Wednesday, March 31, 2010

“The Great Solar Certification Divide”

As residential and community-scale renewable energy technologies like wind and solar become more popular and accessible, the question of who is qualified/certified to install these systems becomes an issue. (GW)

Who Holds the Power?

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts grapples with solar energy certification.

By Jennifer Runyon
Renewable Energy World

March 26, 2010

Massachusetts, United States

Last year a new ruling came down from the State Board of Electrical Examiners that stated only Massachusetts licensed electricians and registered apprentices can perform any and all aspects of installing solar energy. Seasoned solar installation veterans, some of whom had been putting solar energy on homes and businesses for more than 20 years, were literally forced off the roof as a result of the ruling. Now, one year later, a battle is brewing in Boston over who should be allowed to perform solar installations in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In the past solar integrators and electricians shared installation jobs, with electricians pulling the wire permits and completing all of the hard wiring on solar jobs. Wiring represents about 10-20% of a solar installation, according to estimates.

Under the new ruling, electricians must be on the job from start to finish and must perform (or help to perform) all aspects of the install, including pouring concrete for ground-mounted systems or putting up racking on the roof.

It’s an important issue in Massachusetts because of Governor Patrick’s interest in aggressively expanding solar energy in the state. His Commonwealth Solar Program has attracted numerous solar energy companies to set up shop in Massachusetts and analysts are predicting that with the state’s newly created SREC market, it will start to rival New Jersey, the second largest solar market in the U.S.

Companies like Borrego Solar, Alteris Renewables and Nexamp have seen solar sales increasing in the state, and electricians see the burgeoning solar industry as an opportunity to create new work.

With so many Americans unemployed right now, and the Massachusetts construction industry experiencing up to 25% unemployment since the recession started in 2008, it’s not surprising that Massachusetts’s electricians are looking to the solar industry.

“We’ve lost jobs just like all the other trades,” said Martin Aikens, a Business Agent of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 103, in a conference session during the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s (NESEA) Building Energy 10 conference in Boston. The conference session was entitled, “The Great Solar Certification Divide,” and included a panel of solar integrators and electricians.

In the conference session, Aikens explained that the issue is safety. He said that electricians go to school for four years and put in 8,000 hours of training before becoming licensed. “If you’re not qualified to install then you’re going to die. This is what it's all about — licenses,” he said.

Chris Kilfoyle of Berkshire Photovoltaic Services (BPVS), a solar firm based in Adams, Massachusetts, doesn’t think it’s that cut and dry. He said that more than 11 MW of PV have been installed safely and properly under the Commonwealth Solar Program, which requires inspection and proper licensure in order for rebates to be doled out. Kilfoyle is not aware of any safety issues having occurred in the past.

"Certainly nothing that was brought to the attention of the state board of electrical examiners or to the Commonwealth Solar Program,” he said.

Before the new ruling, said Kilfoyle, safety was maintained by all the various trades involved in solar installations. “So, if you’re a general contractor, your workers will have been OSHEA certified, they are wearing proper safety gear when they are working on a roof.”

Building contractors — who are responsible for pulling building permits — would ensure that panels were mounted correctly and look at issues such as properly attached mounts, using the right screws and sealing them properly.

"Those all come under the purview of the building code,” he said.

Integrators like Kilfoyle and John Abrams, President and CEO of South Mountain Company, maintain that the new ruling now requires electricians to do some of the tasks that they are not trained to do. “They can’t stand going up on the roof,” said Abrams, who’s design/build firm is located on Martha’s Vineyard. But now electricians are helping with those tasks because that’s what the ruling dictates.

In addition, Kilfoyle pointed out that NABCEP certification, the industry standard for solar installers, is voluntary in Massachusetts. “But if you examine who the 30 NABCEP-certified installers are, they are not electricians,” he said. “NABCEP is the only course of study and the only credential that really covers both the mechanical/structural work involved in PV systems as well as the nuances of electrical work,” he said.

But if electricians haven’t been pulled onto job sites to make them safer, then what is the rationale behind the ruling? Neither the State Board of Electrical Examiners nor the IBEW was available for comment, but Kilfoyle believes the issue comes down to the economy. “It’s really an issue of a downturn in construction jobs and this particular electrical union saying ‘gosh, look at all this money coming into the state for renewable energy, we want it all,’” he said.

Enter HR4180

New legislation has been introduced in Massachusetts that solar integrators hope will resolve the problem. HR4180 asks the state to create a new solar license classification that falls under a specialty construction supervisor license.

Under HR4180, solar licensees would have NABCEP expertise “for roof loading, snow loading, wind loading particular to Massachusetts, structural attachment and waterproofing,” said Kilfoyle. Job site organization, safety matters and issues related to system design, orientation, shading and production would also be required knowledge.

Supporters believe that HR4180 would send a clear signal to the organizers of green workforce training efforts underway at Massachusetts’s community colleges and technical schools, providing trainees with a career path they could pursue. While it might take someone 8,000 hours to become an electrician, pursuing a Solar PV license would be much faster, according to Kilfoyle.

If the legislation passes, Kilfoyle hopes the status quo in Massachusetts will be restored, with electricians pulling the wire permits and doing the hard wiring and solar integrators performing the remainder of the tasks. He said that integrators are prepared to keep focused on the issue should the bill fail.

In the meantime, some solar companies are becoming electrical contracting companies in order to comply with the ruling. Others are fighting it on a case-by-case basis.

Kilfoyle encourages solar companies in other states to stay on top of their local electrician boards and urges them to work toward PV licensure. Installing PV “is a specialty technical skill,” and requiring a solar license is in everyone’s best interest in order to ensure it's done correctly, he said.

“We want to make sure that the consumer has full trust in what we are doing,” he said.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The split between climate scientists and meteorologists

Weather and climate are not the same thing. The most obvious difference are the time frames that provide the context for their work. There are similarities, however. Both study and model the atmosphere.

Now meteorologists are weighing in on the topic of climate change. Just where some of them come down may surprise you. (GW)

Among Weathercasters, Doubt on Warming

By Leslie Kaufman
New York Times
March 29, 2010

The debate over global warming has created predictable adversaries, pitting environmentalists against industry and coal-state Democrats against coastal liberals.

But it has also created tensions between two groups that might be expected to agree on the issue: climate scientists and meteorologists, especially those who serve as television weather forecasters.

Climatologists, who study weather patterns over time, almost universally endorse the view that the earth is warming and that humans have contributed to climate change. There is less of a consensus among meteorologists, who predict short-term weather patterns.

Joe Bastardi, for example, a senior forecaster and meteorologist with AccuWeather, maintains that it is more likely that the planet is cooling, and he distrusts the data put forward by climate scientists as evidence for rising global temperatures.

“There is a great deal of consternation among a lot of us over the readjustment of data that is going on and some of the portrayals that we are seeing,” Mr. Bastardi said in a video segment posted recently on AccuWeather’s Web site.

Such skepticism appears to be widespread among TV forecasters, about half of whom have a degree in meteorology. A study released on Monday by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin found that only about half of the 571 television weathercasters surveyed believed that global warming was occurring and fewer than a third believed that climate change was “caused mostly by human activities.”

More than a quarter of the weathercasters in the survey agreed with the statement “Global warming is a scam,” the researchers found.

The split between climate scientists and meteorologists is gaining attention in political and academic circles because polls show that public skepticism about global warming is increasing, and weather forecasters — especially those on television — dominate communications channels to the public. A study released this year by researchers at Yale and George Mason found that 56 percent of Americans trusted weathercasters to tell them about global warming far more than they trusted other news media or public figures like former Vice President Al Gore or Sarah Palin, the former vice-presidential candidate.

The George Mason-Texas survey found that about half of the weathercasters said they had discussed global warming on their broadcasts during chats with anchors, and nearly 90 percent said they had talked about climate change at live appearances at Kiwanis Club-type events.

Several well-known forecasters — including John Coleman in San Diego and Anthony Watts, a retired Chico, Calif., weatherman who now has a popular blog — have been vociferous in their critiques of global warming.

The dissent has been heightened by recent challenges to climate science, including the discovery of errors in the 2007 report by the United NationsIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the unauthorized release of e-mail messages from a British climate research center last fall that skeptics say show that climate scientists had tried to suppress data.

“In a sense the question is who owns the atmosphere: the people who predict it every day or the people who predict it for the next 50 years?” said Bob Henson, a science writer for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, who trained as a meteorologist and has followed the divide between the two groups.

Mr. Henson added, “And the level of tension has really spiked in recent months.”

The reasons behind the divergence in views are complex. The American Meteorological Society, which confers its coveted seal of approval on qualified weather forecasters, has affirmed the conclusion of the United Nations’ climate panel that warming is occurring and that human activities are very likely the cause. In a statement sent to Congress in 2009, the meteorological society warned that the buildup of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would lead to “major negative consequences.”

Yet, climate scientists use very different scientific methods from the meteorologists. Heidi Cullen, a climatologist who straddled the two worlds when she worked at the Weather Channel, noted that meteorologists used models that were intensely sensitive to small changes in the atmosphere but had little accuracy more than seven days out. Dr. Cullen said meteorologists are often dubious about the work of climate scientists, who use complex models to estimate the effects of climate trends decades in the future.

But the cynicism, said Dr. Cullen, who now works for Climate Central, a nonprofit group that works to bring the science of climate change to the public, is in her opinion unwarranted.

“They are not trying to predict the weather for 2050, just generally say that it will be hotter,” Dr. Cullen said of climatologists. “And just like I can predict August will be warmer than January, I can predict that.”

Three years ago, Dr. Cullen found herself in a dispute with meteorologists after she posted a note on the Weather Channel’s Web site suggesting that meteorologists should perhaps not receive certification from the meteorological society if they “can’t speak to the fundamental science of climate change.”

Resentment may also play a role in the divide. Climatologists are almost always affiliated with universities or research institutions where a doctoral degree is required. Most meteorologists, however, can get jobs as weather forecasters with a college degree.

“There is a little bit of elitist-versus-populist tensions,” Mr. Henson said. “There are meteorologists who feel, ‘Just because I have a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on.’ ”

Whatever the reasons, meteorologists are far more likely to question the underlying science of climate change. A study published in the January 2009 newsletter of the American Geophysical Union, the professional association of earth scientists, found that while nearly 90 percent of some 3,000 climatologists who responded agreed that there was evidence of human-driven climate change, 80 percent of all earth scientists and 64 percent of meteorologists agreed with the statement. Only economic geologists who specialized in industrial uses of materials like oil and coal were more skeptical.

Seeing danger in the divide between climate scientists and meteorologists, a variety of groups concerned with educating the public on climate change — including the National Environmental Education Foundation, a federally financed nonprofit, and Yale — are working to close the gap with research and educational forums. In 2008, Yale began holding seminars with weathercasters who are unsure about the climate issue and scientists who are leading experts in the field. The Columbia Journalism Review explored the reasons for the split in an article this year.

Conversely, the Heartland Institute, a free-market research organization skeptical about the causes and severity of climate change, is also making efforts to reach out. At its annual conference to be held in May in Chicago, the institute tried without success to put on a special session for the weather predictors.

“What we’ve recognized is that the everyday person doesn’t come across climatologists, but they do come across meteorologists,” said Melanie Fitzpatrick, a climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Meteorologists do need to understand more about climate because the public confuses this so much. That is why you see efforts in this turning up.”

Monday, March 29, 2010

The "X Woman" of Denisova

It is clear that there are many things about our past and that of the Earth in general that we can never know. The realization that we won't doesn't diminish the desire to keep plugging away. Gaia keeps revealing tantalizing little surprises that gives us hope that someday we may be able to piece the whole puzzle together.

I have many friends who cannot understand the practical value in such pursuits, especially given all the challenges facing society today. I think it's a good sign that we still have the capacity and the urge to wonder. (GW)

Say hello to X woman, your long-lost cousin

By Steve Connor
The Independent
March 10, 2010

Scientists stunned as DNA analysis of bone fragment found in Russian cave reveals existence of a hitherto unknown ancestor

To the trained eye of the palaeontologist, the tiny fragment of fossilised bone can be identified as coming from the little finger of a child who lived about 40,000 years ago in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia. But in the hands of molecular biologists, the bone has revealed that it belonged to a new lineage of human being, an unknown "hominin" who, although human, was not a member of our own species, Homo sapiens.

The finger-bone was unearthed in 2008 from the floor of Denisova Cave, a rock shelter known to have been inhabited by ancient humans for several hundred thousand years. Now, after exhaustive tests on DNA extracted from the fragment, scientists can reveal that in Siberia at this time there lived a hitherto unknown type of human who was neither Homo sapiens nor Neanderthal, the only other human species living in the area at about this time.

It raises the intriguing possibility that in this part of central Asia about 40,000 years ago three species of human were living alongside one another, perhaps for thousands of years. Nothing is known of how they interacted or whether they interbred but it is clear that only one of the three species survived, anatomically modern humans.

Fossilised bone fragments of woolly mammoth and woolly rhino and ostrich shell, as well as a polished stone bracelet and bone tools, have also been unearthed at Denisova, a cave consisting of a central chamber and several short galleries overlooking the Anui River which runs through a steppe-like landscape.

Scientists have no other physical remains of this mysterious hominin who lived in the Denisova cave except the fragment of finger-bone. They do not know even whether it was male or female, but the size of the bone suggests that the little finger belonged to a child aged seven or eight, and carbon dating of the sediments surrounding it indicates that he or she lived between 30,000 and 48,000 years ago.

The scientists were able to identify a new lineage of hominin from DNA analysis alone by extracting the DNA of the mitochondria, tiny "organelles" inside the cells of the bone that house their own genetic material. Mitochondrial DNA is unlike the DNA found in the cell nucleus in that it is simpler and always inherited down the maternal line from the mother.

The scientists have nicknamed the fossil "X woman" to indicate that it was this maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA that has so explosively revealed the existence of another species of human who lived during the last Ice Age in these remote Siberian mountains.

When Johannes Krause, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, first analysed the genetic sequence of the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the fossilised bone be could not quite believe his own results, now published in the journal Nature.

"It really looked like something we'd never seen before," Dr Krause said. "It was a sequence that was similar in some ways to humans and yet it was still quite distinct from humans and Neanderthals. We did several analyses to make sure this DNA was authentic, that this DNA was really old, fossil DNA, and that it was not a modern contamination."

Scientists had already sequenced the complete mitochondrial DNA of Neanderthals and had found that they differed to modern humans by about 202 nucleotides, the sequence of "letters" making up the DNA code. Now they found that the Denisova individual differed from the mitochondrial DNA of modern humans by about 385 nucleotides.

"In a very general sense, from their mitochondrial DNA, we can say that they [X woman] was about twice as different from us as Neanderthals. So in their biology they were also probably more distant, but what that means in terms of their behaviour or how they looked, we have no clue," Dr Krause added. "So far, we know only of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens [in terms of their mitochondrial DNA]. Now we have another mitochondrial lineage."

After Dr Krause had checked his results he telephoned his colleague, Svante Pääbo, an authority on recovering ancient DNA from fossilised bone. "I thought it was absolutely amazing," Dr Pääbo said. "At first I didn't believe him. I thought he was pulling my leg." By calculating the time it must have taken for these genetic differences to arise, the scientists were able to calculate the age of the ancestor of X woman who had migrated into Asia from Africa.

They estimated that this ancestor must have migrated out of Africa about one million years ago, nearly a million years later than the earliest known human migration out of Africa, that of Homo erectus, and about half a million years earlier than the ancestral migration of the Neanderthals; H. sapiens migrated less than 100,000 years ago.

"The mitochondrial DNA of X woman was very different," Dr Pääbo said. "The common ancestor was a lot older, about twice as old as Neanderthal's ancestor. This makes this mitochondrial lineage different. It's not Homo erectus. It's some new creature that has not been on our radar screens so far.

"This mitochondrial DNA must come from an unknown migration out of Africa. Until we found this I was very much under the sway of the palaeontological view that we had a migration about two million years ago that gave Homo erectus and then the ancestors of the Neanderthals about half a million years ago and between that hardly anything coming out of Africa. But it is totally amazing to me that we clearly see something else coming out of Africa between these two time points," he added.

The scientists, including Michael Shunkov and Anatoli Derevianko, of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, are planning further investigations of the cave, as well as studies of the finger-bone to try to uncover more about the nature of this unknown branch of humans.

"There will be another excavation of the cave in the summer and it is possible that something else may be found," Dr Pääbo went on. "There may be something else there related to the X woman." But more importantly, the scientists hope to extract DNA from the cell nucleus. This nuclear DNA, if big enough fragments can be extracted and sequenced, will give the researchers more information on the relationship between X woman and the two other human species living in Siberia at this time.

It might even indicate whether there was any intermarriage between the three human lineages. Tests so far on Neanderthal DNA have ruled out interbreeding with Homo sapiens, but it is possible that the Denisova individual represents some kind of human hybrid between two other human species.

"If we are going to get a substantial part of the nuclear genome of this X woman we will be able to say if she or her ancestors interbred with the ancestors of people today," Dr Pääbo said. "At least we have one other lineage now in addition to Neanderthals to ask this question."

And one of the biggest mysteries of all is what happened during the period when these three human species lived close by one another? Did they fight, or did they live together in peace? "Of course something happened in that only we survived, and we can only speculate as to what that was," Dr Pääbo added. "I would share the view that we were somehow responsible but whether in a very direct way or by some kind of ecological competition, I don't know. We don't know what really happened."

But one clear implication of the Denisova find is that X woman and relatives must have been able to make clothes and control fire to protect them against the harsh Siberian winter, which probably would have been even harsher 40,000 years ago than it is today.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The "demographic dividend"

I've noted Stewart Brand's provocative new book "Whole Earth Discipline" a couple of times over the past few weeks. The founder of the "Whole Earth Catalog" turned more than a few environmentalists' heads in proclaiming his support for nuclear energy, genetic engineering and geo-engineering as sound -- even necessary -- approaches to sustainable development.

Brand also believes that in many parts of the world population is leveling off too fast and may actually lead to the collapse of some populations. (GW)

Is Africa underpopulated?

Is Mo Ibrahim right to say that a growing population is necessary for future prosperity?

Posted by Anne Perkins
March 24, 2010

It was not absolutely clear whether it was a moment to cheer or cry. In December, shortly after the participants in a UN conference on family planning had broken up in Kampala, Africa's billionth baby was born. In a continent apparently wracked with all the ills of over-population – hunger, poverty and shocking maternal and neo-natal mortality – it might appear a harbinger of disaster.

For within 40 years, that number could almost double. How then could Africa hope to feed itself, let alone find work and livelihoods for so many? "Sexual and reproductive health" – aka population control – has been added to the Millennium Development Goals mainly because it is now understood that without it there is no hope that the other targets will be met.

Africa's billionth baby, the doom mongers predicted would, if he survived to adulthood, only perish in one of the coming resource wars fought over land or water or oil or minerals, or simply fall victim to the unvarying instability that trails in the wake of over-population.

But there is a counter argument: each new baby is another consumer – and modern economic growth is driven by demand. The billionth baby is the engine of future prosperity.

That's what Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born British businessman and philanthropist, believes. "Africa is underpopulated. We have 20% of the world's landmass and 13% of its population." It is big, concentrated populations that have contributed to explosive economic growth rates in China and India. Get the policies right, he suggested (and his focus is on improving governance) and the billionth baby could yet enjoy a secure old age.

The argument made by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation is that rising mineral prices will lead to the exploitation of Africa's vast natural resources. Put in the right structures of governance and the old post-colonial basket cases like Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo and southern Sudan will become growth centres. In the short-term, rising populations may pose economic and social difficulties, but at nearly 5% a year, Africa's average economic growth already outstrips the global north and incomes are starting to reflect that.

Analysis of the Asian tiger economies shows a whole series of overlapping change and development that created the ideal circumstances. The age profile of the population is one of them. This is the "demographic dividend", the moment when the economically active in a population outnumber economically inactive dependents, whether young or old.

For that to happen, however, the rate of population growth must slow. From China's one-child policy and Mrs Ghandi's forced sterilisations of the mid-70s, powerful forces imposed smaller families. Smaller families both allow and incentivise parents to earn money rather than to eke out a living from the soil. Population growth in India has fallen from 4% in the 1960s to about 1.7% now. Policy makers dream of a country with the world's second largest population at 1.1 billion people by 2050. But the average number of children in a family is still too high, some fear. A "replacement" policy, a "two per family norm" is the policy makers' objective.

China is at the peak of its population dividend. The average income for people between 20 and 30 has risen by a third. There are about 300 million under 30 years old and it is their consumption patterns that stimulate economic development. China is about to hit the wall of an aging population that by 2030 might begin to slow its growth.

In India, half the population is younger than 25. Between now and the moment perhaps in about 20 – 30 years' time, when rising prosperity starts to raise life expectancy, there is a window where a corner can be turned, where producers become consumers and economic growth takes off. At the end of the period, if development is to be sustainable, the population needs to be balanced and stable – neither too broad a base at the bottom of the graph, nor at the top.

Slowing Africa's population growth is the challenge. "Population growth is a bigger problem than HIV/Aids," one expert told the UN Kampala conference. Large families are not just a cultural tradition; they are evidence of status and masculinity, part of an individual's identity. Some speakers ridiculed the idea of "behaving like Europeans" and restricting themselves to one or two children.

There are practical as well as cultural reasons for large families. For the 80% in sub-Saharan Africa who are subsistence farmers with no state to support the ill or elderly in their family, to have many children is simply a sensible insurance policy, a source of labour first and an old age pension later.

Uganda is one of a handful of African countries where the population, now 33 million, is predicted at the least to treble in the next 30 years. Yet like Mo Ibrahim, president Yoweri Museveni calls his country's population growth "a great resource". And when his wife, Janet, in a piece of soaring irony, opened the Kampala conference she spoke hardly at all of the need for contraception beyond ruing the way it was misunderstood in her country. Mrs Museveni promotes a form of natural birth control called Moon Beads, a system by which women avoid sex at moments of peak fertility. Many Ugandans feel it is a singularly inappropriate method in a country where women too often have no sexual autonomy and where half of all conceptions are unwanted. More babies are born in Uganda (where abortion is still illegal) than almost any other country, trailing only Somalia, Afghanistan and East Timor.

Educating women is one important strategy for slowing population growth. There is a direct correlation between the level of education and the number of children a woman has. Improving maternal health, lowering infant mortality and extending the interval between pregnancies all contribute to smaller families along with raising confidence that babies will survive into adulthood. Uganda has now introduced universal secondary education and is beginning to improve provision of condoms.

The second element is ensuring that economic growth is equitable. Inequitable growth can be as destabilising as no growth as excluded groups exacerbate regional and political tensions. In Uganda, the north and east already feels victim of discrimination. If southern Sudan (where regional inequalities are also a major source of unrest) reverts to civil war, there are some who see conflict spreading across east Africa.

Mo Ibrahim may be right that a growing population is necessary for future prosperity. But without a sharp fall in the rate of growth, it looks as if getting to it will be a painful journey.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The nature of numbers

Most of us think about numbers in terms of quantification: how much does that whale weigh? How tall is that tree? How much does that car cost? Bucky Fuller was certainly interested in knowing how much the structures he built weighed (something most architects don't even consider in their designs).

But Bucky was also interested in numbers because of the patterns they revealed. And those patterns give us a glimpse into Nature's truly amazing design strategy of "doing more with less".

My colleagues at the Buckminster Fuller Institute brought the work of
Etérea to my attention. Their short video may be the best cure for math phobia. (GW)


Etérea is a graphic and animation studio that offers CGI services.

But, what exactly is ‘CGI’? It can be defined as illustrations and animations made with the help of a computer (Computer Generated Images) allowing us to represent scenes, objects, designs, concepts, ideas, stories, in a three-dimensional way. These styles can be represented in a technical or artistic manner, according to the client’s needs or the nature of the project itself.

If you are not familiar with the issue and yet interested in obtaining a better understanding of the whole process, you may turn to my essay "Introduction to 3D Animation" which although written a number of years ago is still a good introduction to the subject.

Behind Etérea is a single person: Cristóbal Vila, with more than 15 years experience in publicity, graphics, illustration and digital animation.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The new green giant

While the U.S. has decided to invest heavily in nuclear energy and "clean coal" China has quietly taken the lead in investments in real clean energy sources. China installed its first offshore wind farm off the coast of Shanghai last month. Meanwhile, Cape Wind is in its ninth year of permitting! Look for them to leapfrog ahead of the U.S. in installed wind capacity before long. (GW)

China takes lead on green energy

By Associated Press
March 26, 2010

SHANGHAI — China has taken the lead in investments in clean energy, spending nearly double what the United States did in 2009, a report says.

China’s investment and financing for clean energy rose to $34.6 billion in 2009, out of $162 billion invested globally, according to the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts. US spending ranked second, at $18.6 billion, with European nations also recording strong growth.

“Countries are jockeying for leadership. They know that investing in clean energy can renew manufacturing bases, and create export opportunities, jobs and businesses,’’ said Phyllis Cuttino, who directs the Pew Environment Group’s Global Warming Campaign.

The United States still leads the world in installed renewable energy, with 52.2 gigawatts of wind, small hydroelectric, biomass, and waste generating capacity, the Pew report said.

But China is quickly closing the gap, as a doubling in wind energy capacity alone boosted its own installed renewable energy capacity to 49.7 gigawatts in 2009. Germany trails with 30.9 gigawatts, the report said.

It said much of the impact from $184 billion in stimulus spending for clean energy by governments of the Group of 20 industrial nations is yet to come.

US spending on renewable energy fell 42 percent in 2009

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What we should seek from our science museums?

Museums were a very important part of my pre-Internet, pre-cable childhood. I was fortunate to live within walking distance of Cleveland's University Circle that was home to world class art, science and health museums. I hung out at them a lot -- especially the science museum (I was a proud, card-carrying nerd).

Hard to know if museums will survive in today's politically polarized and highly networked world. (GW)

The Thrill of Science, Tamed by Agendas

A science museum is a kind of experiment. It demands the most elaborate equipment: Imax theaters, NASA space vehicles, collections of living creatures, digital planetarium projectors, fossilized bones. Into this mix are thrust tens of thousands of living human beings: children on holiday, weary or eager parents, devoted teachers, passionate aficionados and casual passers-by. And the experimenters watch, test, change, hoping. ...

Hoping for what? What are the goals of these experiments, and when do they succeed? Whenever I’m near one of these museological laboratories, I eagerly submit to their probes, trying to find out. The results can be discouraging since some experiments seem so purposeless; their only goal might be to see if subjects can be persuaded to return for future amusement.

Many science museums, for example, now feature prepackaged touring shows about hit movies to draw in the crowds. (I saw costumes from the “Chronicles of Narnia” films and the stage sets from “Star Trek” films on two separate visits to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.) Otherwise sober institutions present filmic extravaganzas with only the flimsiest relationship to science (an upbeat promotional travelogue about Saudi Arabia is now getting the Imax treatment at Boston’s Museum of Science).

But there are also serious inquiries going on in science museums, philosophical goals described in mission papers, conflicting theories about what should happen when visitors arrive. And differences in approaches are astonishing. I have seen meticulous displays explicating the structure of padlocks (London’s Science Museum), a hortatory exhibition of environmental apocalypse (New York’s American Museum of Natural History), a terrarium of dung beetles plowing through waste (New Orleans’s Audubon Insectarium), an array of physics demonstrations in which visitors play with sand, balls, pendulums and bubbles (San Francisco’s Exploratorium), collections of antique bicycles and movie cameras (Berlin’s and Prague’s science museums), and a 50-year-old exhibition in which mathematical principles are portrayed as beautifully as the topological surfaces on display (Boston’s Museum of Science).

This antic miscellany is dizzying. But there are lineaments of sustained conflict in the apparent chaos. Over the last two generations, the science museum has become a place where politics, history and sociology often crowd out physics and the hard sciences. There are museums that believe their mission is to inspire political action, and others that seek to inspire nascent scientists; there are even fundamental disagreements on how humanity itself is to be regarded. The experimentation may be a sign of the science museum’s struggle to define itself.

A century ago, such a notion would have been ridiculous. Museums were simply collections of objects. And science museums were collections of objects related to scientific inquiry and natural exploration. Their collections grew out of the “wonder cabinets” of gentlemen explorers, conglomerations of the marvelous.

Museums ordered their objects to reflect a larger natural order. In 1853, when a new natural history museum at Oxford University was being proposed, one advocate suggested that each specimen should have “precisely the same relative place that it did in God’s own Museum, the Physical Universe in which it lived and moved and had its being.” The science museum was meant to impress the visitor with the intricate order of the universe, the abilities of science to discern that order, and the powers of a culture able to present it all in so imposing a secular temple.

Not all of this was disinterested. Natural history museums typically treated non-Western cultures as if they were subsidiary branches in an evolutionary narrative; deemed closer to nature, these cultures were treated as part of natural history rather than as part of history. Self-aggrandizing posing was generally mixed in with the museum project.

But you can still feel its energy. Go to any science museum with an extensive collection and walk among its oldest display cases. The London Science Museum, for example, which had its origins in the Crystal Palace of the Great Exposition of 1851, has collections that still invoke the churning energies of the Industrial Revolution and its transformations.

One of the most astonishing collections I have seen is the Wellcome Collection, also in London. It includes moccasins owned by Florence Nightingale, Napoleon’s toothbrush, amputation saws, an array of prosthetic limbs, a Portuguese executioner’s mask, Etruscan votive offerings and obstetrical forceps. Henry Wellcome, who had made his fortune with the invention of the medicinal pill, owned over a million objects by the mid-1930s and imagined them fitting into a great “Museum of Man” that would encyclopedically trace humanity’s concerns with the body. After his death, the collection was partly dispersed, but even what is left is as exhilarating as it is bewildering. You look at such collections and sense an enormous exploratory enterprise. You end up with an enlarged understanding of the world’s variety and an equally enlarged sense of the human capacity to make sense of it.

But that ambition is gone and so is the trust in ourselves. This may be the crux of the uncertainty in contemporary science museums. Where does the museum place us, its human creators? Consider two great American planetariums that have been renovated and reconfigured in the last 10 years: the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York.

The Griffith reopened in 2006 after $93 million of reconstruction that carefully left its design unaltered. The 1935 building had to be hydraulically lifted so its exhibition space could extend into the mountain on which it sits. Internally, too, the old design was preserved. Its rotunda’s ceiling is decorated with Jupiter, Mercury and Venus reigning in the skies: the first heavenly bodies you see. They are also surrounded by images of human enterprise and invention. The Griffith, in its displays and its approach, presents a universe that may be divinely inspired but is deeply human-centered.

The opposite approach was taken by the Rose Center, which opened in 2000, replacing the old Hayden Planetarium. The Hayden, built in the same era as the Griffith, originally presented a human-centered cosmos both in its planetarium and in its exhibitions. But the Rose deliberately excised all of that, diminishing what is human rather than elevating it. The building’s ramps, which double as scale models of time and space, show the inhabited earth as an insignificant and inconsequential sliver of space/time when compared with the cosmic expanse.

Humanity almost seems extraneous; some special-effects planetarium shows introduce us to the most exotic aspects of matter and time, but are not very revealing about the ordinary human experience of the heavens.

Of course, the insignificance of human existence is one of the fearsome lessons of modern science. But when we are young, we learn differently. We begin by learning to value our own understanding and only gradually come to recognize its limits. We begin by making sense of the world before we see how much lies beyond sense. The process doesn’t work well in the other direction: we can be left mystified by the world and lose respect for the human.

Something like this has started to happen in some museums. This decentering of the human can become a devaluing of the human; the museum may even begin to see human frailties as a great flaw in the cosmic order that must be repaired. So this new variety of science museum must not just display or explain. It must be relevant, useful, practical, critical — something that helps with fund-raising as well.

Right now environmentalism has become the dominant theme for this kind of museum. The California Academy of Sciences, a research institution in San Francisco, conceived of its new 409,000-square-foot building, which opened in 2008 with a design by Renzo Piano, as a declaration of environmental sensitivity, making it metaphorically green in its use of resources and literally green with an undulating sod-covered rooftop. Its major rainforest exhibition emphasizes ecological frailty. Another exhibition urges visitors to change eating habits and “make a pledge” to alleviate the “climate crisis.” Little new science is learned here, but many arguments are taught. But a Foucault pendulum on display in a spare spot — once a major feature of science museums, with its demonstration of earth’s rotation — seems as irrelevant to the academy’s current purpose as its fossil collection.

Leaping into the same fray, an exhibit on climate change in 2008 at the American Museum of Natural History seemed so intent on urging consciousness change that it became uncharacteristically sloppy. Data was used selectively, and a scary model showing southern Manhattan smothered by a five-meter rise in sea level turned out to be — if you read the label — something that “experts consider unlikely anytime soon” but could take place “thousands of years in the future.” Issues about assessing probabilities or the cost of technologies were left unexplored in order to cultivate apocalyptic fears.

This model of advocacy has even become explicit at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, where its president, Emlyn Koster, has stressed his wish for “relevancy” and an interest in developing “social and environmental responsibility.” The flaws in the natural order remain precisely the same. Humans, we learn in various exhibitions, “pose the greatest danger” to certain creatures, “damage” the climate and are in turn threatened by disaster and pandemic. Humanity isn’t only decentered; it is decentering.

It isn’t just environmentalism that inspires this message. At the Field Museum in Chicago, in a recently created permanent exhibition devoted to the early history of the Americas, nothing is said that might diminish one’s judgment of any native culture. Human sacrifice is glossed over, and even “hunting and gathering” becomes “a great way to live,” a “lifestyle” that “respected” women and the elderly. Here, as in the other exhibitions, contemporary Western society is the main obstacle — at best an irrelevance, at worst a threat.

In his book “Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: the Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums” (Oxford), Stephen T. Asma suggests this theme has international resonance. The Grande Galerie de l’Évolution in Paris, he argues, offers a “heavily moralized tour through the human destruction of nature.” Mr. Asma even suggests that the “single greatest constant” in contemporary natural history museums is a form of “self-loathing.”

But even if self-loathing is overcome, the science museum has already been transformed. The Franklin Institute created an exhibition about the nature of human identity (now at the Boston Museum of Science), in which sociological, psychological and genetic factors are used to examine how we think about ourselves and others. The real purpose of the exhibition, it becomes clear, is to undermine prejudice.

It might seem churlish to object, but is this what we should seek from our science museums? Learning is guided by a political judgment; it is also limited by it. Couldn’t an intriguing exhibition be mounted, for example, showing the inevitability and importance of prejudice? Not prejudice in the socially evil way we now use the word, of course, but prejudice as a process of prejudging, predicting, preventing — acts as necessary to scientific understanding as they have been to simple survival.

Experiments in relevance, then, at least for this visitor, have a very bad track record; they preach and prod, and diminish. My hopes lie elsewhere. The Boston Museum of Science, for example, more than makes up for its gestures toward pop entertainment (hosting an exhibition about the “Harry Potter” films), or vague political advocacy (the Imax paean to Saudi Arabia), with three fine exhibitions that show how a contemporary science museum might take a traditional collection and transform it.

A remarkable 19th-century collection of finely wrought glass models of sea creatures, for example, becomes part of an exhibition about modeling and its importance to the pursuit of play, fashion and science. In another exhibition, the museum’s animal specimens are joined with a mineral collection, vintage dioramas and other artifacts to explore the nature of collecting and categorizing.

These exhibitions, created by Larry Bell, a vice president at the museum, explain important concepts about how science is done while displaying extraordinary objects and spurring new ways of seeing — all without pressing viewers into a particular program. Here, too, is the classic 1961 exhibit “Mathematica,” created by Charles and Ray Eames: its exploration of abstraction was inspiring to a young boy who saw it long ago; it remains a touchstone.

Or, for lighter fare that never panders and is never ponderous, look at the $25 million Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans: classic collections and contemporary thrills are intertwined. We watch Formosan termites eat through a wood model of New Orleans or giant cockroaches scurry in a kitchen closet. We are offered snacks of crunchy Cajun-fried crickets. The museum contains models, animations and much live swarming. And you emerge with a sense of amazement about the world that could be a science museum’s most valuable gift.

Where, then, are we headed? In 1969, when San Francisco’s Exploratorium was created by Frank Oppenheimer, it overturned every regnant idea about science museums. There was no collection; there were no display cases; there wasn’t even a pretense that objects were special. They were expected to break, and a workshop was just off the museum floor. This was a museum without a proscenium. Visitors provided the forces that made these pendulums swing and balls roll. Two generations later, the concept thrives after having given birth to similar institutions all over the world.

The Exploratorium suggests that brilliant transformations of the science museum model might be unforeseeable. And perhaps today’s rampant experimentation with exhibition styles might eventually yield a new model as yet unimagined. But for now, when being experimented upon, I have my preferences.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Nuclear revival hits a roadblock

The main arguments that critics raise against the widespread adoption of renewable energy focus on two issues: the variable nature of the resource and its cost -- especially offshore wind. Nuclear energy has been enjoying a renaissance of sorts as a result of growing concerns over climate change and these apparent shortcomings of wind and solar. Nuclear proponents point to its proven track record (notwithstanding Chernobyl and Three Mile Island).

Putting issues of safety aside for a moment, what do the economics of nuclear energy look like? (GW)

Nuclear projects face financial obstacles

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post
March 2, 2010

Hopes for a nuclear revival, fanned by fears of global warming and a changing political climate in Washington, are running into new obstacles over a key element -- money.

A new approach for easing the cost of new multibillion-dollar reactors, which can take years to complete, has provoked a backlash from big-business customers unwilling to go along.

Financing has always been one of the biggest obstacles to a renaissance of nuclear power. The plants are expensive, and construction tends to run late and over budget. The projected cost for a pair of proposed Georgia plants would be $14 billion; the Obama administration last month pledged to provide them with $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees.

So utilities have turned to state legislators and regulators to help contain capital costs. In states such as Georgia, Florida and South Carolina, utilities have won permission to charge customers for some of the cost of new reactors while construction is still in progress -- a financing technique that would save utilities a couple of billion dollars for each reactor. Previously, utilities had to wait until power plants were in operation before raising rates, as they still do in most states.

"We tell people it's like paying off the interest on your credit card as you go along, rather than letting it compound," said Suzanne Grant, a spokeswoman for Progress Energy.

But businesses and other electricity users in those states aren't buying that argument. Instead, they are saying utilities are pawning off much of the projects' liabilities on customers because bank lenders and investors will not take the risks.

"It's a terrible idea," said Jim Clarkson, a consultant with Resource Supply Management, a Georgia firm that advises companies on how to reduce electricity use. "We've had decades of subsidies for nuclear plants and all sorts of preferential treatment. They still require loan guarantees because the smart money won't touch them."

"Nuclear power is very important," says John W. McWhirter, who represents the Florida Industrial Power Users Group. "We just wish consumers could be protected."

The reaction of big businesses, as well as other consumers, has turned states that were bastions of support for nuclear power into hazardous territory. And it could thwart the Obama administration's efforts to jump-start nuclear reactor construction by handing out chunks of the $18.5 billion in federal loan guarantees Congress authorized in 2005.

Turning to the states
Thirty to 40 years ago, expensive nuclear plants drove some utilities into bankruptcy. That has made banks gun-shy about lending and investors wary about buying bonds. Moreover, the new plants are so expensive that a single unit could equal a quarter to 100 percent of the market capitalization of an entire utility company, potentially damaging the utility's credit rating.

That's why utilities turned to the states, lobbying in recent years for the ability to charge customers while construction is in progress. "Without this legislation, we would not be considering building new nuclear generation in Florida," Grant said.

The savings for the utilities are huge because they have to borrow less money. Southern Co. said the law passed in 2000 will help its Georgia Power subsidiary shave nearly $2 billion off the cost of the two new nuclear reactors at its Vogtle site -- and Georgia Power owns only 45 percent of the project.

Last month, Southern received "conditional" approval for $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees from the Obama administration on that project. (While still under negotiation, the terms of the federal loan guarantees would probably save Southern an additional $15 million to $20 million a year, a company spokesman said.)

In Florida, Progress Energy and FPL have won approval from state regulators to pass along about $360 million in costs associated with new nuclear power units northeast of St. Petersburg. Progress Energy says it has already collected $196.6 million from customers, a third of its total expenditures so far.

But the Florida utilities have not yet obtained permits they need from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, so while some site preparation has taken place, construction hasn't even started.

The utilities' gains are the consumers' losses -- and businesses such as the Georgia Industrial Group and the Georgia Textile Manufacturing Association have joined consumer and environmental groups in combating the state laws and higher rates.

In Florida, PCS Phosphate, which has a fertilizer plant that uses about 1 percent of Progress Energy's output, told the Public Service Commission that new rate increases "will substantially affect" the company "by directly increasing the cost of power."

"Certainly coming on top of the recession, it is badly timed," said James W. "Jay" Brew, attorney for PCS Phosphate, a unit of Potash Corp. "It's asking a lot of current customers to fund that large a capital expense up front."

Worth the wait?
Progress Energy says that over time, companies such as PCS Phosphate will be better off. "It lowers the overall costs of a nuclear power plant to customers by several billion dollars," the company said in a statement. "Paying these costs in advance significantly lowers the long-term financing costs. The overall cost of the plant decreases, minimizing the price customers pay over its operating lifetime."

But the ratepayers disagree. They say that if the plants are delayed, ratepayers will absorb the expense. When the Florida utilities said the increasingly hostile atmosphere might prompt them to abandon the nuclear plants, the consumers said that only proved their point: Consumers could pay millions for a project that might never reach fruition.

"If a project cannot attract private investment, it's a turkey and we shouldn't be wasting taxpayer money or forcing the users of electricity to pay for something the stakeholders and lenders won't risk their money on," Clarkson said.

In addition, the consumers argue, many residential customers might move to another state, or even die, in the six to 10 years it will take for new plants to come on line, and they might never see the benefits. Others will have to stick around another 15 years before the savings compensate for higher rates now, Brew said.

FPL Vice Chairman Moray P. Dewhurst said intergenerational fairness is always an issue for power plants. "Look at the wonderful deal that retirees are getting now from nuclear plants built years ago and which are paid for," he said.

Financing questions have also challenged nuclear plans in other states. In Missouri, a backlash from ratepayers helped defeat a similar proposal to allow higher electricity rates during nuclear plant construction.

In South Carolina, the state Supreme Court on Thursday will consider an appeal by Friends of the Earth of a decision by the state Public Service Commission allowing South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) to begin collecting higher rates to cover costs associated with a two-reactor project.

In Texas, rising cost projections for a pair of new reactors threatened the credit rating of San Antonio's city-owned utility, which owned 40 percent of the project, and raised the specter of tax increases. San Antonio fired the head of its municipal utility and filed a $32 billion lawsuit against its partners, NRG Energy and Toshiba, alleging they concealed cost information. On Feb. 23, the partners agreed to shrink the San Antonio utility's stake in the project to just under 8 percent.

There is one state that has presented new obstacles to nuclear power for reasons having nothing to do with economics. Last month, the Vermont state Senate voted against extending the operating license for Vermont Yankee, the state's sole nuclear power plant, after the discovery of radioactive tritium in test wells raised fears about plant safety. (Tritium raises cancer risks.) Vermont, unlike most states, must approve any extension of the plant's license, which will expire in 2012. Most plants must get approval only from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An informal carbon credit market

I have always found most carbon trading schemes to be very troubling. Too many potential loopholes for corporations to avoid actually reducing their emissions and not enough emphasis placed on getting rid of fossil fuel-dependent technologies and replacing them with either energy efficient measures or renewable energy technologies.

That's why Professor Robert Lange's approach to introduce solar panels into African villages is so refreshing. (GW)

Professor brings clean power to African villages

From Cambridge, he trades stoves for solar panels

By James F. Smith
Boston Globe
March 21, 2010

Where nightfall once meant only darkness in the tiny Tanzanian island of Tumbatu, now there are 200 points of light.

And Majuba Mohammed, a high school teacher, is the proud owner of one of them. He is talking excitedly by cellphone about the tiny solar panel on his roof that now charges that phone, and powers the lamp that lets his family read indoors at night.

“The project is very beautiful and helpful, and it goes well,’’ says Mohammed. Nearly 200 solar panels like his have been installed on roofs in the past two years in the two villages on Tumbatu, a speck of an islet a mile off the coast of the main Zanzibar island in Tanzania.

These solar panels are the product of a second career’s worth of vision and sweat by Robert Lange, a retired Brandeis University physics professor who helps people put science to use in one of the poorest countries in southern Africa. From a desk in his Cambridge apartment, Lange runs a minuscule nonprofit that literally trades the dark smoke of a wood stove for the clean power of sunlight.

Lange doesn’t give these panels away. He swaps them: Villages need to build and install four new simple but fuel-efficient cooking stoves to earn each solar unit. The premise is that households are cutting their carbon emissions by using stoves that consume one-third less wood — and thus earn a solar installation. The units charge a small motorbike battery, which in turn can power a few low-power devices.

“We’re trying to set up an informal carbon credit market,’’ Lange said. “We’re saying four stoves is worth about $130 in reduced emissions over eight or 10 years, and for 130 bucks we can buy and import a household-scale solar energy system, to give you lights, charge your cellphone, and run a radio.’’

The bottom line is that villagers get a few watts of electric power, saving them costly kerosene and wood, and giving them several more hours of nighttime light for reading and working. And the vented brick stoves save trees that would have gone into smoky indoor cooking fires.

Many nonprofit groups are working to improve the efficiency of wood-burning stoves, and the use of solar power in Africa has grown fitfully. What’s especially innovative here is combining the two, with the goal of crafting an informal carbon trading market like the one envisioned globally to cut emissions and use more green energy.

Mohammed, who says he is about 50, is coordinating the solar project in his Zanzibar community. “The villagers are now using very, very little amounts of kerosene,’’ he said.

Lange is quick to point out that the idea wasn’t his own, but that of his friend and colleague of nearly 30 years, Robert van Buskirk, another Harvard-trained physicist who pioneered the solar panels-for-stoves program in Eritrea in the Horn of Africa.

Van Buskirk, an energy-efficiency specialist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and now at the US Department of Energy, met Lange in Cambridge, where he went to study physics at Harvard. Both were working for left-wing causes from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to Palestinian rights and the antiapartheid campaign. And then each went on to turn talk into action in different corners of Africa: van Buskirk in Eritrea and Lange in Tanzania.

Lange, who is now 72, came to Brandeis in 1965 after getting his PhD at Harvard and spending time in England as a postdoctoral fellow. He earned tenure during his years teaching theoretical physics, then moved into the field of human vision. All the while, he said with his high-pitched laugh, “I was one of your basic campus lefty activists.’’

So he jumped at the chance to spend time in Africa and do more than protest. He came to Tanzania on a sabbatical in 1986-87, teaching at the University of Dar Es Salaam. And he got hooked.

He met Ali Ayoub Omar, now a math professor on the main Zanzibar island, when he worked at a camp that Lange cofounded in Zanzibar to expose young people to science and technology. For seven years, he spent two months a year in Zanzibar running the camp with Omar, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Omar said that Lange also collected and delivered basic scientific equipment to the 120 schools in Zanzibar. They also built wells, and helped set up the Zanzibar reptile zoo and environmental education center.

Lange downplays the importance of his scientific background in his work with villagers in Tanzania.

“The physics is trivial,’’ Lange said. Rather, it’s about sharing ideas and handing over responsibility. “I know how to work with people because I know how not to be in control.’’

Van Buskirk and Omar concur that Lange has been successful in Tanzania because he offers scientific expertise without imposing his ideas or making people dependent on him.

“Whenever he goes to a village, he doesn’t force anything on the people. The villages can decide whatever they want. If they turn down his proposal, then no problem,’’ said Omar.

Van Buskirk and Lange also are engaged in similar energy-efficiency initiatives in Ghana and Senegal. The projects all share the basic premise of getting villagers to earn carbon credits, mainly by building more efficient cooking stoves: “The beautiful thing is it creates a currency for incrementally solving a global problem,’’ van Buskirk said.

Lange now wants to expand the stoves-for-solar experiment to Masai villages in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya.

The mud-and-dung Masai huts “have the worst indoor pollution than I have ever seen in the world,’’ Lange said. And people in remote Masai villages have to walk up to two hours to charge their cellphones in a region with few phone lines. So the combined prospect of less-smoky stoves and having light and phone chargers at home would be a welcome breakthrough.

In the early 1990s, Lange set up a nonprofit, with the grandiose name of International Collaborative for Science, Education, and the Environment, enabling him to raise money in the United States. The nonprofit never raised serious money — $160,000 in its best year — as Lange concentrated on the programs, not the fund-raising.

Lange chafes in frustration over constantly having to hunt for donors and sponsors, chewing up valuable hours. For the Masai project, he has drafted a budget of $60,000. But he added with a grin, “I could really use half a million. Hey, I need millions, you know.’’

Monday, March 22, 2010

World Water Day 2010

Today is World Water Day, so designated by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Water is our most precious resource and perhaps the one we (those of us in the developed world, that is) take for granted. That will change -- hopefully as a result of a conscious decision on the part of decision makers to address the looming global water quality crisis and not because we wait until the situation deteriorates to the point that we have no choice. (GW)

UN calls for investment in safe water

By Catherine Karong'o
Capital News
March 22, 2010

NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 22 – Investment in safe water would have high returns in ensuring a healthy ecosystem and human society, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report released during the global World Water Day celebrations stated that an investment of Sh1.5 billion ($20 million) in low cost water technologies, such as drip irrigation and treadle pumps, could lift 100 million poor farming families out of extreme poverty.

Adeel Zafar, Chairman of UN-Water – a body formed to ensure attainability of the Millennium Development Goals - said water quality impacts the lives of millions of people worldwide annually, a majority of them under the age of five.

“We are happy that this year’s World Water Day puts great emphasis on this delicate issue which is so much reflected in the Millennium Development Goals,” the UN-Water Chair said.

The report ‘Clearing the Waters: A Focus on Water Quality Solutions’ also indicated that repairing leaky water and sewerage networks could secure not only supplies but reduce pollution and generate employment.

It said in some developing countries, 50-60 percent of treated water was lost to leaks and globally an average of 35 percent was lost.

“By some estimates, saving just half of this amount would supply water to 90 million people without further investment,” the report stated in part.

“But while there are solutions, much more needs to be done,” the report added. The annual World Water Day is coordinated by UN-Water, a coordination mechanism of 26 UN agencies working on water

According to UNEP, globally two million tons of sewage, industrial and agricultural waste was poured into the world’s waters every day and at least 1.8 million children under five years-old died every year from water-related diseases.

UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner said human activity over the past 50 years was responsible for unprecedented pollution and the quality of world’s water resources was increasingly challenged.

“World Water Day highlights how the work of improving and sustaining the world’s water quality is everyone’s responsibility. It may seem like an overwhelming challenge but there are enough solutions where human ingenuity allied to technology and investments in nature's purification systems such as wetlands, forests and mangroves can deliver clean water for a healthy world,” he said.

Under the theme ‘Clean Water for a Healthy World’, World Water Day 2010 will see a series of initiatives organized around the globe to raise awareness and emphasise the key importance of good water quality in improving human well-being.

The global event aims to bring attention to the state of water quality around the world, and is a call for action on pollution prevention, clean-up, and restoration of waterways in order to sustain healthy ecosystems and human well-being.

Central to World Water Day 2010 is the launch of the UN-Water Statement, a consensus document of 26 UN agencies and other partners, scientists, and practitioners, pointing out the state of the world’s water and defining the will and the way forward.

World Water Day supports the United Nations’ declaration of 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, working to reduce the constant loss of biological diversity worldwide.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

“The spirits came into the fire area here...”

Our political system is intellectually and morally bankrupt. If you don't believe me read the reviews of "Game Chang", and "The Politician" -- two very depressing bestselling books about the last presidential campaign.

California Native Americans recognize the futility in looking to Washington to address a serious decline in the population of Chinook salmon and have taken their appeal directly to a higher and infinitely wiser authority -- Nature. (GW)

California Tribe Hopes to Woo Salmon Home

By Jesse McKinley
New York Times
March 20, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO — On Friday night, more than two dozen Native Americans embarked from here on a spiritual mission to New Zealand, where they will ask their fish to come home to California.

The unusual journey centers on an apology, to be relayed to the fish on the banks of the Rakaia River through a ceremonial dance that tribal leaders say has not been performed in more than 60 years.

The fish in question is the Chinook salmon, native to the Pacific but lately in short supply in the rivers of Northern California, home to the Winnemem Wintu — a tiny, federally unrecognized and poor tribe supported by some Social Security payments, a couple of retirement plans and the occasional dog sale.

As the Winnemem see it, the tribe’s troubles began in early 1940s, with the completion of the Shasta Dam, which blocked the Sacramento River and cut off the lower McCloud River, obstructing seasonal salmon runs, and according to the tribe, breaking a covenant with the fish.

“We’re going to atone for allowing them to build that dam,” said Mark Franco, the tribe’s headman. “We should have fought harder.”

As luck would have it, the United States government once bred millions of Chinook eggs from the McCloud and shipped them around the world in hopes of creating new fisheries, including a batch that went to the South Island of New Zealand, where the fish thrived.

And so it is that the Winnemem — who have used their spiritual powers in the past to try to stop dam construction, heal the sick, and sway the votes of Senator Dianne Feinstein — are on an 11,000-mile vision quest whose itinerary, according to the tribe’s chief, came to her from a higher plane.

“The spirits came into the fire area here,” said the chief, Caleen Sisk-Franco, referring to the tribe’s circular, open-air meeting room. “And they said, ‘You’ve got to get it done.’ ”

About 30 tribe members live in trailers and small houses on the hilly compound outside Redding, Calif., which is also home to 10 horses, dozens of dogs bred for sale, and a traditional bark house, which is used for puberty ceremonies. A murky, frog-filled pond comes and goes depending on rainfall, and bits of obsidian, a volcanic glass, litter the dirt and gravel. Big chunks of the glass also sit behind the meeting hut used by tribe’s younger generation to practice making arrowheads. “They’re not very good at it,” said Mr. Franco, who is married to Ms. Sisk-Franco.

As smoke from a manzanita log drifted out a hole in the ceiling, Ms. Sisk-Franco said the tribe and the salmon were intrinsically linked. “What happened to the salmon happened to us,” she said. “The fish have been diminishing in numbers, and so have we.”

The group had to scrape to raise the $60,000 for the trip by selling trinkets, soliciting help from richer tribes, and using a Facebook page. Mr. Franco said he had made it clear to the delegation that the trip was not a vacation, but a mission. “We have a job to do,” he said.

The tribe had hoped to ship their drum, but FedEx wanted $600 for that. So they checked it in at the airport, along with several manzanita logs, a container of sacred water and a collection of ceremonial weapons, including spears and bows and arrows.

“I don’t think they will be too worried,” Mr. Franco said of airport security. “All of that will be under the plane.”

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service denied the tribe permission to take much of its ceremonial regalia — including hawk, woodpecker and vulture feathers — though its eagle headgear was approved. “Win some, lose some,” Mr. Franco said.

Such battles are commonplace for the Winnemem, whose population once numbered more than 14,000. Their conflicts with the federal government date to 1852, when Congress refused to ratify a treaty that would have given the tribe and more than a dozen other Indian groups a 35-square-mile reservation along the McCloud.

Another insult came in 1985, when the tribe lost its federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, something Mr. Franco attributes to a clerical error as well as a change in bureau policy.

While the Winnemem hold on to tradition, they have not been shy about using more modern means. The Francos regularly commute to Sacramento to lobby policy makers at the Capitol. They also recently donned their regalia to protest a proposal by Senator Feinstein that they felt would loosen restrictions from the Endangered Species Act to allow more water for farmers south of the capital.

Last year, the tribe also sued the federal government for protection of a variety of sacred sites, and a copy of the lawsuit sits in the fire room where the tribe meets for religious ceremonies. “We pray for our lawsuit all the time,” Ms. Sisk-Franco said.

The trip to New Zealand is not the first time the Winnemem have turned to ancient methods to try to change policy. In 2004, while fighting a proposed plan to raise the Shasta Dam 18 feet, the tribe staged a war dance, a four-day, round-the-clock ceremony carried out by their dwindling numbers of warriors. “We were exhausted,” Mr. Franco said. But in the end, the dam was not raised.

Once in New Zealand, the Winnemem plan to rendezvous with local Maori leaders and stage a four-day ceremony starting March 28 that will culminate with the rare “nur chonas winyupus,” or middle water salmon dance.

The Francos say they intend to ask local fish and game officials if they can bring back some of New Zealand’s salmon eggs — once of California stock — back to the McCloud. “We have to do more than pray,” Ms. Sisk-Franco said. “We have to follow through.”

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The slow fade from green to brown

The closer (and more comprehensively) one looks at biofuels, the clearer it becomes that this is a road we should not drive down. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, politics, big money and corporate interests are threatening to overpower science, ethics and common sense. (GW)

The Case Against Biofuels:Probing Ethanol’s Hidden Costs

Despite strong evidence that growing food crops to produce ethanol is harmful to the environment and the world’s poor, the Obama administration is backing subsidies and programs that will ensure that half of the U.S.’s corn crop will soon go to biofuel production. It’s time to recognize that biofuels are anything but green.

by C. Ford Runge
Yale Environment 360
March 11, 2010

In light of the strong evidence that growing corn, soybeans, and other food crops to produce ethanol takes a heavy toll on the environment and is hurting the world’s poor through higher food prices, consider this astonishing fact: This year, more than a third of the U.S.’s record corn harvest of 335 million metric tons will be used to produce corn ethanol. What’s more, within five years fully 50 percent of the U.S. corn crop is expected to wind up as biofuels.

Here’s another sobering fact. Despite the record deficits facing the U.S., and notwithstanding President Obama’s embrace of some truly sustainable renewable energy policies, the president and his administration have wholeheartedly embraced corn ethanol and the tangle of government subsidies, price supports, and tariffs that underpin the entire dubious enterprise of using corn to power our cars. In early February, the president threw his weight behind new and existing initiatives to boost ethanol production from both food and nonfood sources, including supporting Congressional mandates that would triple biofuel production to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Congress and the Obama administration are paying billions of dollars to producers of biofuels, with expenditures scheduled to increase steadily through 2022 and possibly 2030. The fuels are touted by these producers as a “green” solution to reliance on imported petroleum, and a boost for farmers seeking higher prices.

Yet a close look at their impact on food security and the environment — with profound effects on water, the eutrophication of our coastal zones from fertilizers, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions — suggests that the biofuel bandwagon is anything but green. Congress and the administration need to reconsider whether they are throwing good money after bad. If the biofuel saga illustrates anything, it is that thinking ecologically will require thinking more logically, as well.

Investments in biofuels have grown rapidly in the last decade, accelerating especially in developed countries and Brazil after 2003, when oil prices began to climb above $25 per barrel, reaching a peak of $120 per barrel in 2008. Between 2001 and 2008, world production of ethanol tripled from 4.9 billion gallons to 17 billion gallons, while biodiesel output rose from 264 million gallons to 2.9 billion gallons. Together, the U.S. and Brazil account for most of the world’s ethanol production. Biodiesel, the other major biofuel, is produced mainly in the European Union, which makes roughly five times more than the U.S. In the EU, ethanol and biodiesel are projected to increase oilseed, wheat, and corn usage from negligible levels in 2004 to roughly 21, 17, and 5 million tons, respectively, in 2016, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In the U.S., once a reliable supplier of exported grain and oilseeds for food, biofuel production is soaring even as food crop export demand remains strong, driving prices further upward. Government support undergirding the biofuels industry has also grown rapidly and now forms a massive federal program that may be good for farm states, but is very bad for U.S. taxpayers.

These subsidy supports are a testament to the power of the farm lobby and its sway over the U.S. Congress. In addition to longstanding crop price supports that encourage production of corn and soybeans as feedstocks, biofuels are propped up by several other forms of government largesse. The first of these are mandates, known as “renewable fuels standards”: In the U.S. in 2007, energy legislation raised mandated production of biofuels to 36 billion gallons by 2022. These mandates shelter biofuels investments by guaranteeing that the demand will be there, thus encouraging oversupply.

Then there are direct biofuel production subsidies, which raise feedstock prices for farmers by increasing the price of corn. In the U.S., blenders are paid a 45 cent-per-gallon “blender’s tax credit” for ethanol — the equivalent of more than $200 per acre to divert scarce corn from the food supply into fuel tanks. The federal government also pays a $1 credit for plant-based biodiesel and “cellulosic” ethanol.

Finally, there is a 54 cent-per-gallon tariff on imported biofuel to protect domestic production from competition, especially to prevent Brazilian sugarcane-based ethanol (which can be produced at less than half the cost of U.S. ethanol from corn) from entering U.S. markets. These subsidies allow ethanol producers to pay higher and higher prices for feedstocks, illustrated by the record 2008 levels of corn, soybean, and wheat prices. Projections suggest they will remain higher, assuming normal weather and yields.

The rapid increase in grain and oilseed prices due to biofuels expansion has been a shock to consumers worldwide, especially during 2008 and early 2009. From 2005 to January 2008, the global price of wheat increased 143 percent, corn by 105 percent, rice by 154 percent, sugar by 118 percent, and oilseeds by 197 percent. In 2006-2007, this rate of increase accelerated, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “due to continued demand for biofuels and drought in major producing countries.” The price increases have since moderated, but many believe only temporarily, given tight stocks-to-use ratios.

It is in poor countries that these price increases pose direct threats to disposable income and food security. There, the run-up in food prices has been ominous for the more than one billion of the world’s poor who are chronically food-insecure. Poor farmers in countries such as Bangladesh can barely support a household on a subsistence basis, and have little if any surplus production to sell, which means they do not benefit from higher prices for corn or wheat. And poor slum-dwellers in Lagos, Calcutta, Manila, or Mexico City produce no food at all, and spend as much as 90 percent of their meager household incomes just to eat.

But the most worrisome of recent criticisms of biofuels relate to their impacts on the natural environment. In the U.S., water shortages due to the huge volumes necessary to process grains or sugar into ethanol are not uncommon, and are amplified if these crops are irrigated. Growing corn to produce ethanol, according to a 2007 study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, consumes 200 times more water than the water used to process corn into ethanol.

In the cornbelt of the Upper Midwest, even more serious problem arise. Corn acreage, which expanded by over 15 percent in 2007 in response to ethanol demands, requires extensive fertilization, adding to nitrogen and phosphorus that run off into lakes and streams and eventually enter the Mississippi River watershed. This is aggravated by systems of subterranean tiles and drains — 98 percent of Iowa’s arable fields are tiled — that accelerate field drainage into ditches and local watersheds. As a result, loadings of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico encourage algae growth, starving water bodies of oxygen needed by aquatic life and enlarging the hypoxic “dead zone” in the gulf.

Next is simply the crop acreage needed to feed the biofuels beast. A 2007 study in Science noted that to replace just 10 percent of the gasoline in the U.S. with ethanol and biodiesel would require 43 percent of current U.S. cropland for biofuel feedstocks. The EU would need to commit 38 percent of its cropland base. Otherwise, new lands will need to be brought into cultivation, drawn disproportionately from those more vulnerable to environmental damage, such as forests.

A pair of 2008 studies, again in Science, focused on the question of greenhouse gas emissions due to land-use shifts resulting from biofuels. One study said that if land is converted from rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels, it causes a large net increase in greenhouse gas emissions for decades. A second study said that growing corn for ethanol in the U.S., for example, can lead to the clearing of forests and other wild lands in the developing world for food corn, which also causes a surge in greenhouse gas emissions.

A third study, by Nobel-Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen in 2007, emphasized the impact from the heavy applications of nitrogen needed to grow expanded feedstocks of corn and rapeseed. The nitrogen necessary to grow these crops releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere — a greenhouse gas 296 times more damaging than CO2 — and contributes more to global warming than biofuels save through fossil fuel reductions.

Thus have biofuels made the slow fade from green to brown. It is a sad irony of the biofuels experience that resource alternatives that seemed farmer-friendly and green have turned out so badly.

What’s needed are a freeze on further mandates to slow overinvestment, reductions in the blenders’ tax credit — especially when corn prices are high — and cuts in tariff protection to encourage cost-reduction strategies by U.S. producers. And the high environmental and human costs of using corn, soybeans, and other food crops to produce biofuels should spur government initiatives to develop more sustainable forms of renewable energy, such as wind power, solar power, and — one day, perhaps — algal biofuels grown at waste treatment plants.

Yet sadly, as in so many areas of policy, Congress and the administration prefer to reward inefficiency and political influence more than pursuing cost-effective — and sustainable — energy strategies.


C. Ford Runge is the McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota, where he also holds appointments in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the Department of Forest Resources. He is former director of the university’s Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy and has written for Foreign Affairs.

© 2008 Yale Environment 360