we may soon be paying annually for imported oil. But part two of Pickens's plan -- to move natural gas out of electricity production and use it to fuel cars instead -- just doesn't make sense.

Why not use the wind-generated electricity to power cars directly? Natural gas is still a fossil fuel that emits climate-changing gases when burned. Let's cut the natural-gas middleman.

Plug-in cars are here, nearly ready to market. We just need to put wind in the driver's seat. Several major auto manufacturers, including GM, Ford, Toyota and Nissan, are producing plug-in hybrids. Both Toyota and GM are committed to marketing plug-in hybrids in 2010. Toyota might even try to deliver a plug-in version of its Prius gas-electric hybrid, the bestseller whose U.S. sales match those of all other hybrids combined, next year.

Some Prius owners aren't even waiting for Toyota. They've jumped the gun, converting their cars to plug-ins simply by adding a second storage battery, which increases the distance you can drive between recharges, and an extension cord that you can plug into any wall socket to recharge the batteries from the electrical grid. This lets them push the car's already exceptional gas mileage in routine daily driving of 46 miles per gallon to more than 100 miles per gallon.

GM is in the game, too, with its Chevrolet Volt. This plug-in car is essentially an electric car with an auxiliary gasoline engine that generates electricity to recharge the batteries when needed. It boasts an all-electric range of 40 miles, more than adequate for most daily driving. GM reports that under typical driving conditions, the Volt averages 151 miles per gallon.

This new car technology is matched by new wind-turbine technology, setting the stage for an automotive-fuel economy powered largely by cheap wind energy. The Energy Department notes that North Dakota, Kansas and Texas alone have enough wind energy to easily satisfy national electricity needs. To actually put wind power on the road, of course, we would have to tap the wind resources in nearly all the states, plus those that are off-shore, which the department says can meet 70 percent of national electricity needs.

Texas, this country's leading oil producer for the last century, is now our leading generator of electricity from wind, having eclipsed California two years ago. With more than 5,500 megawatts of wind-generating capacity now in operation and two vast wind-farm complexes under development, the state will have more than 20,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (think 20 coal-fired power plants). Pickens, with his own 4,000-megawatt wind farm under development in the Texas Panhandle, is one of the largest investors. These wind farms could satisfy the residential electricity needs of nearly half the state's 24 million people.

The key to this massive development is the state government's participation. The state facilitated the construction of transmission lines that link the strong wind resources in West Texas and the Panhandle to major markets -- known as "load centers" -- in Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston.

While many residents in some places, such as Cape Cod, take a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) view of wind farms, the opposite is true in much of the rest of the country -- including the ranch country that extends from Texas north through the Dakotas. There, it's a PIMBY (Put It in My Backyard) issue. In ranching regions, competition among communities for these wind farms, and the jobs and tax revenues that come with them, is intense. Each wind turbine on a rancher's land typically brings a royalty of $3,000 to $10,000 per year, with no investment on the landowner's part. And the ranchers can continue to graze cattle on the land.

States outside of ranch country are also chiming in on the wind trend. California's largest project is a 4,500-megawatt cluster of wind farms in the Tehachapi Mountains in the south that will soon supply a large part of Los Angeles's electricity. Some 30 other states -- led by Iowa, Minnesota, Washington and Colorado -- now have commercial-scale wind farms.

New wind proposals are popping up everywhere. In July, California-based Clipper Windpower and BP announced a joint venture to build a 5,050-megawatt wind farm in eastern South Dakota. Since this would produce far more electricity than the state needs, the companies plan to build a transmission line across Iowa, feeding the electricity into Illinois and the Midwestern industrial heartland.

In the East, Delaware is planning an offshore wind farm of up to 600 megawatts -- enough to meet the residential needs of 40 percent of its residents. To the north, in Maine, a proposal by the governor to develop 3,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (more than enough to meet the state's residential electricity needs) passed both houses of the legislature unanimously in April. In the Northwest, Oregon and Washington are turning to wind to complement their hydropower resources.

While most of these developments are in the planning stages, the potential -- and the desire for wind energy -- is high. That's because wind wins on almost every count. It is carbon-free, cheap, abundant and inexhaustible -- and it is ours. No one can embargo the supply, the price never changes, and wind farms can be built in 12 months.

This is why shifting to natural gas to fuel cars, as Pickens recommends, isn't the best move. In contrast to wind-generated electricity, where costs are falling, the price of natural gas is on its way up. Reserves of natural gas, like those of oil, are shrinking. And ironically, as with oil, we import natural gas, sending money abroad for one-sixth of our supply.

Beyond that, there's the infrastructure question. How do we get the natural gas to the nation's service stations? These stations also would need to install pumps for natural gas, in addition to those for gasoline.

One of the attractions of pairing wind energy and plug-in hybrid cars is that it would not require new infrastructure. Indeed, a study by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory points out that the existing grid, using its off-peak capacity to recharge cars, could provide electricity for more than 70 percent of the U.S. fleet if all cars were plug-in hybrids.

With peak oil on our doorstep, the prices of oil and gasoline are projected to continue rising. While gasoline prices are probably headed to $5 to $10 a gallon, the wind-generated-electricity equivalent of a gallon of gasoline costs less than $1.

We are now in a position to launch a crash program to convert to plug-in hybrids on a massive scale and at wartime speed. This would resuscitate Detroit, reinvigorate thousands of the country's wind-rich rural communities, dramatically cut carbon emissions and quickly reduce the vast outflow of dollars for imported oil.

The car companies themselves seem on board -- witness GM's massive advertising push for the Chevy Volt, with spots airing frequently during NBC's Olympics broadcasts. After showing a progression of cars, the ad ends with the Volt, standing at the base of snow-capped mountains, clouds traveling swiftly overhead. Its launch is targeted for 2010. Perhaps by then, the wind moving the clouds will also power the sleek-looking sedan below.

Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and the author of "Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization."

Saturday, August 30, 2008

"I'm just going to have to board up the house and hope for the best"

The following passages are taken from the third anniversary issue of "The New Orleans Index: Tracking the Recovery of New Orleans & The Metro Area" compiled and published by the Brookings Institution. Note the final two paragraphs. They take on added importance as Hurricane Gustav strengthens and heads towards the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Index sites the progress that has been made. You still have to wonder why the reinforcement of the levees and the rebuilding of the communities has taken so long -- and if it would have taken this long if the neighborhoods of more affluent and politically influential residents were threatened. (GW)

When Hurricane Katrina struck and the levees protecting New Orleans failed, approximately 80 percent of the city was flooded. The business district and main tourist centers such as the French Quarter along the Mississippi River were relatively undamaged, but vast expanses of many New Orleans neighborhoods were inundated. According to the latest FEMA estimates, fully 107,000 occupied housing units were flooded and an additional 27,000 sustained wind damage. All told, 71 percent of New Orleans’ occupied housing units were damaged, making this the largest residential disaster in U.S. history.

Population recovery estimates vary significantly by planning district. By January 2008, Planning District 8 had recovered only 19 percent of its July 2005 active residences. Other hard-hit planning districts have recovered anywhere from 31 to 74 percent of pre-storm active residences. Planning districts that experienced little flooding now contain between 88 and 104 percent of their pre-Katrina active residences.

In 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to complete the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System for the New Orleans region. This system includes levees, floodgates, floodwalls, canal closures, and pumping stations. It is intended to provide protection from a storm surge that has a 1% chance of occurring any given year.

As of June 2007, hurricane flood modeling showed that some parts of town (such as planning districts 4 and 5) are now at less risk for flooding, while many neighborhoods (for example, planning districts 6, 8, 9, and 12) are essentially at the same risk for flooding as they were pre-Katrina. Meanwhile, improvements to the system are ongoing. This modeling indicates a greatly reduced risk of flooding after the 2011 system is completed.

New Orleans Remembers Katrina, Awaits Gustav

City Is 'Better Off' Three Years Later, But Work Remains

By Jeff Opdyke in New Orleans, Alex Roth in Atlanta and Leslie Eaton in Dallas

Wall Street Journal
August 29, 2008

New Orleans will commemorate the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Friday under the threat of Tropical Storm Gustav, which is creeping toward a city with many of the same vulnerabilities that proved disastrous in 2005.

Much has been done to repair and strengthen levees and install floodgates and floodwalls along the man-made canals that slice through New Orleans. But for every dollar that has been invested so far, at least three more of the federal dollars approved to shield the city from massive storms remain unspent.

Only in April, for instance, did the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers award a $695 million contract to build a barrier that would help protect the eastern part of New Orleans from a Gulf of Mexico storm surge of the type that flooded much of the city during Katrina. The project isn't scheduled to be finished for at least another year, according to federal officials.

On Thursday, federal officials were racing to strengthen an 1,800- foot stretch of the Industrial Canal that has been identified as structurally deficient. Workers were buttressing that section of the levee with sand-filled baskets.

A massive hurricane also could expose numerous other weaknesses in other areas -- levees that have yet to be strengthened on the west bank of the Mississippi River; and floodgates that haven't been installed at the mouth of the Industrial Canal, whose walls cracked open three years ago and famously flooded the impoverished Lower 9th Ward.

"We are much better off than we were pre-Katrina," said Randy Cephus, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' hurricane- protection office, based in New Orleans. "We still have a long way to go."

Gustav appears to be one of the biggest threats to the Gulf Coast since the storms of 2005, say forecasters, when hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the shores of Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and parts of Alabama. Gustav was gaining force Thursday as it pounded Jamaica with heavy rains and blew toward the western tip of Cuba. After absorbing the heat of the Gulf's warm waters, the storm is predicted to grow into a Category 3 hurricane over the Labor Day weekend, packing winds of more than 111 miles an hour.

Gustav's path could meander as far west as Texas or east toward Florida. Most forecasts suggested landfall in Louisiana by early Tuesday.

Anticipating a potentially catastrophic storm, state and local officials across a 300-mile swath of coastline stretching from Mississippi to Texas began preparations for massive evacuations expected to begin on Saturday, depending on the storm's course.

Louisiana planned to start evacuating its hospitals as early as Friday. Authorities on Sunday will likely begin its "contraflow plan," turning major roadways into one-way routes away from the coast, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

New Orleans plans to begin evacuations 65 hours before the expected arrival of tropical-force winds. Private relief agencies were preparing to deliver water, showers, chain-saw teams and mobile kitchens with a capacity to serve 300,000 to 400,000 meals a day.

Critics of the Corps of Engineers and others in charge of rebuilding the flood defenses of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast say progress has been slow. The levees now may be "a fraction of a percent better" than they were before Katrina, said Sandy Rosenthal, who founded the activist group after Hurricane Katrina. "But I think I speak for the citizenry of New Orleans when I say better is not good enough," she said.

Others point to the size and complexity of the task. The New Orleans metropolitan area sits largely on swampland, surrounded by waterways with 350 miles of levees and floodwalls. The Corp of Engineers is in the midst of an estimated $15 billion post-Katrina project, scheduled to be completed by 2011, that is designed to insulate the city from a storm so strong that its odds of occurring during a given year are 1%.

Of those 350 miles of levees and floodwalls, about 220 miles have been repaired, heightened or strengthened in the past three years.

Congress authorized a total of $12.8 billion to rebuild levees and floodwalls damaged by Katrina. But only $3 billion has been spent. The remaining amount includes $7.6 billion that Congress provided this year.

"This is complicated stuff," said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who has written extensively about the city's excavation and drainage issues. "These are major engineering projects . . . . It's hard to gauge whether this could have been executed faster."

Despite its shortfalls, New Orleans appears to be in a better position that many other coastal areas threatened by Gustav. Post- Katrina erosion of the delicate wetlands that make up Louisiana's coast has further stripped away a layer of protection from the coastal communities in rural parishes of southwestern Louisiana, says Garret Graves, chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, a state organization established after hurricanes Katrina and Rita to implement hurricane protection and coastal restoration.

Along the Gulf Coast, progress since Katrina has been slowed by funding and insurance problems. Dozens of communities struck by the 2005 storms are still struggling to put up new housing and reinstall roads and public buildings.

"I think there is a concern if we get another hit of some kind that it is going to be a huge setback," said Karen Rowley, who has studied Katrina's aftereffects as special-projects manager with the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana in Baton Rouge. "We are going to face the issue of a lot of people deciding it is not worth it to stay."

Les Fillingame, the recovery director of Bay St. Louis, Miss., said the town is still waiting for work to begin on a $30 million seawall project and a $15 million reconstruction of its main street. He said there is only one thing his town can do to prepare for another such storm: "Pray."

Across the region, thousands of residents jaded by weeks of lost electricity and services after past storms were booking inland hotels, planning their escape routes and stocking up on emergency supplies. Keith Taylor, assistant manager of a Home Depot in LaPlace, La., just north of New Orleans, said customers were buying "water, generators and anything that will hold gasoline."

Outside the store, Brandon Delaneuville was loading 10 sheets of half-inch-thick plywood into his truck Thursday afternoon. He plans to board up a new house he bought in Reserve, La. He says his wife probably will evacuate with her mother on Saturday while he keeps working. "I'm just going to have to board up the house and hope for the best," he said.

Daniel Fitzpatrick, Betsy McKay, Paulo Prada and Corey Dade contributed to this article.

Friday, August 29, 2008

“We still have a third-world grid”

Wind energy technology has matured and become competitive with coal and natural gas in generating electricity. Its very maturation, however, is in danger of outstripping the capacity of the electric grid to effectively integrate and transmit its greenhouse-free energy. There's no question that the grid -- like the rest of the nation's infrastructure -- is in need of some serious upgrading. Transmission -- getting the electricity from where it is generated by wind turbines to population centers where it is needed -- is a the major concern.

This point jumps out at anyone who reads T. Boone Pickens' highly publicized energy plan.
This is a legitimate concern. You'll be hearing a lot more about initiatives designed to develop the smart grid. That's very encouraging. At the same time it also needs to be stressed that the development of our offshore wind resources with projects like Cape Wind can also play a major role in addressing this issue. The folks at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have noted that the 28 coastal U.S. states of the United States use 78% of the nation's electricity. (GW)

Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid’s Limits

By Matthew L. Wald
New York Times
August 27, 2008

When the builders of the Maple Ridge Wind farm spent $320 million to put nearly 200 wind turbines in upstate New York, the idea was to get paid for producing electricity. But at times, regional electric lines have been so congested that Maple Ridge has been forced to shut down even with a brisk wind blowing.

That is a symptom of a broad national problem. Expansive dreams about renewable energy, like Al Gore’s hope of replacing all fossil fuels in a decade, are bumping up against the reality of a power grid that cannot handle the new demands.

The dirty secret of clean energy is that while generating it is getting easier, moving it to market is not.

The grid today, according to experts, is a system conceived 100 years ago to let utilities prop each other up, reducing blackouts and sharing power in small regions. It resembles a network of streets, avenues and country roads.

“We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,” said Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

While the United States today gets barely 1 percent of its electricity from wind turbines, many experts are starting to think that figure could hit 20 percent.

Achieving that would require moving large amounts of power over long distances, from the windy, lightly populated plains in the middle of the country to the coasts where many people live. Builders are also contemplating immense solar-power stations in the nation’s deserts that would pose the same transmission problems.

The grid’s limitations are putting a damper on such projects already. Gabriel Alonso, chief development officer of Horizon Wind Energy, the company that operates Maple Ridge, said that in parts of Wyoming, a turbine could make 50 percent more electricity than the identical model built in New York or Texas.

“The windiest sites have not been built, because there is no way to move that electricity from there to the load centers,” he said.

The basic problem is that many transmission lines, and the connections between them, are simply too small for the amount of power companies would like to squeeze through them. The difficulty is most acute for long-distance transmission, but shows up at times even over distances of a few hundred miles.

Transmission lines carrying power away from the Maple Ridge farm, near Lowville, N.Y., have sometimes become so congested that the company’s only choice is to shut down — or pay fees for the privilege of continuing to pump power into the lines.

Politicians in Washington have long known about the grid’s limitations but have made scant headway in solving them. They are reluctant to trample the prerogatives of state governments, which have traditionally exercised authority over the grid and have little incentive to push improvements that would benefit neighboring states.

In Texas, T. Boone Pickens, the oilman building the world’s largest wind farm, plans to tackle the grid problem by using a right of way he is developing for water pipelines for a 250-mile transmission line from the Panhandle to the Dallas market. He has testified in Congress that Texas policy is especially favorable for such a project and that other wind developers cannot be expected to match his efforts.

“If you want to do it on a national scale, where the transmission line distances will be much longer, and utility regulations are different, Congress must act,” he said on Capitol Hill.

Enthusiasm for wind energy is running at fever pitch these days, with bold plans on the drawing boards, like Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s notion of dotting New York City with turbines. Companies are even reviving ideas of storing wind-generated energy using compressed air or spinning flywheels.

Yet experts say that without a solution to the grid problem, effective use of wind power on a wide scale is likely to remain a dream.

The power grid is balkanized, with about 200,000 miles of power lines divided among 500 owners. Big transmission upgrades often involve multiple companies, many state governments and numerous permits. Every addition to the grid provokes fights with property owners.

These barriers mean that electrical generation is growing four times faster than transmission, according to federal figures.

In a 2005 energy law, Congress gave the Energy Department the authority to step in to approve transmission if states refused to act. The department designated two areas, one in the Middle Atlantic States and one in the Southwest, as national priorities where it might do so; 14 United States senators then signed a letter saying the department was being too aggressive.

Energy Department leaders say that, however understandable the local concerns, they are getting in the way. “Modernizing the electric infrastructure is an urgent national problem, and one we all share,” said Kevin M. Kolevar, assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability, in a speech last year.

Unlike answers to many of the nation’s energy problems, improvements to the grid would require no new technology. An Energy Department plan to source 20 percent of the nation’s electricity from wind calls for a high-voltage backbone spanning the country that would be similar to 2,100 miles of lines already operated by a company called American Electric Power.

The cost would be high, $60 billion or more, but in theory could be spread across many years and tens of millions of electrical customers. However, in most states, rules used by public service commissions to evaluate transmission investments discourage multistate projects of this sort. In some states with low electric rates, elected officials fear that new lines will simply export their cheap power and drive rates up.

Without a clear way of recovering the costs and earning a profit, and with little leadership on the issue from the federal government, no company or organization has offered to fight the political battles necessary to get such a transmission backbone built.

Texas and California have recently made some progress in building transmission lines for wind power, but nationally, the problem seems likely to get worse. Today, New York State has about 1,500 megawatts of wind capacity. A megawatt is an instantaneous measure of power. A large Wal-Mart draws about one megawatt. The state is planning for an additional 8,000 megawatts of capacity.

But those turbines will need to go in remote, windy areas that are far off the beaten path, electrically speaking, and it is not clear enough transmission capacity will be developed. Save for two underwater connections to Long Island, New York State has not built a major new power line in 20 years.

A handful of states like California that have set aggressive goals for renewable energy are being forced to deal with the issue, since the goals cannot be met without additional power lines.

But Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a former energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, contends that these piecemeal efforts are not enough to tap the nation’s potential for renewable energy.

Wind advocates say that just two of the windiest states, North Dakota and South Dakota, could in principle generate half the nation’s electricity from turbines. But the way the national grid is configured, half the country would have to move to the Dakotas in order to use the power.

“We still have a third-world grid,” Mr. Richardson said, repeating a comment he has made several times. “With the federal government not investing, not setting good regulatory mechanisms, and basically taking a back seat on everything except drilling and fossil fuels, the grid has not been modernized, especially for wind energy.”

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Goin' down the road feelin' green

The heat is on (so to speak) to find alternatives to the internal combustion engine. Concerns over our dependence on foreign oil and the threat of global climate change have fostered renewed and intense interest in thinking about how we transport ourselves from one place to another.

I've done little to hide my preference for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, but other alternatives are also being actively pursued including natural gas powered vehicles (the 'Pickens pick') as well as those powered by hydrogen and magnetic rails.

As improbable as it may seem, the era of gasoline-powered transportation dominance could be nearing an end -- or at the very least a serious transition.(GW)

Do the locomotion

In the latest of our Future Transport series, Duncan Graham-Rowe sees trains switching to a greener track.

Running on gas

Several companies are exploring hydrogen fuel cells to power trains. Such 'hydrail' trains are essentially electric but would not need the usual trackside infrastructure. And, unlike diesel trains, fuel-cell-powered trains produce no emissions other than water. Fuel cells produce electric current by combining hydrogen fuel with ambient oxygen using catalytic electrochemical reactions. East Japan Railways has already tested a hybrid fuel-cell train (pictured) on one of its passenger lines and Canada is planning to develop fuel-cell trains in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Europe's first hydrogen-fuelled train is likely to run in Denmark. According to Claus Torbensen, one of the Danish founders of The Hydrogen Train project, such trains could eventually produce zero net emissions. The current problem is that most hydrogen is produced from methane. So although the first fuel-cell trains have to rely on non-sustainable sources of hydrogen, the eventual goal is to power them using hydrogen made through renewable energy, such as by splitting water using wind-turbine-powered electrolysis.

Steaming back to the future

Although it may sound unlikely, a return to steam power could reduce some types of emission. The 5AT Project in Britain aims to prove this by building a new-generation steam engine that overcomes the old drawbacks of steam, and improves on the performance and emissions levels of diesel traction engines. Instead of using coal to generate the steam, these new engines will burn diesel or gasoil (a light type of fuel oil).

Although the steam engines will burn more fuel than diesel engines, and so produce more carbon dioxide, because of the way the fuel is burned, almost all of it will be used up, leaving little unburned. So these new steam locomotives will be virtually smoke free, removing emissions of nitrogen oxides almost entirely. "In this respect 5AT should be cleaner than diesel traction," says Chris Newman, one of the members of the 5AT Project team. Initially, such trains are more likely to be used for tourist lines, to replace existing steam engines. But eventually there is potential for 'new steam' to become competitive with diesel haulage trains, says Newman.

People power

The stations that service the trains also need power, and the East Japan Railway has plans to improve energy efficiency here. It has developed a power-generating floor that uses the vibrations created by commuters walking through the automatic turnstiles to generate electricity. Piezoelectric elements embedded in pads on the floor convert the footfall pressure into electric current. Tests at Tokyo Station showed that the 40,000 or so people who pass over a pad each day can generate 10,000 watt-seconds/day — just enough to light a 100-watt light bulb for 100 seconds. For those who are slightly more demanding of their electricity supply, larger pads will aim to generate enough electricity to power facilities such as information displays and ticket gates.

Making wheels fly

A comeback by the humble flywheel could radically reduce emissions by making trains more fuel-efficient. If a flywheel is geared to the transmission system, the energy lost on braking can be stored as kinetic energy by making the wheel spin. As the train decelerates, the flywheel can accelerate to up to 42,000 revolutions per minute, providing a resistance that also helps slow the train. Similar in principle to the regenerative braking used in electric cars, in this case the energy is stored kinetically, rather than electrically, so less energy is lost as heat. This energy can later be released to help drive the train's wheels or to power an electric motor.

Hybrid hopes

As with cars, electrical energy generated by diesel engines and by regenerative braking can be stored and used to drive electric motors, providing additional power when needed, as when accelerating. The Hokkaido Railway Company in Japan operated the first passenger train using this next-generation diesel–electric hybrid technology. It takes the hybrid concept a step further by storing enough electrical energy so that the diesel engine can be turned off during long stops, which saves energy and reduces noise pollution. When setting off again, the train is driven entirely on the electric motor until it reaches about 45 kilometres per hour, when the diesel is brought online again (see graphic). According to the company, this set-up reduces fuel consumption and emissions by up to 20% compared with conventional diesel–electrics.

RailPower, a Canadian company based in Quebec, has developed a hybrid system that it reckons cuts diesel use by up to 60% and reduces emissions of nitrogen oxides by up to 90%. Its Green Goat trains, which are designed for shunting, use only electric motors to drive the train, with the diesel engines being used to charge the batteries. According to the company, a single Green Goat, carrying out typical railyard operations, will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 271 tonnes per year compared with diesel.

Magnetic attraction

The highest-tech solution to driving a train is magnetic levitation, or maglev. This uses a combination of permanent magnets and electromagnets to generate a repulsive force sufficient to lift the train off its supporting rail. At rest, the train is not levitated, but as it begins to move, on wheels, this force increases until there is no longer any contact with the track. The train is propelled by a linear motor that, again using a system of electromagnets built into the track and the train, pushes the train along. The main advantage is that there is no rolling friction, leaving only air resistance and electromagnetic drag to hinder the train. Because of this, maglevs are almost silent at low speeds and can reach cruising speeds of more than 500 kilometres per hour. Maglevs are in operation in China, Japan and Germany, but they are expensive to build because they need an entirely different kind of track. Even so, they produce about a quarter of the emissions of diesel trains, roughly the same as cutting-edge conventional electric trains. And because they are purely electrical, the potential is there to run these trains on entirely renewable energy sources, and so produce zero net emissions.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The president's reading list

If you had the chance to recommend a few books for the two presumptive candidates for U.S. President to read with the guarantee that they would actually read them, what books would you suggest they read? This was the question posed by a talk radio host on one of the Boston local stations last week. Most of the suggestions from callers (and the co-hosts) were interesting, but pretty predictable and bland -- political biographies, by far, dominating the list.

I kept thinking about that question for the rest of the day. So many came to mind that had an impact on me. But I kept forcing myself to think about one or two that might really affect the thinking of someone who would be the next president. What books would make your list?

'Parable of the Tribes' would be high on my list. (GW)

The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution
By Andrew Bard Schmookler
Berkeley: University of California. 1995

The subject is power. And the author's thesis is obvous only in the sense that Newton's law of gravity seems obvious to those who think it states that ''what goes up must come down'' or Mendel's laws to those who construe them as stating that ''blood will out.'' Mr. Schmookler's ''parable'' certainly does not have the far-reaching and marvelous precision of Newton's law or the originality of either Newton's or Mendel's laws, but it goes far beyond our common folk knowledge about power. Standing on the shoulders of some giants of social and political theory and enlisting the aid of leading modern figures in political anthropology, Mr. Schmookler surveys a vast landscape of history and ethnology that has been molded by power in something like the way the physical landscape has been molded by gravity - sometimes obscurely or indirectly but nonetheless lawfully. What he describes, if not nice, for the most part has a logic that is satisfying. (New York Times Book Review).


As man became freer of the controls of nature, he became subject to new, perhaps harsher necessities. Paradoxically, the very open-endedness of human possibilities created forces that drove human destiny in a direction that people did not and would not choose. Civilization represented not the old cultural process coming to fuller fruit but a new phenomenon governed by a wholly new evolutionary principle. The emergence of this new principle marks the vital point of discontinuity in the history of life and explains civilization's problematic course.

The new human freedom made striving for expansion and power possible. Such freedom, when multiplied, creates anarchy. The anarchy among civilized societies meant that the play of power in the system was uncontrollable. In an archaic system like that, no one can choose that the struggle for power shall cease. But there is one more element in the picture: no one is free to choose peace, but anyone can impose upon all the necessity for power. This is the lesson of the parable of the tribes.


A handicap in the pursuit of power is integrity, that unity between the ground of one's existence and one's values and one's actions. Power systems are therefore hostile to integrity and to the humane cultural traditions that provide an orientation to help people achieve it. The power that erupted in the West has from the outset sought the disintegration of the cultural principles that stood in its way...The disintegration of culture allows more mechanical priniciples to enter the social body and govern it.

Shaped by power, our systems are in many ways not our tools. Indeed, they press us to become instruments to their ends. The needed integrity between human needs on the one hand and cultural design and practice on the other remain far from realization in a world ruled by power. The challenge to us is to find a way to act with integrity and with an understanding of the antagonism between the human and the power system.

The opposite of integrity is opportunism, which is the willingness to allow the environment to govern one's course. Like water flowing downhill, the opportunist takes the course of least resistance. In an ideal world, opportunism and integrity would be the same thing. But as long as social evolution is governed by forces that threaten to drag human well- being down, the only responsible course is to labor against the current. At the same time, in a world filled with grave necessities, one cannot survive by simply going against gravity. For integrity to be more than gesture and martyrdom, it, too, must find its opportunities. In a complex and dangerous world, the path for individuals and for societies between self-destruction and the loss of soul is at best narrow but not straight.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Thirsty world

Our planet is not running out of water. That's not the problem. The problem is that one person out of every three in the world today lacks reliable access to freshwater. There are a variety of reasons for this: rising populations, aging infrastructure, industrial/chemical-intensive agribusiness, industrial pollution to name the more obvious.

We take the quality of our water supply for granted at our own peril. The world must focus its attention to this growing problem and take advantage of the options that exist for addressing this crisis while they still exist. (GW)

Water everywhere, and not a drop to grow

By Colin Chartres
BBC News
August 20, 2008

Limited availability of fresh water is often overlooked as a cause of food scarcity and environmental decline, according to Colin Chartres. Governments should be ramping up efforts to make sure we have enough to grow crops as well as enough to drink, he argues.

Essentially, every calorie of food requires a litre of water to produce it

This year, the world and, in particular, developing countries and the poor have been hit by both food and energy crises.

As a consequence, prices for many staple foods have risen by up to 100%.

When we examine the causes of the food crisis, there are many contributing factors: a growing population, changes in trade patterns, urbanisation, dietary habits, biofuel production, climate change and regional droughts.

Thus, we have a classic increase in prices as a result of high demand and low supply. However, few commentators specifically mention the declining availability of water that is needed to grow irrigated and rain-fed crops.

According to some, the often mooted solution to the food crisis lies in plant breeding that produces the ultimate high yielding, low water-consuming crops.

While this solution is important, it will fail unless attention is paid to where the water for all the food, fibre and energy crops is going to come from.

Thirsty world

The causes of water scarcity are essentially identical to those of the food crisis.

There are serious and extremely worrying factors that indicate water supplies are close to exhaustion in some countries.

Population growth over the next four decades will see the number of people in the world increase from 6.5 billion up to 9.0 billion.

Essentially, every calorie of food requires a litre of water to produce it.

So on average, we require between 2,000 and 3,000 litres of water per person to sustain our daily food requirements.

We will have 2.5 billion extra mouths to feed by 2050, so finding the extra water each year will not be an easy task, given that it is more than double what is currently used in irrigation.

We also have to bear in mind that the availability of new fertile land in humid areas for rain-fed farming is extremely limited.

Recent studies, as part of the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, have indicated that we will not be able to produce all the food, feed and fibre required in 2050 unless we improve the way we manage water.

Invest and survive

A few years ago, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) demonstrated that many countries are facing severe water scarcity, either as a result of a lack of available freshwater, or as a consequence of a lack of investment in infrastructure such as dams and reservoirs.

Current estimates indicate that we will not have enough water to feed ourselves in 40 years time

What makes matters worse is that this scarcity predominantly affects developing countries where the majority of the world's 840 million undernourished people live.

However, there are potential solutions. These include more water storage, improved management of irrigation systems and increasing water productivity in irrigated and rain-fed farming systems.

All of these will require investment in knowledge, infrastructure and human capacity.

Better water storage has to be considered. Ethiopia, which is typical of many sub-Saharan African countries, has a storage capacity of 38 cubic metres per person.

In contrast, Australia has almost 5,000 cubic metres per person, an amount that in the face of current climate change impacts may be inadequate.

Whilst there will be a need for new large and medium-sized dams to deal with this critical lack of storage in Africa, other simpler solutions will also be part of the equation.

These include the construction of small reservoirs, sustainable use of groundwater systems including artificial groundwater recharge, and rainwater harvesting for smallholder vegetable gardens.

Improved year-round access to water will help farmers maintain their own food security using simple supplementary irrigation techniques.

The redesign of both the physical and institutional arrangements of some large and often dysfunctional irrigation schemes will also bring the required productivity increases.

Safe, risk-free re-use of wastewater from growing cities will also be needed.

Of course, these actions need to be paralleled by development of drought-tolerant crops, and the provision of infrastructure and facilities to get fresh food to markets.

Resource competition

Since the formulation of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), much of the water agenda has been focused around the provision of drinking water and sanitation.

This puts demand on the same resources as agricultural water; and as we urbanise and improve living standards, increasing competition for drinking water from domestic and other urban users will put agriculture under further pressure.

While improving drinking water and sanitation is vital with respect to health and living standards, we cannot afford to neglect the provision and improved productivity of water for agriculture.

Current estimates indicate that we will not have enough water to feed ourselves in 40 years time, by when the current food crisis may turn into a perpetual crisis.

Just as in other areas of agricultural research and development, investment in the provision and better management of water resources has declined steadily since the Green Revolution.

My water science colleagues and I are raising a warning flag that significant investment in both research and development and water infrastructure development is needed if dire consequences are to be avoided.

Dr Colin Chartres is director-general of the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a not-for-profit research organisation focusing on the sustainable management of water resources for food, livelihoods and the environment

To read the summary of "Water for Food, Water for Life", visit

Monday, August 25, 2008

The potential opportunities and risks in wind energy investing

Thinking about investing in renewable energy companies? Apparently so are a lot of Wall Street investors. I don't pretend to know much about this, but it seems clear that, among other things, investors have paid attention to T. Boone Pickens. Pickens, who spent a lifetime in the oil business where he amassed a forutne, has determined that the future of energy is blowing in the wind. Now he's investing part of the fortune to build the largest wind project in America.

But Pickens is not alone in touting the virtues of wind energy these days. Not by a long shot.

"Mad Money" manager Jim Cramer points out, paying attention to the entire wind energy 'value chain' can really expand your investment options. (GW)

All You Need To Know About Wind Energy

August 22, 2008

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, up to 20% of the country's energy supply could be generated by wind power by 2030.

In May, T. Boone Pickens' Mesa Power ordered 667 wind turbines from GE (GE - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) as part of its plans for a giant wind farm in Texas.

That same month, Jim Cramer wrote on "Sanford Bernstein put out a fabulous report today [May 15] about alternative energy that waxed wonderfully about wind and a little less wonderfully about solar. The latter isn't as loved, because the average selling price of solar is too high vs. the dirty competition."

On July 17, The Dallas Morning News reported that the Texas Public Utility Commission authorized $4.93 billion of new wind power transmission lines, solidifying the state's position as the country's largest generator of wind power.

Five days later, at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Pickens testified that the county needs to reduce its demand for foreign oil and ramp-up its own clean and renewable energy infrastructure, particularly wind.

Tuesday, at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed his plan to make New York City a leader in clean power production -- again, the focus was on wind.

So how much do you really know about wind energy?

The following are key insights from on the potential opportunities and risks in wind energy investing.

China Watch: A-Power's a Sparkler (Video, Aug. 11)

Larsen Kusick of the Breakout Stocks portfolio sheds light on A-Power (APWR - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr), a company entering the wind-power industry in China, and explains how to play it.

To watch the video, click the player below:

From Cramer: Wind Power in the M&A Spotlight (Jul. 28):

Xantrex [Toronto Stock Exchange ticker: XTX] gets a bid! Here's a Canadian wind play that just got bought by France's Schneider Electric... it is significant because the wind plays that matter are being snapped up left and right.

This wind story is a 2009 story in terms of earnings, but it is a takeover and consolidation story right now.

From Cramer: Xantrex Will Blow You Away (Video):

Jim Cramer: "I think that what's most interesting, is they're [Schneider Electric] buying [Xantrex] for the wind exchangers... One of the things that's really difficult about wind... there's absolutely no interface for most states between wind turbines and the power grid... because the states have been reluctant to make a bet on wind. I think Boone Pickens is going to change that, and these inverters could be in a lot of different windmills. So this was a very smart acquisition... [Broadwind Energy (BWEN - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr)]has now become more seasonal... no near term catalyst, but I believe if Schneider bought this XTX, they're going to buy Broadwind."

To watch the video, click the player below:

From Cramer's 'Mad Money' Recap for July 31:

"Wind and solar stocks are transcending the weakness in oil," said Cramer, indicating that the strength in these sectors is genuine, and will continue even if oil hits his ultimate target of below $120 a barrel.

Cramer: Give Your Portfolio Wind Power (Video, Jul. 17):

Jim Cramer reviews his "wind-ex" stocks.

To watch the video, click the player below:

From Cramer's 'Mad Money' Recap: Inherit the Wind Stock:

To help illustrate the many great companies involved in the wind power business, Cramer built a windmill from scratch, piece by piece, to show which companies make each component.

First, Cramer featured the wind tower business that makes the support structures for windmills. Here, he reiterated... Otter Tail (OTTR - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) as [one of] the best stocks to own.

Finally, Cramer said... MasTec (MTZ - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) [is one of] the best companies for the wind power infrastructure needed to bring power from the mill to the grid.

New Wind-Energy ETF Blows Into Town (Video, Jun. 29)

High oil prices have investors turning to wind-energy stocks. Robert Carey, chief investment officer at First Trust, says the new exchange-traded fund -- ticker FAN (FAN - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) -- is the safest way to play the emerging sector.

To watch the video, click the player below:

From Cramer's 'Mad Money' Recap: Wade In with Kaydon:

Cramer explained that while Kaydon (KDN - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) is best known for its industrial bearing business that mainly serves heavy industry as well as the aerospace and defense markets, the company is also the market leader in low-friction wind turbine bearings.

Wind power currently only accounts for 8% of Kaydon's sales, but is 50% of the company's current backlog. According to Cramer, wind power should account for 20% of the company's sales by 2009 and is expected to triple by 2010.

From Cramer's 'Mad Money Recap': Stocks That Can Take a Hit:

Cramer called [Thomas & Betts (TNB - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr)] another "stealth" wind power stock that investors need to consider.

"Everything that wind touches is getting bigger," said Cramer who noted the management of Thomas & Betts is doing little to promote this small, but growing, portion of their business. Cramer said the company has also been selling unprofitable product lines and concentrating their efforts on its core competencies.

While Thomas & Betts reported lackluster earnings on April 30, Cramer noted the company said most of its sales will be during the latter half of the year. He also said the company's international exposure, which now stands at 40% of sales, is up from just 30% a year ago.

Cramer: Wind Stocks Are Towers of Power (Video, May 7)

A lack of supply for towers has the wind sector on fire, says Cramer. A pure (but speculative) play: Broadwind Energy (BWEN - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr). Cramer thinks "this can be a gigantic, gigantic company."

To watch the video, click the player below:

Plus, don't miss Cramer: Broadwind's the Weather Vane of Wind Sector and Cramer: Buy Nat Gas Now, Wind in '09 on TV.

From Cramer's 'Mad Money Recap': Woodward Governor's Big Wind Power Play:

[Cramer] called [Woodward Governor(WGOV - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr)] a forward thinker that now estimates its wind power business to be worth $100 million by the end of fiscal 2008, compared to the consensus estimates of only $60 million.

To bolster its wind power business, Woodward recently added its first Chinese turbine manufacturer and is building a new factory in Colorado. He said the company's wind power business is growing at a staggering 150% a year, far more than any "high-tech" company can deliver.

From Woodward Builds Power Behind the Scenes:

Woodward Governor posted another stellar quarter last night [Jul. 21].

Woodward Governor earned 47 cents a share in its fiscal third quarter and beat consensus estimates of 43 cents (a 9.3% upside beat). Sales grew rose 23% year over year to $329 million, vs. the $308 million consensus (a 6.8% upside beat).

Even better, management issued upside guidance for fiscal 2008. It now sees revenue growth of roughly 20%, up from 14% to 16%, and $1.75 in earnings, up from the previous guidance of $1.61 to $1.66.

The company's business is divided into three segments: turbine systems, engine systems and electrical power systems. It is a front-and-center supplier to the drive for more efficient and cleaner energy systems.

On yesterday's conference call, Tom Gendron, president and CEO, discussed industrial turbine demand, saying, "Emission regulations, growing global energy demands and newer projects such as coal gasification all should provide opportunities for Woodward."

Favorable Winds

Also, Woodward Governor is a stealth play on wind power. In October 2006, it acquired SEG, a German designer and manufacturer of wind power generation products. Although the wind business is still a small fraction of overall revenue, it is growing rapidly. The company has guided to slightly higher than $100 million in revenue for the year (about 9% of total revenue).

Gendron says, "Demand for wind turbines continues to grow at a remarkable rate." The CFO adds, "Again this quarter, wind power sales were very strong."

From Cramer's 'Mad Money Recap': Emerson's New Tech Look:

Cramer proclaimed that 2009 will be the year of wind power and recommended Owens Corning (OC - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) as his favorite wind power stock.

Cramer said that Owens Corning, often thought of as just a supplier of insulation, is transforming itself into a great global manufacturer of alternative energy components. The company now has a glass-fiber composites business that accounts for 33% of its sales.

Cramer said the glass composites business combines glass fibers with other materials to make incredibly strong and flexible substances for wind turbines, among other applications.

From Jim Cramer's 'Stop Trading!': Win With Wind:

Cramer said that the U.S. is facing a shortage of supply of windmills. "Everybody who's involved in making them, it's a win still," Cramer said. He recommended Quanta Services (PWR - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) and Trinity Industries (TRN - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr) as plays on his thesis.

Cramer: Quanta Is a Wind-Win (Video, Jul. 23)

Cramer dives into his favorite wind plays in light of the recent drop in energy prices.

To watch the video, click the player below:

Plus, don't miss Cramer: Trinity Is the Wind Play on TV.

From Cramer's 'Mad Money Recap': America's New Tech Stars:

Cramer welcomed Dan Batrack, chairman and CEO of alternative energy supplier Tetra Tech (TTEK - Cramer's Take - Stockpickr), to the show to discuss what he called the company's "breakout quarter."

Batrack said that his company had a very strong quarter, with net income up 30%, revenue up 35% and the company's backlog up 40%. He credited the company's growth to strong demand for wind power.

Batrack believes the U.S. wind power market is growing faster than the consensus forecast of 25% growth. He said his company has booked over $170 million worth of orders for wind products in the past 90 days.