Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Kinship networks that span the centuries

Philosophy matters. Ideas influence how we think about the world -- whether we are consciously aware of our world views or not. Many believe that western philosophy is out of sync with the notion of humanity being in harmony with Nature. The discoveries and writings of Newton, Malthus and Darwin among others contributed to the creation of a world view that celebrates the virtues of economic growth fueled by competition and a belief that the "fittest" deserve to survive (even if that is not what Darwin actually said).

One thing in particular that western philosophies are virtually devoid of is language suggesting a commitment to future generations. In China, leaders are looking inward to build their own arguments about the wisdom of sustainability based on intergenerational linkages that extend backward and forwards in time . (GW)

How Confucianism could curb global warming

China openly debates the role of Eastern thought in sustainability.

Now here's a curveball to secular Western policy experts: China's intellectuals are openly debating the role of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in promoting the Communist Party's vision of a harmonious society and ecologically sustainable economic development.

Nowhere is the question of what to do about the environment more vital than in China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases – especially because scientists agree that climate change disproportionately affects the poor and the disenfranchised and that climate change will affect future generations far more than the present.

Yet the general impression of China's role in issues relating to environment is one of foot-dragging because it hasn't bought into a Western model to address it.

But Pan Yue, China's vice minister for environmental protection, is calling for China to capitalize on traditional Chinese religions in promoting ecological sustainability.

He says, "One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature. Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Taoist view of the Tao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years. It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society."

And this just might work.

As The New York Times recently reported, China is in the midst of a transformation to cleaner forms of energy.

Although much of China's energy needs are still met by inefficient, coal-fired power stations with poor track records in terms of emissions, China has begun to invest heavily in cleaner coal technology in an effort to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.

Because of this, the International Energy Agency reduced its estimate of the increase in Chinese emissions of global warming gases from 3.2 percent to 3 percent even as the same agency raised its estimate of China's economic growth. China is managing to increase its economic output at a greater rate than its emissions.

This is good news for everyone.

But buried innocuously in the middle of this report was the startlingly frank statement of Cao Peixi, president of the China Huaneng group, China's largest state-owned electric company.

When asked about his company's decision to invest in more expensive but cleaner technology he replied: "We shouldn't look at this project from a purely financial perspective. It represents the future."

The $64,000 question facing economists and politicians across the world is how to make decisions that take into account the big picture beyond the "purely financial perspective."

This is a hard question for Western economic and political theorists to answer, because their theories are based on the Enlightenment view of the self as an autonomous, rational individual.

But how are we to make decisions that take into account the interests of those who have not yet been born?

Being respectful to the interests of past and future generations is key to the Confucian view of the self and groups. To the question, "Who am I?" the Confucian answers, "I am the child of my parents and the parent of my children."

Confucianism begins from the proposition that human beings are defined by kinship networks that span the centuries. From this perspective the interests of the individual are bound up with the interests of the kinship group as it extends forward and backward across the generations.

This will be a key factor in the way China handles present and future environmental issues.

Consider the views of Jiang Qing, a leading Confucian intellectual. According to a recent report by Daniel Bell, a political theorist at China's Tsinghua Univeristy, Mr. Jiang proposes a political system that can take into account the interests of those who are typically ignored in modern democracies, such as foreigners, future generations, and ancestors.

"Is democracy really the best way to protect future victims of global warming?" he asks.

As China assumes a greater leadership role on the world stage, we can expect the emergence of a variety of models of sustainable development rooted in a plurality of cultural traditions, including Confucianism.

The time when Westernization was the only credible model of development is over.

James Miller is a professor of Chinese studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Queen's University, Kingston. He is currently researching the relationship between religion, nature, and modernization in China.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Rooftop revolutionaries

Back in 1970 Gill Scott-Heron recorded his classic "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". Positive, creative examples of how to build a sustainable society are cropping up all over - literally. Some of these are being covered by the mainstream media. Even when they are reported they are rarely, if ever, connected -- to each other or to the larger sustainability movement.

But the design revolution is underway. It's up to all of us who are participating in it to reach out, connect with and support each other and take advantage of all possible venues to communicate what's going on.

That will create more than a buzz. It will generate levels of synergy capable of creating a world that works for everyone. (GW)

Urban Farming, a Bit Closer to the Sun

THIS summer, Tony Tomelden hopes to be making bloody marys at the Pug in Washington, D.C., with tomatoes and chilies grown above the bar, thanks to the city’s incentives for green roofs.

Mr. Tomelden, the Pug’s principal owner, says he’s planting a garden to take advantage of tax subsidies the city offers in his neighborhood if he covers his roof with plants.

“If I can do something in my corner for the environment, that seemed a reasonable thing to do,” he said. “Plus I can save money on the tomatoes.”

There won’t be bloody marys at P.S. 6 on New York’s Upper East Side, but one-third of its roof will be planted with vegetables and herbs next spring for the cafeteria. The school is using about $950,000 in city funds that it has put aside, and parents and alumni are providing almost a half-million dollars more.

“For the children, it’s exciting when you grow something edible,” said the school’s principal, Lauren Fontana.

Aeries are cropping up on America’s skylines, filled with the promise of juicy tomatoes, tiny Alpine strawberries and the heady perfume of basil and lavender. High above the noise and grime of urban streets, gardeners are raising fruits and vegetables. Some are simply finding the joys of backyard gardens several stories up, others are doing it for the environment and some because they know local food sells well.

City dwellers have long cultivated pots of tomatoes on top of their buildings. But farming in the sky is a fairly recent development in the green roof movement, in which owners have been encouraged to replace blacktop with plants, often just carpets of succulents, to cut down on storm runoff, insulate buildings and moderate urban heat.

A survey by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, which represents companies that create green roofs, found the number of projects its members had worked on in the United States grew by more than 35 percent last year. In total, the green roofs installed last year cover 6 million to 10 million square feet, the group said.

Steven Peck, its president, said he had no figures for how many of the projects involved fruits and vegetables, but interest is growing. “When we had a session on urban agriculture,” he said of a meeting of the group in Atlanta last month, “it was standing room only.” Mr. Peck said the association is forming a committee on rooftop agriculture.

Tax incentives have accelerated the plantings of green roofs, particularly in Chicago, which has encouraged green roofs for almost a decade. The Chicago chef Rick Bayless uses tomatoes and chilies he grows atop his restaurant Frontera Grill to make Rooftop Salsa.

New York State has subsidies both for roofs with succulents spread out over a thin layer of soil and for edible plants covering a smaller area. A proposed amendment to New York City’s tax abatement for some roof projects would include green roofs. Most roof gardeners aren’t in it for the money, though.

After her Lower East Side co-op refurbished the 1,000-square-foot roof of its six-floor walk-up, Paula Crossfield persuaded fellow board members to spend $3,000 to put a 400-square-foot garden on it. They built planters and paved part of the roof so people can walk easily among the plantings.

Ms. Crossfield, managing editor of the Civil Eats blog, about sustainable agriculture, is paying for the seeds and will do the harvesting, sharing the bounty with her neighbors. (She and her husband live on the top floor.)

In the process, she estimates she carried up 500 of the 1,500 pounds of soil they bought and put in planters.

“My decision to start a garden is an extension of my work,” Ms. Crossfield said. “Growing my own food helps me understand better what I write about: how food gets to our table, the difficulties it entails.” It’s not all about agricultural policy, she added.

“The bottom line,” she said, “is that I harbor a secret desire to be a farmer, and my way of doing that is to use what I have, which is a roof.”

Two weeks ago Ms. Crossfield transplanted seedlings from her apartment onto the roof: golden zucchini, oakleaf lettuce, brussels sprouts, butternut squash, watermelon, rainbow chard, cucumbers, nasturtiums, calendula, sunflowers, amaranth greens, tomatoes and herbs.

In San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, Maya Donelson has filled planter boxes with vegetables on a 900-square-foot patch of roof at the Glide Memorial Church. For the last two years she has managed the Graze the Roof Project at the church’s Glide Center, a neighborhood social service provider.

The food goes to the center’s volunteers and children in the neighborhood who work in the garden one day a week and learn to cook what they grow.

“I’ve never had one kid who hasn’t wanted to get his hands dirty,” said Ms. Donelson, who studied architecture and environmental design. “They are willing to try anything if they see it growing and pull it out of the ground. We juiced the purple carrots and the kids drank that.”

Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit environmental organization, said it will help Alfred E. Smith High School plant a roof garden and has helped a company in Hunts Point put strawberry plants on its roof. (The owner likes strawberries, an official of the group said.)

One of the more ambitious projects is a 6,000-square-foot roof farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which will grow food for local restaurants and shops.

Ben Flanner, a transplanted Wisconsinite who’s running it, said he became fascinated with organic agriculture and was set to take an internship on a rural farm but then had a change of heart.

“I wanted to farm but I didn’t want to leave the city,” he said.

Mr. Flanner was lucky to find an environmentally aware company — Broadway Stages, a stage and lighting company — that wanted a green roof on one of its buildings. It paid to prepare the roof for planting and agreed to let him grow food on it. Mr. Flanner and his partner, Annie Novak, did the planting and will be able to keep all the profits from their organic vegetables.

“People are knocking on my door to buy the stuff,” he said. Andrew Tarlow, a partner in four nearby restaurants, including Marlow & Sons, has agreed to buy anything Mr. Flanner grows.

The roof cost $6,000 to prepare, according to Lisa Goode, who with her husband, Chris, owns Goode Green, a company that designs edible roof gardens. There are at least 1,000 seedlings planted in 16 beds, each about 60 feet long.

“A smaller roof would cost more per square foot,” she said. Mr. Flanner’s costs for the garden itself were less than $2,000, but Ms. Goode said it will take more than one roof for him to make a living.

“This is sort of a pilot to see if it can become a viable business model because he isn’t going to make any money from this,” she said. “If we can get the owner to do more roofs, he can then make a profit.”

Not long ago, edible rooftop gardeners were less likely to be thinking about sustainable food systems or the environment.

Lee Utterbach wanted to recapture summers on his grandmother’s farm. But there was no land around his house in the Mission district of San Francisco. So when he bought the building where he lives and runs a photo equipment rental shop, he turned the roof into a vegetable and flower garden. Since the roof slopes, all the planting was done along its perimeter. Some of it, like the rosemary, is so well established, it hangs over the front of the building.

Reaching the roof means a trip through the kitchen window, then up an incline. A small ladder takes visitors to his wife’s greenhouse and a hot tub, a deck , a composting toilet and the future guest room. In one area that his wife, Aly, describes as his “man cave,” Mr. Utterbach watches his 17-inch TV screen from a comfortable chair.

“I was probably eight or nine years ahead of the curve when I built this,” he said. “I just enjoy watering plants and digging in the soil.”

Peter Bergold, a neuroscientist who teaches at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, was also inspired by the past. Memories of the first asparagus and carrots he ate from a garden years before led him to start growing produce on the roof of his landmarked brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, six or seven years ago.

“That was my epiphany,” he said of the sweetness he was trying to recapture. “I assumed asparagus grew with a rubber band around them.”

Environmental awareness came slowly. “One of the things that got me interested,” he said, “was that between global warming and the thermal bubble of cities you can start things much earlier so you have a much longer growing season.”

Another benefit gardeners get from planting well above the ground is that they face fewer pests.

But roof gardeners also have to think about winds that can knock over tender vines. And while concentrated heat on top of city buildings can help tomatoes ripen, it also means more frequent watering, even if irrigation requires lugging watering cans up stairs.

Though rooftop gardens go back at least to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the modern green roof movement has made its way here from Europe, where for years government policies have encouraged or required green roofs.

The government benefits take into account the fact that gardening on the roof requires much more preparation than gardening on terra firma.

First, it must be determined whether the roof can support the weight of the soil, the plants and the water. It may need to be retrofitted. Barring that, gardeners can place planters around the perimeter, which is generally its strongest part.

The containers can be almost anything: ready-made planters; boxes made of reclaimed wood, old milk cartons, children’s wading pools. A screen at the bottom holds in a lightweight substance, like packing peanuts for bulk, topped with a barrier fabric so the soil can’t go through. Potting soil, mixed with ingredients to lighten it, is put on top.

When gardens are planted directly on the roof, a waterproof membrane is laid down first, followed by insulation and a root barrier. (A guide to roof gardening is available at baylocalize.org.)

All this work can be off-putting for landlords. Five years ago, Ms. Crossfield said, the owner of an apartment building on Sixth Avenue in the West Village told one of his tenants to get rid of a garden she had planted.

“He told the woman to take it off the roof,” she said, “because he didn’t see any benefit in it.”

That’s not so likely these days.

“Several years ago you might have seen a certain amount of resistance,” said Miquela Craytor, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, “but now people are coming to us saying they want one.”

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Playing for and Paying for Change

Change Is Gonna Come

Playing for Change

It has been a very rainy and dreary month of June here in Massachusetts. That trend continues today -- but with the promise of sunshine later this week. If you're experiencing a similar dreary Sunday (or even if you aren't) why not consider a good movie or some great music?

I posted a story on the incredibly inspiring project called "Playing for Change" about six months ago. The creators have now produced a CD that includes performances from around the world from both well-known professionals and equally talented but less well-known street performers.

Do yourself a favor and check it out. By the way, the video takes a while to load. You may want to pause it right after starting and then hit the play button after about a minute to avoid stops and starts.

If it you're more in the mood for a movie, how about giving "Food, Inc." a try? It's a documentary about factory food. I realize that summer and the last thing you probably want is to feel guilty about those grilled hamburgers and ribs you're planning to consume on the 4th of July, but watching this film just may inspire you to celebrate a healthy and sustainable Independence Day.

Go easy on the buttered popcorn.(GW)
Food, Inc.

"Food, Inc.'' serves up some righteous indignation

By Wesley Morris
Boston Globe
June 19, 2009

As you might gather from the title, Rob Kenner’s documentary “Food, Inc.’’ is, in part, concerned with the extent to which industrial food production has replaced farming in America. It’s part activism, part school-assembly lecture. If you’re told where most fast-food chains’ ground beef comes from, how much E. coli is in it, how much ammonia has been added to kill the E. coli, and how many illegal immigrants the meatpacking companies recruit, underpay, and leave prey to police raids, will you still want to eat that double cheeseburger? The filmmakers are guessing no. The whole thing is as subtle as a watermelon in a bowl of Cheerios but necessary, nonetheless.

Kenner takes us up and down the food industrial complex. He has hidden-camera footage of a hog-farm kill floor and pastoral images of Joel Salatin and his employees working on his modest, seemingly all-natural farm in the Shenandoah Valley. He tags along as Barbara Kowalcyk, a food-safety advocate and mother who lost a young son to toxic beef, makes the rounds on Capitol Hill. The film photographs Eduardo Peña, a union organizer in North Carolina, as he watches cops bang down the doors of Mexicans who work in Smithfield Foods’ slaughterhouse. We meet Carole Morison, a poultry producer for Perdue until she refused to make expensive Perdue-mandated upgrades to her chicken house that, she says, would have kept the birds in total darkness (by her own admission, they had it pretty awful in the first place). This is food and its vast discontents.

The movie covers all the bases, from possible government corruption to the bad consequences of good economic sense. With regard to the latter, Kenner finds a family of four whose mother says she buys fast food because its cheaper than fresh food. There’s not much room to argue with her. Almost everywhere, a pound of broccoli costs more than anything on the McDonald’s value menu. Her husband is a diabetic whose diet, like a lot of Americans’, includes foods loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener that helps use up the country’s abundant government-subsidized corn crops. But the mother is in a bind since they have to pay for his medical needs, in addition to their other expenses, while praying his poor health doesn’t cost him his job as a trucker.

One imagines a movie devoted almost entirely to the hard issue of eating and class, how processed foods are cheaper than fresh food. Of course, some nights the drive-thru is the easiest thing on earth. None of the heroes in “Food, Inc.’’ - and I’m sure Kenner finds all his human subjects heroic - is likely to buy that excuse. This isn’t a movie terribly big on listening to why you just ate that Baconator.

Folks like Salatin, Kowalcyk, and Gary Hirshberg, the founder and CEO of Stonyfield Farm yogurt (it’s organic), have specific but complementary points of view. And Kenner allows them their righteousness. In college Hirshberg was a hippie environmentalist, and he explains that his environmentally conscious company’s relationship with Wal-Mart (there’s a funny scene of some doofy Wal-Mart executives visiting a Brattleboro dairy farm) isn’t selling out. He’s doing good for everybody. He’s probably right, but like many of the people in this film, he so knows he’s right.

The movie itself is cleanly made and features the sort of imaginatively conceived graphic design that, lately, a lot of documentary directors use in lieu of actual filmmaking. A more visually expansive, soul-chilling, and lecture-free cousin of “Food, Inc.’’ is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Our Daily Bread,’’ a 2005 documentary that requires you to think for yourself about your relationship to what you eat. “Food, Inc.,’’ while more optimistic, doesn’t care for art or letting you make up your own mind. Time, it says, is of the essence.

Most of what Kenner tells us has been documented in other films and published to famous effect in Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation’’ and the books of Michael Pollan, both of whom appear in the film and consulted with Kenner on its making. That activist spirit extends all the way to the closing minutes, which feature a pamphlet-load of advice (“Plant a garden,’’ “Buy locally’’) while Bruce Springsteen sings “This Land Is Your Land’’ (I know, I know). As a blunt instrument of civic, moral, and social responsibility, the movie works, anyway. Releasing it during the summer seems like an iffy idea, though. This is a school-trip movie if ever there was one.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

"We are creating the world we want"

The Design Revolution that Bucky Fuller predicted is humanity's only chance to save itself from itself is unfolding in a variety of ways, places and at various scales. Individuals are making a difference by making important lifestyle changes with regard to the food they eat, what they drive and how they power their homes. State and federal governments are providing incentives that support these efforts in addition to the construction of utility-scale renewable energy projects like windfarms.

Perhaps the most encouraging signs that we just might make it are efforts that are taking place at the municipal level. When entire communities pull together toward the common goal of sustainability, the resulting synergies are likely to be that much more profound. (GW)

Auto-ban: German town goes car-free

By Tony Paterson
The Independent
June 26, 2009

Vauban hopes to forge a model community without that great staple of modern life – the car. Now the sound of birdsong has replaced the roar of traffic and children can play in the street

The Germans may have given the world the Audi and the autobahn, but they have banished everything with four wheels and an engine from the streets of Vauban – a model brave new world of a community in the country's south-west, next to the borders with Switzerland and France.

In Vauban, a suburb of the university town of Freiburg, luxuriant beds of brilliant flowers replace what would normally be parking outside its neat, middle- class homes. Instead of the roar of traffic, the residents listen to birdsong, children playing and the occasional jingle of a bicycle bell.

"If you want to have a car here, you have to pay about €20,000 for a space in one of our garages on the outskirts of the district," says Andreas Delleske one of the founders and now a promoter of the Vauban project, "but about 57 per cent of the residents sold a car to enjoy the privilege of living here." As a result, most residents travel by bike or use the ultra-efficient tram service that connects the suburb with the centre of Freiburg, 15 minutes away. If they want a car to go on holiday or to shift things, they hire one or join one of the town's car-sharing schemes.

Because it has no cars, Vauban's planners have almost completely dispensed with the idea of metalled roads. Its streets and pathways are cobbled or gritted and vehicles are allowed in only for a matter of minutes to unload essential goods. Being virtually car-free is only the start of what has been hailed as one of Europe's most successful experiments in green living and one which is viewed increasingly as a blueprint for a future and perhaps essential way of living in an age of climate change.

Vauban is a southern suburb of Freiburg and home to 5,300 people. Its elegant, weather-boarded, four-storey homes are painted in subtle tones of blue, yellow and red or left as natural wood. They have wide balconies and large French windows that look out on to quiet, park-like gardens. The overall impression is of being stuck in a never-ending IKEA advertisement.

But if the district's surface texture is eminently middle class, an eco-revolution is bubbling beneath the surface. The windows of all the homes are triple-glazed. An intricate ventilation system fitted with heat exchangers ensures that apartments are kept constantly topped-up with fresh air at room temperature, even when the windows are shut. Most homes are powered by solar panels and smart co-generator engines that run on wood chips which provide domestic heating and electricity for lighting and appliances. One of the consequences is that most of Vauban's homes generate a surplus of electricity and sell what they don't need to the power companies that run the national and regional electricity grids.

With their 35cm thick walls, the homes are so well insulated that the temperature inside is directly affected by the number of people in each apartment. "If it gets too cold in the winter, you have the choice of turning up the heating or inviting a couple of friends round to dinner," Delleske says. He is immensely proud of the fact that his 90sqm, four-roomed "Passive house," which is almost environmentally perfect, costs a mere €114 a year to heat. "Most people pay that kind of money for heating each month," he says. The "Passive house" has even managed to dispense with drains for the toilets and showers. The waste is reduced to compost in special biological toilets and shower and washing-up water is filtered and used to water the garden.

Word about the Vauban experiment is spreading. Each day, six or seven busloads of visitors roll up – parking on the outskirts, needless to say – to witness the suburb's environmentally friendly living. At the entrance, they are greeted by slogan in big letters that reads: "We are creating the world we want."

Yet the suburb's origins were very remote from such idealistic themes. It started life in 1937 as the Leo Schlageter army barracks, a collection of three-storey stone buildings to house Adolf Hitler's expanding Wehrmacht army. It was named after a German hero from the First World War who was executed by the French in 1923. At the end of the Second World War, the barracks were requisitioned by the French army and renamed Quartier Vauban, after a noted 17th century military architect. After Germany's re-unification, the French withdrew and the district was handed over to the city of Freiburg in 1994, to be promptly occupied by squatters.

Soon after, a group of ecologically minded and mostly middle-class people became interested in the quarter. Many had taken part in the anti-nuclear movement as students in the 1970s and 1980s. They set up the Forum Vauban, which began negotiating with the city government.

Vauban's founders explain that much of the eco-friendly technology that has gone into the complex was conceived and developed around Freiburg as an alternative to nuclear power. The upshot was the formation of a series of loosely structured housing associations which commissioned architects to design new and ecologically sustainable homes on the site. Most of the old Nazi-era barrack buildings were torn down and more than 60 architects were engaged to reconstruct Vauban. Its three- to five-storey buildings contain apartments of varying sizes and 80 per cent are privately owned. A four-bedroom unit costs about €250,000.

The project is a reminder of the strength of Germany's green movement. Freiburg's city government is run by a coalition of conservatives and Green Party councillors and the Greens hold the most seats. During the European elections, the Green Party won up to 60 per cent of the poll in Vauban's constituencies.

The district also bucks Germany's reputation for having one of the world's lowest birth rates: nearly 30 per cent of its inhabitants are aged under 18. Ute and Frank Lits moved to Vauban five years ago. Their children, aged six and 10, can walk out the front door of their four-bedroom apartment into a communal garden equipped with a playground and a wood-fired pizza oven. "We wanted to buy our own home and we liked the eco-friendly principles of the place," Mrs Lits said. "But the main reason is that Vauban is prefect for children. They enjoy the kind of freedom that it would be difficult to find in a normal town apartment." The couple owns a car, but neither mind having to park it in a communal garage eight minutes' walk from their home.

If Vauban's brave new world suffers from anything, it is its own peculiar brand of middle-class monoculturalism. Sitting outside a former Nazi barrack building that now functions as an organic restaurant selling ricotta-filled ravioli and ostrich meat, its is difficult to spot anyone who is non-European, old or poor.

Wolfgang Konradi, a youth worker who spent years working in less sophisticated urban areas before coming to Vauban, says the district's teenagers behave like normal people of their age. "The problem is mainly the parents, they go around expecting their offspring to be perfect citizens, but that's just not realistic," he laments. Ina, his wife, said that since having their son, she had learned to appreciate the advantages that Vauban offered for children. But she added: "It's very nice here, but a bit like living under a bell jar. I certainly wouldn't want to live here forever."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Nuclear energy gaining friends in Washington.

The the Obama Administration is firmly committed to renewable energy and has made great strides in translating that commitment into tangible policies and programs. While most of the activity around renewables has been highly publicized, efforts to resuscitate the nation's dormant nuclear industry have been moving forward with little fanfare.

In fact, by seizing the opportunity to capitalize on public concerns about climate change nuclear energy industry leaders have successfully positioned nukes to play a prominent role in energy secretary Steven Chu's clean energy/climate change plans. (GW)

Duke Considering First New U.S. Nuclear Plant in 30 Years

by Laura Shin
Solve Climate
Jun 19, 2009

For the first time since the Three Mile Island meltdown, U.S. interest in nuclear power is heating up.

In southern Ohio yesterday, a coalition of energy companies, including Duke Energy, announced that it is considering ordering the nation's first new nuclear plant in more than 30 years.

Duke's group will have some competition: So far, 17 applications have been submitted to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 26 new reactors, reflecting how concern about energy supplies and climate change have changed the debate over nuclear power.

The plant discussed yesterday would be built near the site of an inoperative uranium enrichment plant in Piketown, about 100 miles east of Cincinnati. Duke's coalition, called the Southern Ohio Clean Energy Park Alliance, brings together nuclear companies USEC, Unistar and French AREVA, plus the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative, a group working for the economic stability of the area.

They plan to seek funding from the Department of Energy, and they could find that federal support.

Nuclear energy has been gaining friends in Washington in recent months.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu is a strong supporter of nuclear power, and there has been discussion in Congress of financing new nuclear energy projects as the government's emphasis shifts toward cleaner sources of energy. The federal stimulus package proposed earlier this year initially offered a $50 billion loan boost for nuclear power, though that measure was dropped in the final negotiations.

The DOE is now preparing to award $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear facilities, and earlier this week, Chu announced $9 million for scholarships and grants for university research into nuclear energy.

“America’s leadership in nuclear energy research will be critical in addressing the country’s longterm energy independence and climate change goals," Chu said in announcing the scholarship program. He referred to nuclear power as an "important zero-carbon energy source.”

A look at nuclear construction under way around the world right now offers a cautionary tale, though.

A survey by analyst Mycle Schneider of the more than three dozen nuclear plants currently under construction found they long lead times, with plants taking over a decade to come online, and that about half ended up with construction delays and several had significant cost overruns. Finland's 3 billion Euro Olkiluoto-3 nuclear plant, which submitted environmental assessments in 1998 and saw the first concrete poured in 2005, was 1.5 billion Euros over budget by 2007.

In the U.S., while some state lawmakers have called for more nuclear power, they haven't been as quick amid the economic crisis to allow those project costs to be passed on to consumers, creating another funding challenge. That tripped up AmerenUE's plans for an Areva nuclear reactor in Missouri, where it wasn't allowed to raise its consumers' rates before the plant was completed. AmerenUE announced that it was suspending its Missouri nuclear plans in April.

Currently, nuclear power generated by the 104 existing reactors in 31 states accounts for 10 percent of all the installed electric capacity in the United States. That number jumps to 20 percent of the overall electricity supply and 75 percent of all carbon-free energy, according to Steve Kerekes, spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

It's been years since a new nuclear plant was ordered, though, and there have been no new orders since before March 28, 1979, when a coolant leak led to a partial reactor core meltdown at the Three Mile Island Generating Station near Harrisburg, Pa. (More than 40 plants that had already been ordered were completed in the 1980s and ’90s.)

Kerekes says the lack of new construction isn't entirely attributable to the Three Mile Island meltdown.

“Certainly Three Mile Island had an influence on our industry, but the primary reason thus far is that we haven’t had to build new plants because we’ve been getting electricity from what we have,” he says.

He cites gains in efficiency and the flattening of demand:

“We have operated plants so much better and have done so over the last 15 to 20 years, increasing our electrical output by the equivalent of 29 reactors since 1990 from existing resources. We've increased our overall electrical output from 25 percent to 30 percent."

He also notes that new U.S. power plant construction in recent years has been for medium-sized natural gas plants, not from the kinds of coal and nuclear plants that create baseload electricity.

In terms of climate impact, nuclear power is negligible. One University of Wisconsin study determined that, per Gigawatt-hour, nuclear power emitted less than 2 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by coal – and about the same amount as wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power.

The likelihood that the federal government will put a price on carbon emissions in the near future is also spurring companies like Duke to investigate nuclear energy as a source of future electicity. About 70 percent of Duke's power right now comes from coal, with 27 percent from nuclear, 2 percent from natural gas and oil, and 1 percent from wind and hydro combined.

"At this point, there’s uncertainty with how federal regulations will address greenhouse gases, so we've got to look for ways to serve our customers in the future – clean energy ways," says Rita Sipe, a Duke spokeswoman.

While nuclear power could cut the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions if it replaced coal plants, it still has waste issues throughout its lifecycle, from the uranium mines it relies on for raw materials to the disposal of its spent fuel, which remains hazardous for thousands of years.

A few environmentalists, notably the Greenpeace co-founder-turned-nuclear booster Patrick Moore and James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory that the earth is a super-organism, support nuclear for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. However, most environmental groups still question the risks nuclear power and its waste pose to the environment and humanity. Greenpeace outwardly opposes new nuclear plants.

Kerekes, meanwhile, envisions a wave of construction, with about 30 new nuclear plants being built in the United States over the next 20 to 25 years. The first four to eight of those he expects to come online between 2016 and 2018.

Laura Shin is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other publications.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The largest centralized solar power production project on Earth

I first posted a piece on Desertec in June 2007. Back then the project was better known as TREC (Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation). The basic concept then and now is to "put technology and deserts into service for energy, water and climate security". The idea of developing an international renewable energy network or grid makes sense as a way of addressing the the variability of solar and wind energy resources. Interconnect a large enough geographic area and you can be certain that the sun will be shining and the wind will be flowing somewhere within the system.

What appears to be different in this latest incarnation of the concept is the plan for European Union investors to develop solar resources in African nations. What made the original strategy so appealing was the fact (or at least the impression) that each participating nation would develop their own resources and contribute to supporting a supergrid that connected them all together. (GW)

Europe Looks to Africa for Solar Power

NEW YORK — The European project known as Desertec is nothing if not ambitious.

It aims to harvest the sun’s energy — using a method known as concentrating solar power, or C.S.P. — from the vast North African desert and deliver it as electricity, via high-voltage transmission lines, to markets in Europe. Eventually, its backers say, it could satisfy as much as 15 percent of the European Union’s power needs.

The idea, which has been bouncing around for years, arises out of an alphabet soup of organizations, formal multinational partnerships and regional acronyms like TREC, for Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation; Eumena, or European Union, the Mediterranean and North Africa; the Union of the Mediterranean; and the Club of Rome.

As James Kanter reported in our Green Inc. blog, the project took a step forward last week when a consortium of German businesses announced plans to pursue financing and otherwise hammer out details for Desertec, which is expected to cost about €400 billion, or $555 billion.

Munich Re, the large German insurance company, is leading the charge to bring the concept to fruition, and a meeting is scheduled for mid-July to formalize the coalition, which includes companies like Siemens, Deutsche Bank and the energy giant E.On.

“The time now is perfect to start this initiative,” Alexander Mohanty, a Munich Re spokesman, said in an e-mail message Friday, “as climate protection has become an urgent issue and our economies need new impulses.”

Large-scale C.S.P. projects — essentially expansive fields of solar collectors, or mirrors, that concentrate rays from the intense desert sun to heat water, generate steam, drive turbines and produce electricity — are not revolutionary. Such projects have been undertaken in the U.S. Southwest, Spain and elsewhere.

This would take things to a whole new level, however, and as conceived, Desertec would be the largest centralized solar power production project on earth.

That such an ambitious, clean-energy megaproject should be taking a step forward, however incremental, might suggest that deep-pocketed investors have truly seen the writing on the wall with regard to legislated carbon abatement and the slow phase-out of fossil fuels.

In a collection of reactions gathered by Spiegel Online, several observers seemed to welcome the development.

“The project is sending a strong signal that investments in renewable energies don’t just make ecological sense,” wrote The Financial Times Deutschland, “they make economic sense as well.”

A reader at Green Inc. simply said: “Europeans need energy and have cash. Africans have sun and territory. It is quite logical to combine all this.”

But not everyone was convinced.

Some scratched their heads at the idea of spending billions of dollars to harvest sunlight and transmit electricity thousands of kilometers, when it can be produced increasingly efficiently in European backyards.

“It must once again be pointed out that the most successful method of harvesting solar power is with rooftop panels,” wrote the German daily Die Tageszeitung. “In just three to five years, power from the roof will be cheaper than electricity from the wall plug. The economic bar for desert power is, in other words, high. Solar power produced in a decentralized manner will likely always be the cheaper variety.”

The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, meanwhile, quoted Frank Asbeck, the chief executive of SolarWorld, the largest German solar company, as saying, “Building solar power plants in politically unstable countries opens you to the same kind of dependency as the situation with oil.”

Or in the somewhat more blunt vernacular of a Green Inc. reader: “If this project is built, Europe will shortly become dependent on it, and the Islamic world will have a second, and much tighter, noose to add to the oil one.”

That Mr. Asbeck’s interests lie with a competing solar technology — photovoltaics — is of no small consequence, but there were still other critics who complained that the project smacked of Euro-imperialism — particularly given the history of resource exploitation on the African continent.

“Haven’t we already been here before?” wrote Agatha Koprowski at Green Inc. last week. Ms. Koprowski is a graduate student of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a resident, with her husband, of Morocco — one of the African countries likely to become a hub in the Desertec system.

“Europeans covet Africa’s wealth of natural resources,” she continued, “so they make economic investments for the benefit of Europeans and the detriment of Africans.”

Gerhard Knies, the coordinator of TREC and chairman of Desertec’s supervisory board, suggested by telephone Friday that all of these concerns were misplaced.

Ownership of the facilities, for example, would follow several different models, Mr. Knies said, but in every case, local needs would come first. The main obstacle, he said, is money, which is where European investors come in.

“They can go 100 percent on this source of electricity,” he said, referring to potential North African partners like Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, “and there is no coupling to what they might build for export.”

As for political stability, Mr. Knies was dubious.

“Well, when you look at the Mediterranean region, the most unstable country is Italy,” he said, adding that in any case, the investment in large-scale energy projects in these areas would provide income, jobs and the creation of a new industry — all of which, Mr. Knies said, were “a contribution to stability.”

He also suggested that the additional transmission costs of such a project would be smaller than the gains associated with improved solar radiation in the African desert. The additional power yield, Mr. Knies said, would more than compensate for the cost of transmission to European markets.

Whether or not those economics pan out, and however realistic Mr. Knies’s portrayal of the mutual benefits that might accrue to the project’s member countries, the sheer size and scope of the Desertec plan seemed to stir passions far and wide last week.

An American organization supporting the perennial fringe presidential candidate, Lyndon LaRouche, for example, called Desertec — rather inexplicably — a “genocidal, Malthusian, energy plan.”

Setting aside such unhinged broadsides, Mr. Knies was philosophical — and suggested that critics of the plan were simply missing the larger implications of an international cooperative like Desertec.

“I think they overlook the positive side of this interdependence, which creates win-win situations for the participating sides,” he said. “And that is how neighbors become friends.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Food or forests?

Last year China announced a highly ambitious and laudable reforestation plan designed to halt desertification, address severe water shortages and help mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, it would appear that the plan has been derailed by a more immediate crisis: food shortages.

China is also experiencing one of the largest migrations (from the countryside to cities) in the history of humankind. When the government's massive industrialization effort intended to propel its economy into 21st century leadership is taken into consideration, it is clear that China is in the midst of a very tumultuous and unpredictable period -- with global implications.

If ever there was a time for new ways of thinking about and dealing with what appear to be conflicting priorities, this would be it. For example, might there be a role for the concept of permaculture, i.e. perennial agriculture including tree crops in China's future? (GW)

China suspends reforestation project over food shortage fears

Environmental restoration plan scrapped to grow crops as concerns increase over feeding world's largest population

By Jonathan Watts
June 23, 2009

Food shortage fears have prompted the Chinese government to suspend the reforestation of marginal arable land, a senior government official said today.

The sacrifice of a key environmental restoration project for crop production highlights the growing problem of feeding the world's biggest population as cities expand into farmland and urban residents consume more meat and vegetables.

Lu Xinshe, deputy head of the ministry of land and resources, said the country was struggling to hold the 120 million hectare "red line" considered the minimum land areas needed for food self-sufficiency.

With industrialisation eating into the countryside, he said the government would halt plans to restore arable land to nature.

"We will not plan any new large scale projects to return farmland to its natural state, beyond those that have already been planned," he was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency.
Any change in the balance of food production causes unease in a country where the elderly still remember the devastating famines of the early 1960s that killed between 15 million and 40 million people.

But the decision to halt many environmental restoration programmes is likely to have a knock-on effect. The government has been compensating farmers in the north and west of China to give up farmland as a central pillar of its strategy to fight desertification and water shortages.

The end of ploughing helps stabilise the soil, while stopping irrigation alleviates water shortages.
Tree planting has also helped the country offset the increased emission of carbon dioxide from factories.

But food is the more immediate priority. By the end of last year, the amount of arable land in China had decreased to within 1% of the "red line."

Against the backdrop of rising global food prices, Chinese companies have bought the rights to farm swaths of land in the Philippines, Laos, Russia, and Kazakshstan. They have invested in biofuel crops in Zambia and the Congo. By one estimate there are now one million Chinese farmers in Africa.

But the government is committed to self-sufficiency, which requires the production of 500 million tonnes of grain a year. To maintain this level, prime minister Wen Jiabao has said the state would increase spending on agricultural production by 20%, well above inflation.

He has also asked advisers to recommend new areas where cultivation can be expanded. Among the areas suggested is the Sanjiang region in Heilongjiang, a protected wetland.

But as The Guardian reported last month, the pressure to industrialise the far western province of Xinjiang is likely to further erode food output, reducing the government's options. With industrialisation set to continue for decades, the shrinkage of land is likely to increase the pressure to use more fertiliser and genetically modified crops. A fifth of the nation's paddy fields now grow hybrid strains of rice, according to a report today by the Xinhua news agency.

Monday, June 22, 2009

You are more than you eat

Sweden is getting serious about foods that that emit gasses. No, not those kind of gasses. I'm talking about greenhouse gas emissions. The Swedish government wants their citizens to think about how the food they consume is produced and to take their ecological footprint into consideration when making dietary decisions.

Advocates of eating locally-grown organic foods will find much to support their positions in a recently released European Union report on environmentally smart food choices. We need to dramatically reduce our consumption of meat and dairy products to avoid eating ourselves to a climatically unstable planet. The one surprise for me is the fact that rice makes the list of foods to consume less of. Methane is a by-product of its production. (GW)

Sweden promotes climate-friendly food choices


22 June 2009

Guidelines for climate-friendly food choices developed by the Swedish authorities recommend citizens to reduce their meat and rice consumption as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The first of their kind, the guidelines are now being sent out for reactions and inspiration from other EU countries.


According to the European Commission, the food and drink sector contributes to some 23% of global resource use, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and 31% of acidifying emissions.

The European Environment Agency notes that agriculture puts most pressure on the environment during the food chain lifecycle, with beef and dairy production causing the highest emissions. Food processing is not seen as a significant contributor.

The main climate impact of the beef and dairy industry is methane produced by enteric fermentation from cattle. Methane is said to be over 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

A recent report by the Joint Research Centre shows that meat and dairy products contribute on average 24% to the environmental impact of total final consumption in the EU 27, while constituting only 6% of the economic value. The main improvement options identified lie in agricultural production and food management by households (avoidance of food wastage), and are related to power savings.

"Meat – beef, lamb, pork and chicken – is the food group that has the greatest impact on the environment," state the guidelines, jointly drafted by the Swedish National Food Administration and the country's Environmental Protection Agency.

The authorities note that Swedes' meat consumption has grown by an average ten kilos per person over the past ten years and now totals 65 kilos.

According to the World Bank, demand for food is expected to increase by 50% by 2050, and demand for meat by 85%, mainly as emerging economies like China and India become richer and adopt Western-style eating habits, rich in meat and dairy products.

The document, entitled 'Environmentally-smart Food Choices', recommend eating meat less often and in smaller quantities. "Try to exchange one or two meat dishes a week against vegetarian meals or decrease the quantity of meat," the document reads, explaining that such behaviour will lower people's climate-change footprint.

The document further lists various facts on the environmental impact of different foods. For example, one kilo of beef contributes up to 15-25 kilos of greenhouse gases - which is ten times more than the carbon footprint of the equivalent amount of chicken.

"Eating less meat, and making careful choices about what you eat, is therefore the smartest environmental choice you can make," the authorities state.

In addition to information on climate and the environment, the guidelines list the health aspects related to different foodstuffs, their recommended daily intake and the consequences of over-consumption. "With a few exceptions, healthy food choices can also go hand in hand with choices that are good for the environment," the guidelines read.

Foods covered include meat, fish, seafood, fruits, berries, starches, fats and even water. Recommendations range from eating seasonal, locally-produced fruits, vegetables and berries, avoiding bottled water, soda and palm oil and limiting rice consumption as its cultivation produces methane.

The Swedish authorities are the first in Europe to develop such recommendations. They will be sent out to other EU countries to guage reactions before being released.

"Provided there are no serious objections," the process should be completed within three months, the authorities noted, hoping that the guidelines will inspire authorities in other countries to follow Sweden's example.

"Consumers make important environmental choices when they are food-shopping, so they need a sound basis on which to make their decisions. Food production accounts for roughly a quarter of Swedish consumers' climate-impacting emissions, and also contributes to other harmful environmental effects, for example through the use of pesticides," said Inger Andersson, director-general of the National Food Administration.

Not near my air base

By now everyone who follows the development of renewable energy technology in the United States is very familiar with the trials and tribulations of trying to site large-scale windfarms. Issues ranging from birds and bats to views and vistas have been the topic of challenges and lawsuits as individual turbines have grown in size and the number of turbines per project grow in order to achieve economies of scale.

Solar energy has, for the most part, has been able to avoid these kinds of controversies. That's in large part due to the fact that solar projects have tended to be scaled more towards individual use -- on the rooftops of homes and businesses where the electricity generated will be used.

However, there are some very large solar thermal projects on the board out west. Siting is proving to be as much an issue for them as 400 foot tall wind turbines. (GW)

Solar Project Meets Bigger Foe Than Cloudy Skies: The Air Force
Opposition to Plant Highlights Hurdles Facing Renewable Energy

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post
June 20, 2009

On a vacant piece of land near Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the promise of solar energy has collided into the demands of military training. And a solar project that would have featured a vast field of mirrors, a molten-salt storage facility and a 600-foot "power tower" appears to be heading for defeat.

In 2007, a Los Angeles firm called SolarReserve proposed the construction of a $700 million solar thermal power plant, covering two square miles near the Nevada Air Force base, where the sun shines brightly virtually all year long. There aren't issues with wildlife, the company said. Moreover, it could hook up its solar-powered turbines to existing transmission lines left behind by a defunct mining operation.

But Col. Howard D. Belote, installation commander at Nellis, said this week that the plan won't fly and is urging the government to turn it down.

The Air Force's opposition demonstrates some of the conflicts and delays that could lie ahead as renewable-energy projects search for places to put big wind turbines or solar collectors, even in Western states where the federal government is a major landholder. SolarReserve has been negotiating with the Air Force for 18 months and has already revised its plans once to move the plant 25 miles away from the base, at the Air Force's suggestion.

The Nevada plant was supposed to be a showcase for SolarReserve: one of the largest solar plants in the world, using heat-transfer technology developed for space rockets by United Technologies. A field of mirrors would focus sunlight on a receiver on a tall tower, where it would heat the molten salt to 1,050 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than other solar plants using similar technology. The molten salt would then flow to a storage tank, where its heat would generate steam and power conventional steam turbines similar to those in coal plants.

By using the molten-salt method, the plant could store 16 hours of power supply, easing concerns about the ability of solar plants to provide power when it is dark or cloudy. It would have a capacity of 100 megawatts, enough to power about 50,000 homes.

"We're trying to build a facility that runs 24 hours a day," said Kevin B. Smith, SolarReserve's chief executive.

But Belote said the solar plant would compromise classified aspects of the Air Force's training range and would interfere with radar. He said the Air Force would tell the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, which owns most of the land in the state, to reject the proposal. (The bureau controls more than 20 million acres of land with wind energy potential and more than 30 million acres with solar potential.)

SolarReserve officials "did a lot of [research] with publicly available tools," Belote said. "But when they came back for an official look the answer was, 'Man, that's still too close.' And because of the sensitivity [of information], I can't tell them why. . . . Unfortunately for them and us, there's stuff on the Nevada testing range we don't tell anyone about." Belote suggested they try another site, either 100 miles to the southeast or about 80 miles to the northeast, near the town of Mesquite.

Top executives at SolarReserve said they were upset and disappointed. They feel that the Air Force pointed them toward the second site before rejecting it. Moreover, the Nellis base boasts of its own photovoltaic panels -- the nation' largest solar photovoltaic power plant; on May 27, Belote hosted President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who toured the solar facility.

Obama "got a nice tour of the facility, but I expect he had not been informed that Nellis was resisting renewable-energy facilities in the surrounding area," Smith said. "The fact that Nellis AFB allowed someone to build a PV [photovoltaic] facility on the base and sell them the power is great, but they are hiding behind it while they try and stop other development in the region."

The Air Force has a history of balking at buildings near the 2.9-million-acre flight-training range in Nevada, which makes up 41 percent of the Air Force's total training acres worldwide. In the past, the service has objected to tall hotel projects in nearby Las Vegas and to wind turbines.

But SolarReserve's chief executive Smith said "we tried to make sure we had a site the Air Force wouldn't object to." The company's plan would place a lone solar-power tower below a 2,000-foot-tall mountain range that separates their location from the base. The base sits well above the height of the tower.

In addition, the project would create many construction jobs, Smith noted.

SolarReserve is still hoping it can prevail upon the Air Force to approve the site near Nellis and has appealed to members of Congress for help. Belote has arranged for classified briefings to explain his objections to select Senate staffers, and he has promoted the project to the mayor of Mesquite, a small town just on the Nevada side of the Arizona border, 87 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

"Our community is very, very interested in alternative energy and the thought of being green," said Mesquite Mayor Susan M. Holecheck. "Historically, our economic base has been gaming and tourism." Another solar company has already proposed a project using similar technology. Holecheck said the town would have to study whether a SolarReserve site would interfere with plans for moving the town's airport. And the Bureau of Land Management would also need to agree to provide land.

Smith hasn't had time to pursue the Mesquite idea. He said the Air Force just mentioned the alternative a month ago. "The difficulty with moving to a new site is you start over again," he said. "It is certainly something we can do if we fail at the current site but it will delay the project 12 to 18 months."

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

The year of a long-beleaguered river

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio during the fifties and sixties. Cleveland's Chamber of Commerce slogan was "The Best Location in the Nation".

Cynics called it "The Mistake By the Lake".

I remember when our mayor's hair caught fire when he attempted to cut the ribbon at the opening of a new factory with a blowtorch instead of a pair of scissors. I sat and shivered through Cleveland Indians games in the nearly-empty Municipal Stadium in late April as Lake Erie-effect snow flurries fell.

I was also there when the "Mighty Cuyahoga River" caught fire forty years ago. That probably did more than anything else to put us in the international spotlight.

It's nice to see that things have changed dramatically since then. (GW)

Tainted Cuyahoga River sees sporadic return of recreation

By Michael Scott
Cleveland Plain Dealer
June 14, 2009

This is one of a series of stories The Plain Dealer will print this year as a part of "The Year of the River," a recognition of the Cuyahoga River's return to health 40 years after it caught fire.

CUYAHOGA FALLS -- Mike Larkin's snub-nosed kayak has just been shot from an unseen underwater cannon.

The lightweight and slender one-man boat springs out from a craggy jumble of rocks, then appears to briefly hover above unruly waters.

When the little, red plastic craft smacks loudly into the frothy pool at the bottom of the rapids, Larkin whoops and waves his paddle. A few fellow kayakers holler their appreciation along with several whitewater watchers on a ledge high above the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

That's right, the Cuyahoga River.

That's right, whitewater kayaking.

And in The Year of the River -- marking the 40th anniversary of the June 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga and its ongoing ecological recovery -- Larkin's leap is much more than a brief but wild ride down Cuyahoga rapids.

It's also high-flying evidence of advances along a much lengthier journey: restoration of recreation on a river known mostly to outsiders for its fires than its waters.

Kayaking on the Cuyahoga River

While a work in progress (we're still reminded not to eat too many fish and not to ingest any water if we fall in), the return of recreation on the Cuyahoga has people excited.

"There are a lot of things you can do on this river -- this is just the most extreme," said whitewater kayaker David Hill, director of environmental safety for ParkOhio and unabashed river-recreation evangelist.

None are more spectacular than kayaking, however, in the rough-and-tumble middle section of the Cuyahoga, making it a destination for kayakers from around the region. In fact, an eighth-of-a-mile stretch near Cuyahoga Falls is considered expert-class (class IV) whitewater.

"We have geography here more extreme than the Niagara River -- over a stretch of 2.32 miles, the river falls over 208 feet," said Elaine Marsh of Friends of the Crooked River. "That's an unheard of drop in most of the Great Lakes region -- OK, maybe around Lake Superior, but not anywhere else around here."

That is why the Cuyahoga -- already designated a Heritage River along its entire length and a state Scenic River along 25 miles of its upper reaches -- is unique, Hill said.

"Sure, it's been the poster child for a number of years because of the Clean Water Act and the fires," Hill said. "But when you look at the Cuyahoga, you have to look at all the different facets of it.

"It's not characterized by one event -- or even just one type of environment."

Recreation returns

The Cuyahoga is best understood as a three-part river.

The upper reaches -- from the headwaters in Geauga down to Lake Rockwell near the city of Kent -- are mostly pristine, if slow and casual.

The middle section becomes wild, especially in rapids through Kent and Cuyahoga Falls and near the Gorge Dam in Summit County -- though the waters there also become more tainted by Akron's wastewater and suburban runoff.

And the lower end, where water quality and fish populations are improving dramatically in places like Cuyahoga Heights, remains urban and gritty, especially at the mouth.

On-water recreation there is limited to mostly boats and jet skis passing through the shipping channel near Lake Erie.

And it is that very lowest section -- the 6-mile-long shipping channel and steel-mill, oil-refinery-lined urban waterway that caught fire June 22, 1969 -- which many outsiders still imagine when they think of the Cuyahoga River.

But that was 40 years ago.

And, of course, that description was never true of the rural upper reaches of the river in Geauga and Portage counties, where it meanders lazily through marsh and forest.

And the middle section -- drastically less foul than it once was -- had always featured the rapids and riffles where Larkin and Hill and friends play all summer.

There are, of course, many natural parks along the nearly 100-mile river that have improved along with the quality of water in the river -- most notably the sprawling 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The park formed during the course of the Cuyahoga cleanup. President Gerald Ford signed the legislation that created Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in 1974, and it was redesignated a National Park in 2000.

But there are others, from Headwaters Park in Geauga County where the Cuyahoga is born out of a series of small streams and swamps, to the Gorge Metro Parks in Summit County to the Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation in Cuyahoga Heights.

But while those parks and others allow visitors to experience the Cuyahoga from land, on-water activities are harder to find.

Fishing and boating

The general goal of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act was to bring America's waterways back from the brink of death toward being "fishable and swimmable." The Cuyahoga River is not there just yet but is getting closer, according to EPA standards.

It's certainly not swimmable -- except unofficially in the upper portions of the river. Even up there, however, there are no designated swimming holes, just canoers who turn into swimmers.

"This is probably the only place on the Cuyahoga where most people would consider swimming," said Kendra Hazlatt-Becker at Camp Hi Canoe Livery in Hiram.

But the Cuyahoga most certainly is fishable. Recent environmental reports have chronicled great numbers of healthy fish species (and the macro-invertebrates they feed upon) to the river.

For that reason, officials expect that the crucial middle portion -- from just north of Kent through Akron all the way up to Harvard Avenue in Cleveland --will meet U.S. EPA standards for aquatic life habitat (fish and bugs) in time for the river fire commemoration this month.

Even so, that 45-mile section continues to struggle with industrial pollution, sewage and suburban runoff.

And the Ohio EPA still advises against eating too many fish from portions of the Cuyahoga -- only one smallmouth bass caught anywhere on the river in Summit and Cuyahoga counties because of excessive mercury, for example. (To see the entire list, go to www.epa.state.oh.us/dsw/fishadvisory/waters/Cuyahoga.html)

Still, park officials and anglers will tell you that there is good sport fishing -- catch and release -- on the river.

Fly-fishermen line the riverbanks in the National Park just below the Ohio 82 bridge in Brecksville. In Summit County, the park district suggests Cascade Valley Metro Park and Deep Lock Quarry.

As for boating, the river still lacks a great number of public access points. You can put in at places in Mantua and Hiram in Portage and Burton Township in Geauga, where you can also rent a canoe or kayak.

Downstream, however, you will rarely see canoes or kayaks on the Cuyahoga -- even though it courses its way down the center of the gorgeous national park.

That's because up to 2 billion gallons of Akron sewage still end up in the river each year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit this year seeking more than $100 million in penalties from the city, claiming that it had violated the Clean Water Act for the last 15 years.

Until that sewage is treated completely before reaching the river, it is unlikely that canoeing and kayaking would thrive in the park. In fact, the National Park Service "discourages using the river at this time, however, due to highly variable water quality."

But pioneers like Marsh and her husband do it, and so do others -- thrilled to boat on the river but cautious not to go in it.

It's a fitting contradiction for the crooked Cuyahoga.

But that recreation exists at all along a river with a legacy of filth and fire is evidence of how far the river has come in 40 years, and how far it has to go. It also is proof that we no longer consider the waterway as a place to dump things, but as a natural resource to enjoy.

"The recreational benefits of a river are exceedingly important in determining the value of the river to the people around it," Marsh said.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Weather Info For All

It's easy to criticize weather forecasters as we try to reconcile their predictions with the weather events that actually unfold daily. Who hasn't muttered beneath their breath at some point after being caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella: "that's the job I want in my next life...must be nice to be paid and be wrong so often."?

Actually tools for weather monitoring and prediction have improved greatly over the years and, in fact, can be the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands of people in regions like the Sub-Saharan Africa. (GW)

Mobile communications to revolutionize African weather monitoring


June 18, 2009

The Global Humanitarian Forum and its President, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, together with Ericsson, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), mobile telecommunications company Zain, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, today announced a major initiative, dubbed "Weather Info for All", to radically improve Africa's weather monitoring network in the face of the growing impact of climate change.

A recent Global Humanitarian Forum report estimated that climate change is responsible for some 300,000 deaths each year and over USD 100 billion worth of economic losses, mainly because of shocks to health and agricultural productivity. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for close to a quarter of these losses, and is the region at the most immediate risk of droughts and floods. Agricultural yields in some areas are expected to fall by 50 percent as early as 2020.

The Global Humanitarian Forum initiated this collaboration in response to Africa's severe gap in weather information highlighted at the Forum's first annual event. The members of the initiative will deploy up to 5,000 new automatic weather observation stations across Africa, intending to provide a massive increase in crucial information to predict and manage climate shocks.

Africa has a network eight times below the WMO minimum recommended standard, and less than 200 weather stations that meet WMO observation requirements, compared to several thousand each in Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. The 5,000 weather stations will be installed at new and existing mobile network sites throughout the continent over coming years, in what promises to save lives and bring increased economic opportunity to tens of millions of people.

An innovative public-private partnership on a unique scale, the initiative relies on the core business of telecom. Ericsson, the world's leading provider of telecommunications equipment and services, will tap relationships with African operators such as Zain, who will host the weather equipment at mobile network sites being rolled out across Africa. Achieving the 5,000 target would require additional operator commitment and external financing.

The launch was held at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, where Kofi Annan said: "The world's poorest are also the world's most vulnerable when it comes to the impact of climate change, and the least equipped to deal with its consequences. Today you find cell phone towers in almost every part of Africa. We have never been able to establish weather monitoring on that scale, until now. By bringing together the expertise and resources of different public and private actors, this project may help to save lives and improve the livelihoods of communities in Africa living on the frontlines of climate change."

Also present at the launch, Carl-Henric Svanberg, President and CEO of Ericsson, said: "As the leading provider of telecommunications in Africa and active on the continent for more than 100 years, we are driving the rapid expansion of mobile communications. This initiative presents a unique opportunity to simultaneously help mitigate the impact of climate change for those most affected and to strengthen weather networks and systems across the continent. We look forward to having more operators come on board to realize the full impact of the initiative."

Mobile networks provide the necessary connectivity, power and security to sustain the weather equipment. Through its Mobile Innovation Center in Africa, Ericsson will also develop mobile applications to help communicate weather information developed by national meteorological and hydrological services (NMHSs) via mobile phones. Mobile operators will maintain the automatic weather stations and assist in the transmission of the data to national met services.

The initial deployment, already begun in Zain networks, focuses on the area around Lake Victoria in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The first 19 stations installed will double the weather monitoring capacity of the Lake region.

Zain CEO Saad Al Barrak commented: "It is truly wonderful that many communities across Africa will now have accurate meteorological information readily available. Here we can see how mobile communications can play a key role in helping to improve both the quality of life and safety for people in the remotest parts of the world."

Approximately 70 percent of Africans rely on farming for their livelihood, or close to 700 million people, and over 95 percent of Africa's agriculture depends on rainfall. Changing weather patterns due to climate change render obsolete traditional knowledge relating to agriculture otherwise reliable for centuries, creating a great need for meteorological information.

Also present at the Geneva launch was Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the WMO, the United Nations System's authoritative voice on Weather, Climate and Water, which is coordinating involvement of NMHSs participating in the initiative. Jarraud said:

"For food production, almost every decision is linked to weather, climate and water parameters. We see the Weather Info for All initiative as a major pan-African effort to empower our 188 Members to provide enhanced weather information and services. Working through NMHSs, WMO will identify weather information needs, advise on technical requirements and help disseminate the information. This initiative may prove to be one of the most important for African meteorology in decades. The project will also therefore support the goals of the WMO-organized World Climate Conference-3, to be held from 31 August to 4 September 2009 in Geneva."

The initiative will have an impact far beyond agriculture and disaster preparation as it also includes assistance to national meteorological services in training and technical capacities. Better weather information will also make possible the development of services, such as microinsurance, which can be based on weather data indexes, such as rainfall. The initiative will also increase the volume of information useful for scientists, as well as for the water, transport and energy industries.

While the weather information gap is particularly acute in Africa, the initiative would be open to later expansion into other affected regions.

A further partner in the initiative is Columbia University's Earth Institute, headed by Jeffrey Sachs. To help with distribution to some of the most vulnerable and poorest parts of Africa and in partnership with the Earth Institute, automatic weather stations will also be installed in Millennium Villages - rural development projects spread throughout 10 countries and focused on achieving the Millennium Development Goals. By leveraging the expertise of Earth Institute scientists on climatology, agriculture, and health, the project hopes to identify key areas where there can be an immediate impact contributing a sizable knowledge bank to the effort.

"The Earth Institute is a proud partner in this highly innovative program," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the institute. "Once the switch is turned on, a flow of extensive weather data will become available throughout Africa, with benefits extending from the national policy makers to the smallholder farmers. The Millennium Villages is a perfect launch site for the practical and timely application of weather data to bolster resilience and sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa."

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Fed's "Mr. Green"

If you're looking for proof positive of President Obama's commitment to a clean energy future, that is proof beyond his appointment of Dr. Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy and Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Department of Interior, look no further than the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). As the following article points out, most citizens are probably not aware of what FERC does or that it even exists. But this federal agency plays has a very pivotal role in determining the shape and direction of the nation's power industry. It appears to be in the hands of an extremely capable and pragmatic visionary. (GW)

Jon Wellinghoff, Obama’s energy futurist

The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is committed to renewable energy.

By Mark Clayton
The Christian Science Monitor
June 8, 2009


When giving his slide presentation on America’s new energy direction, Jon Wellinghoff sometimes sneaks in a picture of himself seated in a midnight blue, all-electric Tesla sports car.

It often wins a laugh, but makes a key point: The United States is accelerating in a new energy direction under President Obama’s newly appointed chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). At the same time, FERC’s key role in the nation’s energy future is becoming more apparent.

Energy and climate legislation now pending in Congress would put in FERC’s hands a sweeping market-based cap-and-trade system intended to lower industrial greenhouse-gas emissions.

Besides its role granting permits for new offshore wind power, the agency is also overseeing planning for transmission lines that could one day link Dakota wind farms to East Coast cities, and solar power in the Southwest to the West Coast.

“FERC has always been important to power development,” says Ralph Cavanagh, energy program codirector for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group. “It’s just that people haven’t known about it. They will pretty soon.”

That’s because Mr. Wellinghoff and three fellow commissioners share an affinity for efficiency and renewable energy that’s not just skin-deep, Mr. Cavanagh and others say.

Wellinghoff started his energy career as a consumer advocate for utility customers in Nevada before being appointed by President Bush in 2005 as a FERC commissioner. He was a key author of “renewable portfolio standards” that require Nevada’s utilities to incorporate more renewable power in their energy mix. Now he’s the nation’s top energy regulator.

It’s clear that FERC has a mandate to speed change to the nation’s power infrastructure, Wellinghoff says.

When it comes to the extra work and complexity FERC will encounter if Congress appoints FERC to administer a mammoth carbon-emissions cap-and-trade program, Wellinghoff is eager, yet circumspect.

“We believe we are fully capable of fulfilling that role with respect to physical trading [of carbon allowances],” he says during an interview in Washington. “We’ve demonstrated our ability to respond efficiently and effectively to undertake those duties Congress has given to us. Unfortunately, the result of that is they give you more to do.”

While the US Department of Energy controls long-term energy investment decisions, FERC’s four commissioners (a fifth seat is vacant) appear determined to ensure that wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean power get equal access to the grid.

The commissioners are also biased against coal and nuclear power on at least one key factor: cost.

Many in the power industry believe that renewable energy still costs too much. Not Wellinghoff, who says: “I see these distributed resources [solar, wind, natural-gas microturbines, and others] coming on right now as being generally less expensive.”

That might sound surprising. Yet, with coal and nuclear power plants costing billions of dollars – and raising environmental issues such as climate change and radioactive waste – others also see renewable power as the low-cost option.

Wellinghoff’s outspoken views have irritated some since his March selection as chairman.

Last month, for instance, he drew fire from nuclear-energy boosters in Congress after he characterized as “an anachronism” the idea of meeting future US power demand by building large new coal-fired and nuclear power plants.

“You don’t need fossil fuel or nuclear [plants] that run all the time,” Wellinghoff told reporters at a US Energy Association Forum last month. Then he added: “We may not need any, ever.”

That set off a salvo from Sen. Lind­sey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a staunch nuclear-power advocate. “The public is ill-served when someone in such a prominent position suggests alternative-energy programs are developed and in such a state that we should abandon our plans to build more plants,” he said in a statement.

But to others, Wellinghoff is the epitome of what the US needs: a public servant zeroed in on energy security, the environment, efficiency, and keeping energy costs down.

“Wellinghoff has been a longtime supporter of efficiency and consumer interests,” says Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, an energy advocacy group. “I would call him a visionary. He’s not just content with the status quo.”

In Wellinghoff’s vision of the future, where the cost of carbon dioxide emissions is added to the price of coal-fired power plants and natural-gas turbines, it may be less expensive for consumers to set their appliances to avoid buying power at peak times. Or they may choose to buy power from a collection of microturbines, fuel cell, wind, solar, biomass, and ocean power systems.

“We’re going to see more distributed generation – and we’re already starting to see that happen,” Wellinghoff says. “Not only renewable generation like photovoltaic [panels] that people put on their homes and businesses, but also fossil-fuel systems like combined heat and power,” called cogeneration units.

To coordinate and harmonize this fluctuating phalanx of power sources, customers will need to know and be able to respond to the price of power, Wellinghoff says. They will also need a new generation of appliances that switch off automatically to balance power supply and demand peaks.

But there are huge challenges with a power grid that provides energy from a mix of wind, solar, and other renewable power.

“You’re going to have to upgrade this whole grid [along the East Coast], he says. “You can’t just move [wind and wave power] from offshore to load centers onshore without looking at the effect on reliability – Florida
to Maine.”

As the percentage of renewable power rises toward 20 to 25 percent of grid power from around 3 percent today, there must be a backup to fill gaps when intermittent winds stop blowing or the sun doesn’t shine.

In a decade or more from now, Wellinghoff, says millions of all-electric or plug-in electric-gas hybrid vehicles could plug into the grid and supply spurts of power to fill in for dipping wind and solar output.

“There are new technologies,” he says, “that in the next three to five years will advance the grid to a new level.”

Gesturing to a drawing board on the wall, he hops up from his chair, his hands flicking across a sketch of the eastern half of the US with power lines fanning out from the Plains states to the East Coast.

“This is another grid option that would take a lot of power that’s now constrained in the Midwest, that can be developed - wind energy there - and move it to all the load centers [cities] on the East Coast,” he says.

Similarly, lines could be built across the Rockies to connect wind power in Montana and Wyoming to the West Coast. Instead of building power lines from the Midwest to the East Coast, “a lot of people would say, ‘No, no, let’s look first look at the wind offshore,’ ” he says.

Whether it’s wind from the Plains or the ocean, the resulting variability will have an impact on grid reliability if action isn’t taken, Wellinghoff says.

“You’re going to have to upgrade this whole grid here,” he says, gesturing to the East Coast. “You can’t just move [power] from offshore to load centers onshore without looking at the effect on reliability.”

Reliability of the grid remains paramount – Job No. 1 for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But if boosting renewable power to 25 percent by 2025 – the Obama administration’s goal – means spreading Internet-connected controllers across substations and transmission networks, then cybersecurity to protect them from increasing Internet-based threats is critical.

Yet a recent review by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation overseen by FERC found more than two-thirds of power generating companies denied they had any “critical assets” potentially vulnerable to cyberattack. Those denials concern Wellinghoff.

“We are asking the responding utilities to go back and reveal what are the number of critical assets and redetermine that for us,” he says. “We want to be sure that we have fully identify all the critical assets that need to be protected.”

It would be especially troubling if, as was recently reported by The Wall Street Journal, Russian and Chinese entities have hacked into the US power grid and left behind malware that could be activated at a later time to disable the grid.

But Wellinghoff says he has checked on the type of intrusion referred to in the article and denies successful grid hacks by foreign nations that have left dangerous malware behind.

While acknowledging that individuals overseas have tried to hack the grid frequently, he says, “I’m not aware of any successful hacks that have implanted into the grid any kinds of malware or other code that could later be activated.”

But others say there is a problem. In remarks at the University of Texas at Austin in April, Joel Brenner, the national counterintelligence executive, the nation’s most senior counterintelligence coordinator, indicated there are threats to the grid.

“We have seen Chinese network operations inside certain of our electricity grids,” he said in prepared remarks. “Do I worry about those grids, and about air traffic control systems, water supply systems, and so on? You bet I do.”

In an e-mailed statement, Wellinghoff’s press secretary, Mary O’Driscoll, says the chairman defers to senior intelligence officials on some questions concerning grid vulnerability to cyberattack: “The Commission isn’t in the intelligence gathering business and therefore can’t comment on that type of information.”