Monday, January 31, 2011

Mindful of paying attention

Ram Dass was apparently on to something we he advised us back in the 70's to "Be Here Now". (GW)

Brain gain

Mindfulness therapy puts the focus on improving the quality of body and spirit

By Deborah Kotz
Boston Globe
January 31, 2011

A. Checking items off your mental to-do list.

B. Watching soap suds swirl down the drain as you wash the dishes.

Correct answer: B.

Despite the fact that we spend nearly half our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing, we’re actually happier when we focus on what’s happening in the moment. The way we direct our brains can help us manage pain, as well. And new findings suggest that spending time in a focused state may even increase gray matter, boosting areas of the brain involved in mental sharpness.

Harvard researchers noted the happiness factor last November, when they enlisted 2,250 study participants to record their thoughts and feelings immediately after being buzzed several times a day on their iPhones.

The study, published in the journal Science, found that the human mind wanders during virtually every activity — especially boring ones like driving in traffic or taking a shower — and that even when we reminisce about a joyous occasion, we feel no better than when we pay attention to those dish suds. When our thoughts turn to unpleasant or even neutral topics, like picking up the dry cleaning, the suds win out.

To help us plan for danger and learn from the past, the human brain’s default mode of operation evolved to be one of contemplation, brain researchers have shown. In order to be truly present in the moment, we have to make a concerted effort, a practice called mindfulness.

Based on 2,500-year-old Buddhist principles, mindfulness programs in the West are largely secularized and often involve using meditation to help people become more attentive to moment-by-moment sensations, like frigid wind across the T tracks or fingernails scratching on a blackboard, without judging them. While one of the first mindfulness stress-reduction classes began at the University of Massachusetts back in 1979, the practice has spread in recent years to virtually every realm of medicine, to help patients better manage chronic pain, depression, even overeating. A December study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that mindfulness therapy can be as effective as remaining on antidepressants to prevent a relapse of depression.

The latest evidence suggests that the practice of paying attention leads to anatomical changes in the brain. Healthy volunteers given MRI scans both before and after they attended weekly mindfulness classes for eight weeks experienced a 1 to 3 percent increase in their brain’s gray matter in particular areas responsible for learning, memory, and emotional regulation, according to a Massachusetts General Hospital study published last week in the journal Psychiatry Research. Two years earlier, the same researchers found that mindfulness training led to a decrease in gray matter in the brain’s amygdala, the area of the brain that perceives stress.

We don’t yet know what these brain changes mean,’’ points out study coauthor Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, “but the part of the brain that grew a little involves perspective taking — seeing other people’s point of view and also the big picture.’’ That’s a central tenet in mindfulness: allowing yourself to be open to new experiences. “It’s all about adopting a receptive attitude: paying attention to how things are rather than how you want them to be,’’ says Ronald Siegel, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of “The Mindfulness Solution.’’

After learning to practice mindfulness years ago, Siegel says he no longer walks without noticing the movement of his body. “Walk slowly and bring the full attention to the sensations of your feet lifting, moving forward, and stepping,’’ he says while inching forward on a brick sidewalk in Cambridge on a chilly January afternoon. “Of course, thoughts will enter your mind, but the idea is to step out of the thought stream and come to the actual sensations of life.’’

Tim Blackburn, a patient of Siegel’s from Jamaica Plain, found that learning to walk mindfully helped him overcome prolonged back pain that forced him to give up running 10 years ago. “I described my pain as I walked — how it went from my thigh to my knee to my shin — and it really helped me be present with the pain instead of clenching against it, thinking that it would never go away.’’ The walks led to painful 200-yard jogs and within two months, without taking medications, the now-54-year-old graphic designer was back to running five miles, eventually pain-free.

Now meditating weekly at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center and attending annual silent meditation retreats, Blackburn says learning mindfulness helped him manage far more than his physical discomfort: “Sitting with my own thoughts and emotions made me more patient and compassionate with other people; it improved my relationships.’’

Mindfulness training can be learned on its own in, say, the eight-week University of Massachusetts Medical Center program (which costs $450 to $600, based on financial need) — the one Lazar and her colleagues studied — or woven into other stress-reduction programs like the $400 eight-week relaxation response resiliency program at Massachusetts General Hospital, which aims to benefit anyone suffering not only from headaches, anxiety-related conditions, and sleep problems, but also autoimmune disorders, asthma, and allergies.

“It includes mindfulness, but also visual imagery techniques, exercise, and a change in diet,’’ says Peg Baim, a nurse practitioner who serves as clinical director of the resiliency program. She says she went through the program herself years ago to help her manage her panic disorder and Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disorder. “I was a hyper-responder with an over-reactive stress response,’’ she explains. “Meditation helped me better regulate how my body responded to pain and emotional stress.’’

At Boston Medical Center’s nutrition and weight management class, Mitali Shah, a registered dietician, emphasizes the importance of mindful eating to control weight and improve weight-related conditions like diabetes and heart disease. “We make about 200 uncontrolled food decisions in a day, where we don’t think about what we’re actually eating or drinking,’’ she tells a group of seven overweight patients at their weekly session in January. She extols them to eat only when they’re hungry, maintain set meal and snack times without distractions like TV or phone calls, and consume small portions every two or three hours. “If the thought of food makes you want to eat,’’ Shah points out, “that’s appetite, not hunger.’’

After rating their current state of hunger on a scale of 1 — beyond starving — to 10 — painfully stuffed — the group confronts a single raisin. “Look at it, smell it, now put it in your mouth, but don’t chew yet,’’ orders the trim, well-coiffed Shah. “Close your eyes and just focus on the raisin. Notice the texture, the temperature, and the taste. We tend to overeat when we don’t focus on our food.’’

Margarita Lebron, a 53-year-old participant from Dorchester, says the exercise made her a believer: “For the first time, I got the taste of a raisin. Usually I just pop them in and don’t put any mind to the flavor. But this time I enjoyed eating just one.’’ Overweight most of her life, she decided last month to take steps to change her eating habits — her goal is to lose 50 pounds — after her doctor told her she was on the borderline of diabetes. “It’s like a new beginning; hopefully I’m on the right path.’’

Mindful-eating exercise

Take a single raisin in your hand — or substitute a nut or Hershey’s Kiss — and examine its texture, color and patterns. Where is it shiny and where is it dull? Observe whether it’s soft or hard, smooth or rough. Bring it to your nose and smell it. Notice your feelings as you smell: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Next place the raisin on your tongue and let it sit there for a moment. Use your tongue to explore the raisin and notice how its touch is different from the touch of your fingers. Position the raisin between your teeth and bite down, feeling the squishy softness. Notice whatever tastes and feelings arise as you chew the raisin. Stay with the experience of tasting and chewing the raisin. Continue chewing until it falls apart in your mouth and then swallow, focusing on the movement of your digestive muscles. Take a moment to notice the new feeling of emptiness in your mouth and any residual taste of the raisin. D.K.

Mindful-walking exercise

This is best performed walking very slowly, so find a quiet spot, either indoors or out, where you won’t feel self-conscious. Carefully lift one foot and leg, and notice the sensation of lifting in terms of your balance and movement. Gradually move your foot through space, noticing how your muscles feel as they move. Place your foot back on the ground and notice any sensations that arise as your foot makes contact. Now move the other foot, lifting it slowly, pushing it forward, and placing it back down. You may notice that the slower pace throws your balance off slightly, so experiment at a pace that works for you. Continue to walk until you reach the end of the path, whether a street block or a hallway. Pause for a moment and notice the sensation of standing still: the air, the sounds, the colors surrounding you. Once you feel fully aware of the moment, turn around and walk slowly back. D.K.

Breath awareness meditation

One popular form of mindfulness meditation focuses on the breath. Sit comfortably on a chair or meditation cushion in a straight posture. Imagine that a string is attached from your head to the ceiling, lengthening your spine. Close your eyes and breathe naturally, focusing on the breath as it enters and exits your lungs. As you observe the breath, note the rising and falling sensations of your belly; try to follow the cycle of the breath: inhalation, exhalation, back to inhalation. Don’t try to control the speed of your breathing. This is simply an observation exercise. Distracting thoughts will come into your head but simply acknowledge them, without judgment, and bring your attention back to your breathing. Continue the practice for 20 minutes to get the full effects of the meditation. D.K.

Deborah Kotz writes the Daily Do

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Out of Africa

Employing a combination of whole systems thinking and intuition, Bucky Fuller imagined a scenario of human evolution very similar to the one developed by archaeologists based on discoveries from a recently unearthed stone-age site.

You can read his version which he calls "A Speculative Prehistory of Humanity" in his book Critical Path. (GW)

Out of Africa: stone tools rewrite history of man as a global species

By Steve Connor
The Independent
January 28, 2011

A stone-age archaeological site in the Arabian peninsula has become the focus of a radical theory of how early humans made the long walk from their evolutionary homeland of Africa to become a globally-dispersed species.

Scientists have found a set of stone tools buried beneath a collapsed rock shelter in the barren hills of the United Arab Emirates that they believe were made about 125,000 years ago by people who had migrated out of eastern African by crossing the Red Sea when sea levels were at a record low.

The age of the stone tools and the fact they they appear similar to those made by anatomically-modern humans living in eastern Africa suggests that our species, Homo sapiens, left Africa between 30,000 and 55,000 years earlier than previously believed. This casts new light on how modern humans eventually inhabited lands as far apart as Europe and Australia.

Genetic evidence had suggested that modern humans made the main migration from Africa between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago, although there was always a possibility of earlier migrations that had not got much further than the Middle East. However, all these movements were believed to have been made into the Middle East by people walking along the Nile valley and over the Sinai Peninsula.

The stone tools unearthed at the Jebel Faya site about 50km from the Persian Gulf suggests another possible migratory route across the Bab al-Mandab strait, a tract of open water which separates the Red Sea from the Arabian Ocean and the Horn of Africa from the Arabian Peninsula.

The scientists behind the study said that at the time of the migration, about 125,000 years ago, sea levels would have been low enough for people to make the crossing by foot or with simple rafts or boats. They also suggest that the waterless Nejd plateau of southern Arabia, which would have posed another barrier to migration, was in fact at that time covered in lakes and lush, game-filled vegetation.

"By 130,000 years ago, sea level was still about 100 metres lower than at present while the Nejd plateau was already passable. There was a brief period where modern humans may have been able to use the direct route from East Africa to Jebel Faya," said Professor Adrian Parker of Oxford Brookes University, who was part of the research team.

Once humans had crossed into southern Arabia, they would have enjoyed the benefits of a land rich in gazelle and, with little competition, the migrant community could have quickly expanded to become an important secondary centre for population growth, which later migrated across the Persian Gulf to India and the rest of Asia, the scientists suggest.

Simon Armitage of Royal Holloway, University of London, the lead author of the study published in the journal Science, said that discovering the dates of the stone tools was the key piece of evidence suggesting there was a much earlier migration out of Africa than previously supposed. "Archaeology without ages is like a jigsaw with the interlocking edges removed – you have lots of individual pieces of information but you can't fit them together to produce the big picture," Dr Armitage said.

"At Jebel Faya, the ages reveal a fascinating picture in which modern humans migrated out of Africa much earlier than previously thought, helped by global fluctuations in sea level and the climate change in the Arabian Peninsula."

The stone "tool kit" found at Jebel Faya includes relatively primitive hand axes and a collection of stone scrapers and perforators. The scientists said the tools resemble artifacts found in eastern Africa and their primitive nature suggests that migration did not depend on the invention of more complex tools.

"These anatomically modern humans, like you and me, had evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago and subsequently populated the rest of the world. Our findings should stimulate a re-evaluation of the means by which we modern humans became a global species," Dr Armitage said.

However, not all scientist are convinced. Paul Mellars of Cambridge University told Science: "I'm totally unpersuaded. There's not a scrap of evidence here that these were made by modern humans, nor that they came from Africa."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The French take their comics seriously

The French have an interesting sense of humor. We know they love Jerry Lewis and think his films are a stitch. In 1965 French film critics bestowed the honor of film of the year on Lewis' "The Nutty Professor".

While I might have some issues with that decision, I do not disagree with the French assertion that comics (comic strips, editorial cartoons, graphic novels) are a serious art form. (GW)

Quai d'Orsay's comic-book hero tickles French fancy

Satirical graphic novel based on former PM Dominique de Villepin has become surprise French literary hit

By Angelique Chrisafis
January 28, 2011

A silver-haired aristocrat thunders through the palatial offices of the French foreign ministry quoting Greek philosophers and demanding his speech-writers pepper their efforts with poetry. The fictional eccentric, Alexandre Taillard de Vorms, is France's least likely comic-book hero.

But he is the star of a satirical graphic novel based on the former French prime minister and foreign policy supremo, Dominique de Villepin, which has become a surprise French literary hit, tipped for the top prizes at this weekend's prestigious Angoulême International Comics festival in western France.

Quai d'Orsay, named after the Paris foreign office, is to the French comics world what Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It is to British television. Created by a former speech-writer to de Villepin, it is a scathing dissection not only of a foreign minister who writes lyrical poetry and loves Napoleon, but also of the toadying French elite and ultra-competitive officials who gravitate in his orbit. The real de Villepin, who recently set up his own party to attack his long-term rival, president Nicolas Sarkozy, has paradoxically seen his image boosted by the bizarre antics of his comic alter-ego. "Flamboyant to the point of madness, Dominique de Villepin is the perfect cartoon hero," gushed the right-leaning Le Figaro.

France has a long tradition of satirical cartoons and caricature. There has been a flood of slapstick comic-book parodies of Nicolas Sarkozy in recent years. But Quai d'Orsay stands apart in its critical acclaim as a work of art. French "bande desineé" is seen as a deeply serious art-form and Quai d'Orsay has stunned the exacting critics. The magazine Telerama likened its "portrait of the times" to Molière. The award-winning book has sold more than 80,000 copies after several reprints. A film-adaptation is being considered. The book tells the story of a stressed and terrified young speech-writer trying to keep up with the verbose and intellectual foreign minister. De Villepin's prosaic speeches were notorious. A sequel volume to be published this year will focus on his acclaimed UN speech against the war in Iraq.

Abel Lanzac, the real-life speech writer, joined forces with the acclaimed illustrator Christophe Blain to create the book. Blain described how they would meet in a cafe to describe life at the ministry. "Abel brought it all to life in front of me: a complex individual, both fascinating and odious," he told the culture magazine Les Inrocks. De Villepin has yet to comment. But his rival Sarkozy, who recently tried to boost his poor cultural credentials by discussing his love of Hitchcock and Elia Kazan, can only hope someone in the inner circle at the Elysée breaks ranks and immortalises him in pen and ink.

Rogue trader Jerome Kerviel is now a graphic-novel hero © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Related: See "France's Experimental Comic Book Movement" from the Wall Street Journal:

Friday, January 28, 2011

The original 'Sputnik moment'

I met Lucia Green-Weiskel while on a trade mission to China in 2007. I was there to discuss offshore wind. Chinese officials were just beginning to explore their options in this exciting emerging industry. It must have been a pretty good briefing because China has leaped ahead the U.S. into the offshore wind arena.

Speaking of leaping ahead...please note that Lucia's article keying in on the "Sputnik moment" was published a week before President Obama's State of the Union address. (GW)

Sputnik moment: Historic meeting between U.S. and China may spur a clean energy race

By Lucia Green-Weiskel and Tina Gerhardt
January 17, 2010

From Jan. 19 to 21, President Obama will host Chinese President Hu Jintao for their first bilateral summit this side of the Pacific. According to former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezinski, this "will be the most important top-level United States-Chinese encounter since Deng Xiaoping's historic trip more than 30 years ago." While economic and military issues will be on the agenda, a key part of the meeting will be energy. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has suggested that a Sputnik-like race for clean energy between China and the U.S. may be emerging. If so, how can the U.S. get in the game, given the current political climate in the country?

U.S.-China relations have been rocky over the past two years. At the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, China and the U.S. wound up at a standoff in the summit's final hours.

Tensions hinge on who should take responsibility for the bulk of the emissions. The U.S. blames China, a growing economy and the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, while China blames the U.S., the largest emitter historically and the larger emitter on a per capita basis, by far.

The original UNFCCC charter from 1992 stipulates that developed nations, such as the U.S., lead the world in fighting climate change, since they bear historical responsibility for producing it. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol echoes and expands this concept, calling on countries to act with "common but differentiated responsibilities," which means while all nations are "responsible," each nation acts according to its ability based on its level of development.

This statement has caused considerable tension between the U.S. and China. While the U.S. rejects "common but differentiated responsibility" and insists that China must step up to the plate, China believes that developed countries should take the lead.

From recent U.N. negotiations in both Copenhagen and Cancun, it is clear that the U.S. wants an agreement that has "symmetry" -- one that includes reductions commitments from developed and developing countries. China, for its part, is willing to make voluntary commitments but insists that the U.S. sign on to a legally binding agreement.

Additionally, concerns at the UN climate talks revolve around how emissions reductions commitments will be monitored, reported and verified.

Closely linked to the energy issue is the problem of economic protectionism. Last September, the U.S. United Steelworkers (USW) filed a 5,800-page complaint against China with the U.S. Trade Representative, arguing that its renewable energy subsidies violated international trade regulations. The complaint followed on the heels of a call by environmental groups and politicians for higher tariffs to be imposed on China-produced high carbon imports.

In December, Obama sided with the United Steelworkers, filing a complaint with the WTO against China's wind power subsidies and leaving Chinese officials feeling snubbed and victims of a no-win American policy.

According to Dale Jiajun Wen, a scholar at the California-based International Forum on Globalization: "The recent complaints filed by the U.S. union have further consolidated the impression by many Chinese that the U.S. has no real concern for the climate but is only using it as a China-bashing tool. The inconsistency of the U.S. climate and trade policy is too obvious to ignore."

The protectionist tendencies continue unabated: Last week, Obama signed a military authorization law that includes a "Buy American" clause, prohibiting the U.S. Department of Defense from purchasing solar panels made in China and undoubtedly dismaying Chinese officials.

Given these tensions, it remains to be seen what agreement the U.S. and China will reach at the upcoming Washington summit. Last week, Obama announced a shuffle in his Asia and China teams at the National Security Council and State Department in an attempt to hit the reset button on U.S.-China relations.

And Energy Secretary Chu recently framed the new relationship between the U.S. and China as a "Sputnik Moment." Referencing the first satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, which demonstrated its technological advantage and led to the Cold War-era space race, Chu warned that the U.S. risks falling behind China in the clean technology race.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke already noticed this trend in 2009 when he said, "Ten to fifteen years from now, we're going to be saying, 'How did Shanghai become the Silicon Valley of clean energy?'"

Yet whether this new clean technology race pits the U.S. against China competitively, as the Cold War-era space race did, or allows for scientific partnerships between the U.S. and China remains an open question.

The new joint U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), which will be featured at next week's meeting, forms one sign of collaboration. The center will facilitate joint research and development on clean energy. Priority topics include building efficiency, clean coal, carbon capture and storage, and clean vehicles. Despite this sign of cooperation, the U.S. and China have exhibited remarkably different approaches to the development of clean technology and how to transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to one predominantly reliant on renewable energy.

Although historically China has relied on coal and hydropower for its electricity, it is investing in renewable energy at breakneck speed.

Currently, 70 percent of China's economy is coal-powered. But policy changes are afoot. Although it is not an official figure yet, China's energy bureaucrats seek to drop coal reliance from 69 to 63 percent by 2015. According to Zhang Guobao, Director of China's National Energy Administration, China has saved more than 300 million tons of coal in the past five years by replacing dirty and outdated thermal power plants.

Another new policy puts forth that 15 percent of China's energy must be derived from renewable energy. In addition, China's new energy policies focus on energy efficiency compliance, considered a green technology in China.

China's ramped up clean technology also draws on renewable energy. A 2007 report released by the World Watch Institute stated that "China has become a global leader in renewable energy." Its renewable energy sources encompass biomass energy (derived from sugarwastes and rice husks) and biofuel (produced mainly from corn), as well as solar and wind power. (In China, nuclear energy is not included as a renewable as it is in the U.S.)

Overall, China is the world's biggest manufacturer of solar panels. Suntech Power in Wuxi is the world's third largest producer of solar power. Moreover, while China produced 50 percent of the world's solar panels in 2010, it receives about 2 percent of its total energy from solar. Under new aggressive government plans for investment in renewable energy, however, this number will likely grow rapidly. In Rizhao, a city in northern China, 99 percent of households use solar water heaters.

Recently, an Arizona-based company, First Solar Inc., signed a deal with China Guangdong Nuclear Solar Energy Development Co., a Chinese state-owned energy company to build one of the world's largest solar power facilities in Inner Mongolia.

Wind power has also seen dramatic increases in China in the past five to six years. The wind industry has doubled in size each year since 2004. And as the New York Times reported just this week: "More than three times as much wind power capacity was installed in China last year than in the United States."

Here, too, policy played a strong role. Greenpeace's Li Yan told AlterNet that "a law required that 70 percent of wind had to be manufactured domestically. This stipulation helped to create jobs and to boost China's wind power, which has overtaken other previous leaders, such as Denmark, Spain and Germany to take the number one spot."

Challenges to China's wind economy remain. According to Li Yan, "If one talks about the installation capacity, China will probably be number one by the end of this year or next year, but if we talk about wind energy that has been connected, then we are still far behind." While installation occurs more quickly, connecting, according to Li Yan, remains slowed by the centralized state owned energy structure, which has created a bottleneck.

Li Yan's concern pinpoints one of the potential pitfalls of the China's implementation strategies: strong policies at the central level do not always translate well into solid implementation at the regional level.

In March, China will release the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), which will set new renewable energy targets. The plan calls for deep cuts in energy-intensity and large subsidies to bring renewable energy and electric vehicles to scale. It includes both a cap-and-trade program and carbon taxes. And it requires utilities companies to meet energy-saving targets and invest electricity revenues in renewable energy. Additionally, China has announced that it will produce a nation-wide greenhouse gas inventory by 2012 -- its first since 1994. Producing such an inventory of greenhouse gases requires a sophisticated ability to measure emissions from a variety of sources.

While implementation remains a challenge, many of these targets are being met. For example, China's National Development and Reform Commission recently announced that it will meet its target of reducing total pollution by 10 percent from 2005 to 2010. Last year, the Chinese government ordered blackouts in many parts of China in order to meet another target to reduce energy intensity by 20 percent by 2010 from 2005 levels.

Thus in China, a race toward self-reliance and clean energy technology is certainly on, even if it the Sputnik Moment race itself is a U.S. construct. Chu, like China, seems to be taking the long view of the environmental and economic situation.

In the U.S., renewable energy still needs to be made cost competitive. A number of measures could help to develop and make renewable energy affordable: 1) feed-in-tariffs; 2) subsidies; 3) tax credits; and 4) state regulations provide renewable portfolio standards (RPS), that is, demand that a specific percentage of their energy, typically 4-30 percent, be derived from renewable energy sources by a specific date.

A feed-in-tariff system -- the first of these incentives -- allows homeowners who have installed solar panels to sell back to their utility company the excess amount of energy produced, thereby reducing their overall electric bill. As of 2009, 11 states were considering legislation to permit feed-in-tariffs in the U.S.

Subsidies in the United States often heavily favor fossil fuels. This predilection leaves renewable energy, which has been growing nonetheless, artificially gummed up in the U.S. Subsidies for renewable energy could encourage a shift in the base.

Tax credits for production of renewable energy are also extremely beneficial. Thus far, growth in wind farms has been astronomical as a result of the Recovery Act or tax credit 1603.

Michigan is second nationwide for wind manufacturing and just announced another new plant. Its success comes as a direct result of grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. Additionally, Recovery Act funds help businesses diversify into clean energy through the Clean Energy Advanced Manufacturing program. And a state law enacted by Governor Jennifer Granholm in 2008 requires 10 percent of the state's energy to come from renewable sources by 2015. Due to these subsidies and laws, the U.S. Department of Energy projects that Michigan will create 30,000 more jobs in the wind-manufacturing sector.

The results of all this investment into wind in the U.S. are already upon us. Texas, Iowa, and California lead the country in installed wind capacity. To date, 20 percent of all energy in Iowa comes from wind; it marks the largest growth over the past year. In Texas, 25 percent of all energy comes from wind power. Wind farms in the Southwest and off the coast in the Atlantic have also ramped renewable energy sources. Across the country, wind as a source of renewable energy has increased four-fold over the past decade.

During the UN negotiations in Cancún, it was announced that the Recovery Act 1603 tax credit for renewable energy would not be extended. Peter Kelley, of the American Wind Energy Association, told AlterNet, "what this means is that the growth we have seen in wind in the past few years, which grew 20 percent in 2008 and 40 percent in 2009, is set to decrease by 45 percent due to the expiration of this tax credit."

Kelley is not only concerned about the environment. He sees the relationship between renewable energy and the economy, and specifically, job opportunities. "The wind energy industry," he added, "kept 85,000 people in jobs during this economic recession. As a result of this tax credit expiring, tens of thousands of layoffs will occur."

Yet Kelley's view that tax subsidies produce jobs differs sharply from the views of some Republicans who took control of the House of Representatives last week and were quick to dissolve the Global Warming Committee, established by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Representative Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in 2007. They refer to the national energy tax not as job inducing but as a "job-killing national energy tax."

"We have pledged to save taxpayers' money by reducing waste and duplication in Congress," said Michael Steel, spokesman for incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "The Select Committee on Global Warming -- which was created to provide a political forum to promote Washington Democrats' job-killing national energy tax -- was a clear example, and it will not continue in the 112th Congress."

It remains to be seen what results Chu's ramped-up program will have for the economy and the environment. Given last week's changes in the Obama administration and at the helm of the House, will the Department of Energy be able to ring in a new era committed to clean technology and renewable energy? Will it be able to be competitive in a renewable energy race?

In light of Hu Jintao's visit to Washington, the Sputnik Moment proclaimed by Chu could herald either a new era of cooperation, or of competition.

Lucia Green-Weiskel is project manager of the climate change program at the Beijing-based independent Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation. She appeared on Democracy Now during the COP 15 in Copenhagen and the COP 16 in Cancun, and her work has been published in The Nation.

Tina Gerhardt is an academic and journalist who covers environmental politics. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, The Huffington Post, In These Times, and The Nation.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

" amazing, bold hypothesis”

I was a college freshman in 1967 when a classmate introduced me to the works of Vladimir Nabokov. I was vaguely aware of him because of "Lolita". Let's face it, most young people were at least aware that there was a controversy surrounding that novel -- even if few had actually read it.

I was blown away by his writing. His interest in scientific topics was not limited to butterflies. Long before I actually read Lolita I read "Ada" (my favorite) in which he explores the "texture of time". (GW)

Nonfiction: Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Is Vindicated

By Carl Zimmer
New York Times
January 25, 2011

Vladimir Nabokov may be known to most people as the author of classic novels like “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” But even as he was writing those books, Nabokov had a parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies.

He was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and collected the insects across the United States. He published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species. And in a speculative moment in 1945, he came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.

Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.

“It’s really quite a marvel,” said Naomi Pierce of Harvard, a co-author of the paper.

Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities, the 8-year-old Vladimir brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift. As a teenager, Nabokov went on butterfly-hunting expeditions and carefully described the specimens he caught, imitating the scientific journals he read in his spare time. Had it not been for the Russian Revolution, which forced his family into exile in 1919, Nabokov said that he might have become a full-time lepidopterist.

In his European exile, Nabokov visited butterfly collections in museums. He used the proceeds of his second novel, “King, Queen, Knave,” to finance an expedition to the Pyrenees, where he and his wife, Vera, netted over a hundred species. The rise of the Nazis drove Nabokov into exile once more in 1940, this time to the United States. It was there that Nabokov found his greatest fame as a novelist. It was also there that he delved deepest into the science of butterflies.

Nabokov spent much of the 1940s dissecting a confusing group of species called Polyommatus blues. He developed forward-thinking ways to classify the butterflies based on differences in their genitalia. He argued that what were thought to be closely related species were actually only distantly related.

At the end of a 1945 paper on the group, he mused on how they had evolved. He speculated that they originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait, and moved south all the way to Chile.

Allowing himself a few literary flourishes, Nabokov invited his readers to imagine “a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine.” Going back millions of years, he would end up at a time when only Asian forms of the butterflies existed. Then, moving forward again, the taxonomist would see five waves of butterflies arriving in the New World.

Nabokov conceded that the thought of butterflies making a trip from Siberia to Alaska and then all the way down into South America might sound far-fetched. But it made more sense to him than an unknown land bridge spanning the Pacific. “I find it easier to give a friendly little push to some of the forms and hang my distributional horseshoes on the nail of Nome rather than postulate transoceanic land-bridges in other parts of the world,” he wrote.

When “Lolita” made Nabokov a star in 1958, journalists were delighted to discover his hidden life as a butterfly expert. A famous photograph of Nabokov that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post when he was 66 is from a butterfly’s perspective. The looming Russian author swings a net with rapt concentration. But despite the fact that he was the best-known butterfly expert of his day and a Harvard museum curator, other lepidopterists considered Nabokov a dutiful but undistinguished researcher. He could describe details well, they granted, but did not produce scientifically important ideas.

Only in the 1990s did a team of scientists systematically review his work and recognize the strength of his classifications. Dr. Pierce, who became a Harvard biology professor and curator of lepidoptera in 1990, began looking closely at Nabokov’s work while preparing an exhibit to celebrate his 100th birthday in 1999. She was captivated by his idea of butterflies coming from Asia. “It was an amazing, bold hypothesis,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we could test this.’ ”

To do so, she would need to reconstruct the evolutionary tree of blues, and estimate when the branches split. It would have been impossible for Nabokov to do such a study on the anatomy of butterflies alone. Dr. Pierce would need their DNA, which could provide more detail about their evolutionary history.

Working with American and European lepidopterists, Dr. Pierce organized four separate expeditions into the Andes in search of blues. Back at her lab at Harvard, she and her colleagues sequenced the genes of the butterflies and used a computer to calculate the most likely relationships between them. They also compared the number of mutations each species had acquired to determine how long ago they had diverged from one another.

There were several plausible hypotheses for how the butterflies might have evolved. They might have evolved in the Amazon, with the rising Andes fragmenting their populations. If that were true, the species would be closely related to one another.

But that is not what Dr. Pierce found. Instead, she and her colleagues found that the New World species shared a common ancestor that lived about 10 million years ago. But many New World species were more closely related to Old World butterflies than to their neighbors. Dr. Pierce and her colleagues concluded that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to the New World — just as Nabokov had speculated.

“By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.”

Dr. Pierce and her colleagues also investigated Nabokov’s idea that the butterflies had come over the Bering Strait. The land surrounding the strait was relatively warm 10 million years ago, and has been chilling steadily ever since. Dr. Pierce and her colleagues found that the first lineage of Polyommatus blues that made the journey could survive a temperature range that matched the Bering climate of 10 million years ago. The lineages that came later are more cold-hardy, each with a temperature range matching the falling temperatures.

Nabokov’s taxonomic horseshoes turn out to belong in Nome after all.

"What a great paper," said James Mallet, an expert on butterfly evolution at University College London. "It's a fitting tribute to the great man to see that the most modern methods that technology can deliver now largely support his systematic arrangement."

Dr. Pierce says she believes Nabokov would have been greatly pleased to be so vindicated, and points to one of his most famous poems, “On Discovering a Butterfly.” The 1943 poem begins:

I found it and I named it, being versed

in taxonomic Latin; thus became

godfather to an insect and its first

describer — and I want no other fame.

“He felt that his scientific work was standing for all time, and that he was just a player in a much bigger enterprise,” said Dr. Pierce. “He was not known as a scientist, but this certainly indicates to me that he knew what it’s all about.”

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Fears of an emerging 'food bubble'

We've seen what can happen when Dot-com and housing bubbles burst. What happens when the same thing happens with food? We are living in crazy times. (GW)

The threat of rising food prices

New Statesman
11 January 2011

This is as much a part of what’s wrong with our financial sector as the Greek and Irish debt crises.

While inertia continues to define the coalition government's approach to banking regulation, the bankers are happily enjoying yet another free-for-all spending splurge – and fears are emerging of a new bubble. This time, it's a commodity bubble, similar to the one that led to food riots around the world in 2007 and 2008.

In case you hadn't noticed, food prices are at an all-time high: the latest figures show food price inflation at 5.5 per cent, outpacing the overall inflation figure of 3.3 per cent. You'll be paying as much as 25 per cent more for your regular cuppa as tea prices rise; and we already saw the cost of our Christmas turkey go up by more than £3 before Christmas, due to the doubling in feed costs in 2010.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation's Food Price Index, released last week, shows that a range of basic food prices are actually higher than they were when food riots broke out in places like Mozambique, Egypt and Haiti just two years ago. In the first week of December, the benchmarked US wheat price reached $327 per tonne, which is a staggering 70 per cent higher than that for July 2010, just six months earlier.

Some market analysts would have us believe that it's a simple case of time-honoured supply and demand. But aren't these the same analysts who also said that mortgage derivatives were a good bet for investors? Market fetishists often fail to ignore the evidence as it suits them.

Although the long-term trends do point to a gradual rise in prices, due to a range of reasons from climate change and biofuel production to increasing consumption, basic supply and demand alone doesn't account for the high price volatility and huge changes being seen in recent months.

Price spikes of upwards of 70 per cent are being led by hedge funds, investment bankers and pension funds that have poured over $200bn into food markets since the financial crisis, betting on prices going ever higher. With few options to place your bets these days, and especially with the ready-made cash available through quantitative easing, food isn't a bad place to start – for the bankers, anyway.

A few extra pence for a loaf of bread doesn't seem like a lot to most of us, but the story is rather different if you're in a developing country, relying on imported staple foods just to get by.

Meanwhile, the replay of food riots began last week, with three people killed and 300 injured in disturbances that broke out in Algeria. For some of the poorest people in the world, as prices rise, education falls by the wayside; basic assets such as farm animals get sold, and a short-term crisis can lead to long-term chronic malnourishment for a generation.

Food isn't an asset like any other – it's fundamental to human life. Commodity markets exist to enable people to buy and sell food, but are now the best place for speculators to make a quick buck through murky "over-the-counter" trades and a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever-rising prices.

The story of food prices is as much a part of the picture of what's wrong with our financial sector as the Greek and Irish debt crises, or the obscene level of bankers' bonuses. The reality is that the same speculators who caused the global economic meltdown through their illustrious trade in sub-prime mortgages are now betting on our food system, too.

The issue has prompted the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to plan to raise the matter with Barack Obama later this week in Washington, as part of France's duties as leader of the G20.

So when the coalition government decides to ignore the evidence and turn a blind eye to regulating the banking sector, the result is inflation and ongoing volatility in financial markets, failing people far beyond our borders.

These markets need to be brought back under control, limiting excessive speculation, ensuring that markets are fully transparent, and not holding the rest of us to ransom through unnecessary and unscrupulous price rises.

Deborah Doane is director of the World Development Movement.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

New global leader in wind energy

It's amazing to me that so many fossil fuel apologists continue to trash-talk wind energy even as its deployment around the world continues to grow. (GW)

China beats the US in wind energy

By Sheila McNulty
Financial Times
January 25 2011

China has become the leader in wind energy capacity, seizing the lead from the US, where last year installations dropped to half of what they were in 2009.

US installations totalled 5,115 megawatts of wind power in 2010, barely half of 2009’s record pace because of what the industry sees as the lack of predictable long-term federal policies on renewable energy grants.

US wind capacity now stands at 40,180 megawatts, an increase in capacity of 15 per cent over the start of 2010, the American Wind Energy Association said on Monday. It said China now has 41,800 megawatts in operation, an increase of 62 per cent in capacity over a year ago.

Towards the end of last year, wind installations came to a standstill as the industry waited for Congress to renew a provision enabling the industry to obtain a cash grant in lieu of an investment tax credit, which had been a key factor behind growth. The provision eventually passed in late December but only for one year, resulting in long-term uncertainty.

“Our industry continues to ensure a boom-bust cycle because of the lack of long-term predictable federal policies,” said Denise Bode, chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association, the national trade association.

Research by General Electric has shown that investments in the wind industry have risen and fallen along with the renewal and expiration of renewable energy incentives. The expiration of incentives in 2000, 2002 and 2004, for example, caused a 76-90 per cent drop in installed capacity in the US from the previous year.

Complicating the efforts to maintain US growth in wind generation are low natural gas prices, which are leading power producers to favour that fossil fuel.

”Now that we’re competing with natural gas on cost, we need consistent federal policies to ensure we have a diverse portfolio of energy sources in this country, and don’t become over-reliant on one source or another,” Ms Bode said.

The renewal of the tax credit at the end of last year means the industry entered 2011 with more than 5,600 megawatts of electric power under construction, encouraging a more robust growth rate for this year.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.

Monday, January 24, 2011

‘How much does your building weigh?'

More thoughts on cities of the future. This one is care of Norman Foster, prolific British architect and Bucky Fuller colleague/collaborator. (GW)

The city of the future: It's a story of camels, penguins and cars you don't drive

By Norman Foster
Mail Online
January 23, 2011

I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. I mean that quite literally. My childhood home was an unspectacular red brick terraced house in Stockport, Greater Manchester. The nearby railway bridge bore huge steam trains that flew directly past my bedroom window. Under the arch of that bridge, though, down along a path, was a quite different proposition: a nice middle-class area of streets lined with trees and smart detached villas.

Not that a sense of divided society stopped me drawing. I was born in 1935 and as far back as I can remember I was sketching designs. My first subject was an aircraft, which I imagined myself piloting. Other planes were less benign. As German bombers thundered over our house, I would bravely speculate with my mother Lily about what type of aircraft they might be, before breaking down in tears, absolutely terrified.

The only honourable work my parents knew was blue-collar. But while my father Robert ran a pawnbroker’s shop and my mother was a waitress, I moved into a middle-class world with a level of security they never knew.

After National Service in the RAF, I wangled a job as an assistant in an architect’s office in Manchester. I started talking to the architects, asking how I could become one. I needed a portfolio, so I did drawings. With those I got into Manchester University School of Architecture in 1956 and later won a scholarship to Yale University in the U.S., before returning to Britain to start a practice.

The point of all this is that the Manchester I knew was, in many ways, the precursor of the modern global city. More than 200 years ago, industrialisation turned what had been a small town into a vast metropolis, bringing a river of tens of thousands of farm workers to toil in its new cotton factories.

These days – and for much the same reasons – more than half the world’s population lives in a city. In China and India workers can earn three times as much in the country. Those two economic powerhouses will help drive city dwelling rates up to 70 per cent by 2050.

So it’s inevitable that most of us will need to get used to the idea of living in a city. But it won’t be a city as we know it. I know, because making life in these new cities comfortable and rewarding – without frittering away the Earth’s resources – is the architect’s greatest task. We’ll make them higher, closer, safer and smarter. More connected and more efficient. In the words of the U.S. inventor, futurologist and provocateur Richard Buckminster Fuller – we’ll get more from less.

Buckminster Fuller invented the geodesic dome, the sort of sci-fi construction used in the Eden Project in Cornwall. I once flew him to see one of my buildings, the Sainsbury Centre at East Anglia University. After looking around admiringly, he asked a question that floored me.

‘How much does your building weigh, Norman?’ he enquired.

Of course, I didn’t know and it took a week to work it out – 5,328 tons, most of it lost in the invisible concrete foundations. That was Bucky’s point – most of the building’s weight was in its least attractive part; we must always consider whether building materials and land are being put to good use – and the city, in my view, is the best way to do that.

But there’s more to the cities than that. They are also the best place to trade ideas and skills, to make friends, to find a wife or husband. Cities, in other words, are the life and soul of the party. Look up ‘city’ in a dictionary if you want to see what I mean.

The words close to it are aspirational – civic, civilised, civilisation. Then try suburb – ‘without the qualities of town or country, provincial, narrow in outlook’, according to the unfairly snobbish Chambers definition.

One thing that will be different in the new city is the car. I do not wish to bash cars here as they offer huge personal freedom and are a technological marvel, but they are also dirty, noisy, dangerous and waste too much energy.

Our roads will look much more like those sci-fi movies and be controlled and regulated, much as airspace is today. Small energy-efficient vehicles will be allowed to drive informally when on small roads, but once they join the motorway or big roads, they will be locked into a safe, computer-guided system, with the driver merely supervising, just as planes are run on autopilot with instructions from air traffic control.

Google has already tested robot cars in San Francisco. If they can navigate San Francisco, they can probably manage just about anywhere.

We now think it hilarious that medieval streets were used as open sewers. Equally, our descendants will say: ‘You won’t believe this, but people were once allowed to hurl a couple of tons of dangerous metal around smashing into each other.’

The better city will have low pollution, low energy use, the smallest carbon footprint. Compare a tightly knit metropolis like Copenhagen with the suburban sprawl of Detroit. The Danish city has twice the population density – the number of people per square mile – but uses a tenth of the energy, despite having a similar climate. With everything closer, walking and cycling are possible.

High-density cities also offer more freedom and are often more prosperous. It is no coincidence that the areas of London with greatest population density – surprisingly, Kensington, Chelsea, Holland Park and Mayfair – are the richest and most sought-after.

Indeed, Manhattan, one of the most moneyed spots on the planet, also has one of the greatest concentrations of people in its skyscrapers. It’s also, of course, the place where every architect wants to build his tower. (Buckminster Fuller famously wanted to go one step further and cover the whole city with one of his geodesic domes.)

The good news is that my firm now has a tower in New York. The bad news is that it is a very, very small tower – only 46 storeys –but, I am pleased to say, it consumes much less energy than a conventional Manhattan block of its size. Bucky would have approved.

After 40 years working as an architect, it strikes me that what makes a city agreeable is actually not any one building. It is the way you get about, the public spaces, the streets, walkways, bridges, parks and squares – the things I would draw as I cycled about Manchester as a teenager, at a time when I didn’t even know what an architect was.

It was with this in mind that my firm started work on one of its most futuristic projects – Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates. To look at computer-generated images of it, you might think it was a fantasy from a sci-fi comic. The sort I read as a boy. But Masdar City, a university city and environmental technology park outside Abu Dhabi, is already being built.

To find new ways to build in the stultifying heat of the desert, we studied the way animals adapt to and exploit their environment. Just as penguins huddle together for warmth in the Arctic, so camels huddle to create shade in the desert. In Masdar City, tall buildings will crowd together to provide shade in narrow walkways, opening into courtyards with fountains.

In my spare time, I cycle, ski and pilot gliders. I need the silence – not to escape, but to reflect, think through solutions. Occasionally when flying I’ve found myself sharing airspace and thermals with birds. These creatures – displaying superior intelligence to the metal-encased human – achieve astonishing flight with minimal energy and effort. Similarly, Masdar City’s wind towers capture air currents high above, bringing cool breezes into the city. The temperature is 37°C, as opposed to 57°C in downtown Abu Dhabi.

Energy is provided by solar-cell panels. In most Middle Eastern countries, massive electricity bills are run up by air conditioning, but Masdar is efficient enough to be able to sell its surplus electricity to the Abu Dhabi grid. Water and waste are recycled.

Masdar City is an experiment and in its early stages – building only began four years ago. A hundred students are studying at the university so far; there will be 800 when it is finished in 2018.

I know, of course, that this futuristic vision is not one that chimes with British tastes. Surveys often show people would prefer a detached house with a lawn and driveway to an apartment.

I understand this. It’s not my place to presume to tell people where they can live. But perhaps that dream will simply not be possible in the future. We have taken up too many green spaces already. The countryside must remain sacrosanct and open to all.
When talking about the future city, it’s all too easy to speak only of China and India. There is good reason for that. Britain and the West are in danger of getting left behind.

Of course it is easier to build the perfect city if you start with a blank canvas like the desert of Abu Dhabi and have oil money to finance it. Cities like London have evolved over millennia and cannot be changed overnight.

When the Great Fire of London destroyed most of the medieval city in 1666, Christopher Wren was invited to design a new one. Within days he had drawn up an elegant grid of broad boulevards leading to majestic squares, but it came to nothing – the existing landowners wanted things as they had been.

But in China if something is needed, it happens. The emerging nations are thinking big, taking the initiative. Businessmen and politicians act as one to get things done, as they once did in Manchester. Getting a project of national importance built in Britain requires time and inordinate amounts of patience. Worse, while we usually know what the outcome will be when we start out, it still takes years for an airport extension or a nuclear power station to be approved by public inquiry.

Did you know London is the only big city in the world that allows to planes fly right over the centre?

It infuriates people day and night. If a Chinese planner had been in charge of London, a new 21st-century airport would have been designed, approved and built in the Thames estuary by now. London’s current airport, Heathrow, would have been consigned to aviation history, perhaps becoming a new housing or a retail hub. Or, better still, a park.

‘How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?’, a documentary on Norman Foster, is released on Jan 28

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Nanocomposite magnet materials

There's no question that some renewable energy technologies like wind turbines are very dependent upon rare earth elements - many of which are concentrated in a few geographic locations, China being one of them. This fact creates both political and enviornmental dilemmas for nations like the U.S.

Expanding the renewable energy sector means mining more and more of these rare earths. That is environmentally unsound. Their rarity suggests their availability is problematic and that they will inevitably become more expensive. The geographic distribution of these materials makes their availability politically uncertain as well. (GW)

New Magnets Could Solve Our Rare-Earth Problems

Researchers are working on composites that would make strong magnets that need less of the hard-to-get ingredients.

By Katherine Bourzac
Technology Review
January 20, 2011

Stronger, lighter magnets could enter the market in the next few years, making more efficient car engines and wind turbines possible. Researchers need the new materials because today's best magnets use rare-earth metals, whose supply is becoming unreliable even as demand grows.

So researchers are now working on new types of nanostructured magnets that would use smaller amounts of rare-earth metals than standard magnets. Many hurdles remain, but GE Global Research hopes to demonstrate new magnet materials within the next two years.

The strongest magnets rely on an alloy of the rare-earth metal neodymium that also includes iron and boron. Magnet makers sometimes add other rare-earth metals, including dysprosium and terbium, to these magnets to improve their properties. Supplies of all three of these rare earths are at risk because of increasing demand and the possibility that China, which produces most of them, will restrict exports.

However, it's not clear if the new magnets will get to market before the demand for rare-earth metals exceeds the supply. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that worldwide production of neodymium oxide, a key ingredient in magnets, will total 30,657 tons in 2015. In one of the DOE's projected scenarios, demand for that metal will be a bit higher than that number in 2015. The DOE's scenarios involve some guesswork, but the most conservative estimate has demand for neodymium exceeding supply by about 2020.

"A lot of the story about rare earths has focused around China and mining," says Steven Duclos, manager of material sustainability at GE Global Research. "We believe technology can play a role in addressing this." The DOE is funding GE's magnet project, and one led by researchers at the University of Delaware, through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, which fosters research into disruptive technology.

Coming up with new magnet materials is not easy, says George Hadjipanayis, chair of the physics and astronomy department at the University of Delaware. Hadjipanayis was involved in the development of neodymium magnets in the 1980s while working at Kollmorgen. "At that time, maybe we all got lucky," he says of the initial development of neodymium magnets. The way researchers made new magnets in the past was to crystallize alloys and look for new forms with better properties. This approach won't work going forward. "Neodymium magnet performance has plateaued," says Frank Johnson, who heads GE's magnet research program. Hadjipanayis agrees. "The hope now is nanocomposites," he says.

Nanocomposite magnet materials are made up of nanoparticles of the metals that are found in today's magnetic alloys. These composites have, for example, neodymium-based nanoparticles mixed with iron-based nanoparticles. These nanostructured regions in the magnet interact in a way that leads to greater magnetic properties than those found in conventional magnetic alloys.

The advantage of nanocomposites for magnets is twofold: nanocomposites promise to be stronger than other magnets of similar weight, and they should use less rare-earth metals. What enables better magnetic properties in these nanocomposites is a property called exchange coupling. The physics are complex, but coupling between different nanoparticles in the composite leads to overall magnetic properties that are greater than the sum of the parts.

Exchange coupling can't happen in pure magnet materials, but emerges in composites made of mixtures of nanoparticles of the same metals that are used to make conventional magnets. "The advantage of stronger magnets is that the machines you put them in can be smaller and lighter," says Johnson.

GE would not disclose which materials it's using to make the magnets, or what its manufacturing methods would be, but Johnson says the company will rely on techniques it has developed to work with other metals. The main problem the company faces, says Johnson, is scaling up production to make large magnets—so far it's only been possible to make thin films of the nanocomposites. The company has about $2.25 million in funding from ARPA-E.

Hadjipanayis reports his group, a multi-institute consortium, has received nearly $4.5 million in ARPA-E funding. It's possible to make the necessary nanoparticles in small quantities in the lab, but scaling up will be difficult. "They're very reactive materials," he says.

The group is experimenting with a wide range of different types of nanoparticles, including combinations of neodymium-based nanoparticles with iron-cobalt nanoparticles. Another challenge is assembling the nanoparticles in a mixture that ensures they have enough contact with each other to get exchange coupling. "It's one step at a time," says Hadjipanayis.

Copyright Technology Review 2011.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Is there a future for eco-cities?

There's a lot riding on us figuring out how to make cities sustainable. Most of the world's people live in cities. Even if you don't live in one, your quality of life is directly connected to society's rapid evolution towards urbanization. Your children and grandchildren will be influenced by the development of the world's cities to much greater degree.

William Pentland provides a summary of a Harvard Business School assessment of the progress being made to develop so-called eco-systems around the world. (GW)

The Rise (and Demise) of Earth’s Eco-Cities

By William Pentland
Forbes Clean Beta
Jan. 21 2011

In 2008, the Ecocity World Summit convened in San Francisco to prescribe the “eco-city” concept as the anti-dote to the escalating threats of resource scarcity, climate change and the massive urbanization predicted to occur over the next Century. The Summit organizers made the following declaration: ”Into the deep future, the cities in which we live must enable people to thrive in harmony with nature and achieve sustainable development . . . Cities, towns and villages should be designed to enhance the health and quality of life of their inhabitants and maintain the ecosystems on which they depend.”

The “eco-city” was supposed to combine the principles of green building and the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to reduce – and potentially eliminate – the adverse impact cities have historically had on the natural environment. In “Sustainable Cities: Oxymoron or The Shape of the Future?,” Annissa Alusi, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, reviews the origins and outcomes (thus far) of the first generation of “eco-city” projects being pursued around the world. The findings are mixed and include the following snapshots.

Dongtan City – Chongming Island, China
In 2005, the Shanghai Municipal government gave a tract of land on Chongming Island to the Shanghai Industrial Investment Company (SIIC), China’s state-run investment arm. Chongming Island is situated about nine miles from Shanghai’s financial district and covers nearly 33 square miles—an area about three-quarters the size of Manhattan. The government instructed SIIC to develop a plan for the land, thus beginning the project of Dongtan City. The original stated goal for Dongtan was to be a “renewably powered, car-free, water recycling” city which could serve as a sustainable city model for the world, housing 25,000 residents by the 2010 Shanghai World Expo and 500,000 by 2050. According to SIIC, the broader idea was “to skip traditional industrialization in favor of ecological modernism.”

As of 2010, implementation of Arup’s master-plan seemed to be on hold. Peter Head, a key project leader from Arup, said in an interview that to his knowledge, the plans were indefinitely on hold and that SIIC had not informed Arup of the reasons for this. Chen Lianglu, a Communist Party leader in Shanghai, who played a large role in procuring the Chongming Island land for development by SIIC, was arrested for fraud in 2006, which could have and created political tension that may have helped derail the project timeline.

Sitra Low2No – Helsinki, Finland
Low2No plans to be a mixed-use eco-development in Helsinki, Finland about the size of a large city block. In 2006, a master plan for the redevelopment of Jätkäsaari, an industrial port area, was approved, and the Low2No site is planned to lie within this region. Low2No aims to create a successful prototype of a low- to no-carbon district. The project intends to “spur innovation in the field of energy efficiency and sustainable development.”

The Low2No development’s primary goal is to galvanize sustainable development in Finland by pioneering new financial policies to make low carbon ventures economically viable. The development’s leaders hope this will encourage other developers to tackle similar projects in the future. Finland aims to complete 10 successful low or zero-carbon developments similar to Low2No in the five years after Low2No is complete.

Masdar City – Masdar, Abu Dhabi
The government of Abu Dhabi began one of the most famous— and most widely criticized—eco-city projects to date in a desert 17 miles from Abu Dhabi. Called “Masdar City” or just Masdar, the two-square-mile city was designed to house 47,000 people and 1,500 businesses, with a $22 billion price tag and a projected completion date of 2016. The government announced that the city would be zero-carbon, powered entirely by renewable energy, car-free, and produce net-zero waste. Abu Dhabi also accepted an offer to host the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency, mandated to “facilitate widespread renewable energy development and expansion,” within Masdar City.

The project began to face difficulties in 2010, and its leaders backtracked on many of their initial goals. After pushing back the original construction finish date from 2016 to 2020 in March 2010, project leaders admitted that the city would need to import much of its electricity and that plans for electric transport pods (part of a personal rapid transit system) would not be feasible citywide. Several CEOs and directors of various aspects of the initiative resigned or were fired. In July 2010, ADFEC CEO Sultan al-Jaber announced that Masdar City would not be scaled back, but some industry observers believed the initiative would release a revised master plan.

PlanIT Valley – Paredes, Portugal
PlanIT Valley is a prototype smart city being planned for a site in the municipality of Paredes, about ten miles from downtown Porto, Portugal, by a start-up high technology company called Living PlanIT. In 2008, the company acquired the right to purchase 4,200 acres from the municipal government of Paredes as the site for PlanIT Valley. The anticipated completion date is 2015, by which time the city plans to accommodate around 150,000 residents. PlanIT Valley was designed as a research-focused city in which Living PlanIT and its partner companies would base research and development operations to test new technologies and services for sustainable urban development. According to Living PlanIT, the city was designed to be the world’s first “living laboratory of sustainability.”

The company’s founders, Steve Lewis and Malcolm Hutchinson, are former software executives who bring a unique technology perspective to the business of developing cities, and are focusing on the development of what they call an “Urban Operating System,” which will function as the city’s central “brain” by leveraging vast amounts of information gathered from urban systems.

Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City – Tianjin, China
In 2007, only a few years after announcing the Dongtan project, the Chinese government made plans for another eco-city, Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. The site is located about 25 miles from the Tianjin city center, 95 miles southeast from Beijing, and less than a ten-minute drive to the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA). The eco-city’s mission revolves around “Three Abilities” (Practicability, Scalability, and Replicability) and “Three Harmonies” (harmony with economic development, harmony with the environment, and harmony with society) and six dimensions – intelligent city, clean water, ecology, clean environment, clean energy, and green building. The Tianjin Eco-City project is continuing to sign tenants and expects its first wave of residents in 2011.

Meixi Lake District – Changsha, China
Changsha is a booming city of over 65 million residents. In February 2009, Changsha Municipal People’s Government of Hunan Province and real estate developer Gale International agreed to develop an eco-city called Meixi Lake District in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in south-central China.

According to Kohn Pedersen Fox, the city’s designer, Meixi Lake proposes to offer “a new model for the future of the Chinese city.” It plans to focus on combining the features of a metropolis and a natural setting, and plans to feature innovative transport networks, a smart grid, urban agriculture, and waste energy recovery. Meixi Lake District is expected to eventually house 180,000 residents and to cover 1,675 acres. The project, in early planning stages, is expected to be completed in 2020.

New Songdo City – Songdo Island, South Korea
Plans for New Songdo City, located on a man-made island about 40 miles from Seoul, South Korea, began in 2000. The city has an anticipated population of 430,000 by 2014. The overall development goal of the 1,500-acre city is “Compact, Smart and Green.” In a nod toward sustainable design, the city’s carbon goal is to emit only one-third the greenhouse gases of a similarly-sized city, with plans for green homes and commercial buildings developed by GE Korea. The city lies within the Incheon Free Economic Zone, so to attract businesses and foreign investment, and aims to “position South Korea as the commercial epicenter of Northeast Asia.”

As of 2009, 60,000 residents and 418 companies and research centers had either relocated to New Songdo or announced plans to do so, and by 2014 the second phase of development should be completed. The city plans to include 10 foreign universities, eight Korean universities, four international schools, and 17 theaters, at some point in the future.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Easier clean than green

Yesterday's post focused on the likelihood (actually lack thereof) of the New Congress passing legislation to address climate change. Well, chances are even slimmer that this body will warm to the idea of passing a national renewable energy standard. Even changing the wording from "renewable" to "clean" to allow for the inclusion of nuclear, coal/carbon sequestration and (possibly) natural gas doesn't improve the odds significantly.

Then again, similar to the climate bill that came close to passage last year - a highly
water-downed compromised, piece of legislation than basically renders the term "clean" meaningless might be worse than none at all. (GW)

Buzz builds for 'clean energy' standard, but passage won't be easy

By Anne C. Mulkern
Environment & Energy Daily
January 19, 2011

Legislation advancing clean energy at first glance seems like a palatable option for a divided Congress, a kind of combination plate enticing lawmakers with varied morsels.

Key lawmakers from both parties praise the idea and lobbying efforts are starting. But the clean energy proposals now gaining buzz could be too ambitious for this Congress to stomach.

"Reports of a clean energy standard's life are greatly exaggerated right now," said Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at Center for American Progress Action Fund, the advocacy arm of the liberal think tank. "There's a long way to go before we'll see any movement on this."

A clean energy standard, or CES, would require utilities to generate a portion of power from sources that emit less carbon pollution like solar and wind but, also nuclear, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, and possibly natural gas. It would expand on the renewables-only mandates that failed to pass the last Congress.

In the first month of Congress "clean energy" has received bipartisan blessings.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said that he plans to offer a CES bill. The Republican plans to talk with Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who has shown interest in working on a measure. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) also has expressed interest in teaming up on a CES. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said last month that he would like to work on the policy (E&ENews PM, Jan. 5).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday said that creating "good-paying clean energy jobs" in his home state topped his list of legislative priorities. Reid wants to boost renewable energy and clean water and transportation infrastructure in Nevada (E&E Daily, Jan.19).

There is also support outside of Congress.

Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, last week issued a proposal for a CES, saying such a measure was needed to "provide the certainty businesses have asked for and incorporate national energy goals into policy" (Greenwire, Jan. 11).

Center for American Progress has said it is working on a pitch for a CES (Greenwire, Jan. 7).

But passing a bill likely will be very difficult, analysts and political consultants said. To attract Republican votes, they said, any energy mandate needs to include nuclear power and coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as options, the very elements likely to repel some Democrats.

If natural gas is included in a CES, the measure would push utilities away from coal, analysts said. Coal has strong backing in both the House and Senate.

"All these fuels have their supporters," said Reid Detchon, vice president at the United Nations Foundation's Energy Future Coalition. "They all have enough votes to block something they don't like. None of them have enough votes to pass something that benefits them at the expense of the others."

Battles could erupt over whether a CES bill should block U.S. EPA from regulating the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, a move many Republicans and businesses want but that some Democrats and environmentalists oppose.

There are also some issues about whether House Republicans will back any government mandate and how to fund incentives. Many Republicans and conservative Democrats want to pare government spending.

Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and commerce Committee, likely would need to back CES for it to move forward in that chamber. A CES that imposes a fuel choice requirement on utilities could have a tough time winning his approval.

"It is not Congress' job to pick winners and losers. Any new mandates that increase costs or threaten jobs in this economy will be rejected," Upton spokesman Sean Bonyun said. "Rather than shutting plants down through onerous government regulations, we should be working to bring more power online and keep energy costs low for consumers."

Upton, Bonyun said, "is committed to an 'all of the above' approach that fortifies not only our nation's energy security, but our job security as well."

Though a clean energy standard might be a tough political sell, it is worth pursuing, said Joshua Freed, Third Way's director of the Clean Energy Initiative.

"Today it's difficult to see a path for it passing, but it's extremely early in the session and we don't know the real politics and the coalitions that are going to emerge," Freed said. "We are very realistic about our expectations."

"Politics is about the art of the possible," Freed added. "Our goal is to capture imaginations and show that this is something that is possible."

For CES to win passage, House Republicans need to see it as helpful both to nuclear and to the economy, Freed said. "A Republican champion needs to emerge in the House."

What is clean?

One of the thorniest issues in assembling a CES could be deciding what is "clean."

Nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration are needed to attract Republicans, said Frank Maisano, energy expert at the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm.

"You don't have a CES from a Republican standpoint unless you have nuclear in it and probably some sort of acknowledgement of clean coal," Maisano said. Those elements also could bring in coal-supporting Democrats like Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Maisano said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful lobbying group, said that the CES would offer more options for compliance than renewable energy standard proposals last session.

"From our perspective it's encouraging that it has sort of moved toward that because the CES is a broader standard," said Matt Letourneau, director of communications for the U.S. Chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy. "What we're looking for is the broadest array of energy sources that reflect the geographical diversity that our country has."

But inclusion of nuclear and some coal would alienate some environmental groups that are key Democratic supporters. Some of those groups vowed to combat CES passage if the bill includes those elements.

"As an environmental group we don't have the luxury of being one-dimensional about what is clean energy or not," said Dave Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs at the Sierra Club. "We still don't believe that nuclear or CCS can pass muster as clean energy."

There are significant environmental costs with coal, Hamilton said, such as the practice of blasting away mountaintops to reach the fuel.

The League of Conservation Voters and Environment America also disagree with calling nuclear and CCS "clean."

"We're definitely fighting against those pieces being part of an energy standard that moves forward this Congress, said Sara Chieffo, LCV's deputy and legislative director.

Some environmental groups also are concerned that some lawmakers might want a federal CES to cancel out state rules with stronger renewable energy mandates. And if a CES included language to block EPA, stopping it "would be our top priority," said Sean Garren, clean energy advocate with Environment America, a federation of state-based environmental advocacy groups.

Other more conservative environmental groups, however, support some of the concepts that could be in a CES, including expansion of nuclear.

"What we need to do ultimately to address climate change is take advantage of every low emission source that's feasible to us," said Tony Kreindler, Environmental Defense Fund's national media director for climate. "Nuclear's certainly an option. There are challenges in the economics. There are challenges in safety. If those can be addressed, we think it's a viable option."

Freed believes environmental groups that oppose the idea of a CES might in the end support a bill if one moves forward, Freed said.

"It's going to be hard for advocates in clean energy to kill the first major victory in environment and energy we've had the potential to have in several years," Freed said.

High costs

Cost concerns also will be hard to surmount.

New nuclear reactors run $7 billion to $9 billion each and CCS is not yet economically viable. So while a CES bill might give power generators a wider choice of energy sources than a renewables-only mandate, some of the choices are not really feasible, said one utility industry expert who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely.

"Are the options reasonable and achievable?" the industry expert said. "That's what we're going to have to look at very carefully."

No CES bill has been offered this session, but if the legislation looks similar to bills introduced last session, it could be problematic, the industry person said.

"The primary concern that we would have is that something along those lines would really burden customers with higher utility rates," the expert said. A mandate could function as a kind of "utility tax," he said.

Letourneau with the U.S. Chamber's energy institute also voiced caution on spending.

"There's a general concern in the business community about our overall financial picture," Letourneau said. "Clearly our deficit is growing at an alarming rate."

That does not mean, however, that the trade group "wouldn't support subsidies that make sense," Letourneau said.

Some experts do not see the money problems as insurmountable.

Nuclear is expensive to build, but after that the fuel is very low-cost, Maisano said.

"Once you have a fixed asset, you have a fixed asset," Maisano said, adding that nuclear does not "have the volatility of a [natural] gas or a coal price."

There are loan guarantee programs in place to help nuclear plant developers, Third Way's Freed said. And once a few plants have been built, he said, economies of scale will help drive down costs.

"We need to start building them again," Freed said. "That's part of the challenge."

But to others, the problems with a CES will be too hard to overcome in this Congress.

"There are so many questions that are opened by this that have to be answered in a policy climate that's going to be very, very difficult to get anything done," said Sierra Club's Hamilton. "You would have to thread about 40 needles to get this done."