Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hydrogen roadblock

Some pretty knowledgeable folks at MIT and elsewhere have done the math and conclude that the hydrogen car may not be part of the climate change solution. In fact, after examining the sleek Hydrogen 7 sedan manufactured by BMW, one expert says that after factoring in the energy required to produce the hydrogen fuel, these vehicles will end up emitting more carbon dioxide than convention internal combustion engines.

There really are no free lunches. Many believe that the vast (and as yet untapped) U.S. offshore wind energy resource could help power a new generation of automobiles that would run on wind-produced hydrogen and electricity. (GW)

Hell and Hydrogen

By David Talbot
Technology Review
March/April 2007

No matter how well they're engineered, hydrogen cars offer no real answer to the imminent threats posed by global warming.

By the time Klaus Draeger, BMW's manager of research and development, took the microphone at a Berlin hotel last fall, the assembled journalists' bellies were full of mint juleps--and it all started to make sense. Maybe the world's oil crisis and the threat of climate change could be sensibly addressed by using hydrogen as a transportation fuel. Draeger sketched the alluring vision of a future in which high-performance luxury cars burn hydrogen and emit mostly water vapor. The hydrogen could someday be provided by renewable sources of energy, he said, and nobody would have to make any sacrifices. And we journalists would get to drive the first such cars the following day.

"You'll be pioneers! You will be sitting at the wheel of the Hydrogen 7, driving through Berlin and the country­side. And for the first time, you will drive this hydrogen-powered luxury saloon," Draeger exclaimed, using the Britishism for "sedan." BMW will lend 100 of these cars to yet-unnamed public figures as part of its global clean-energy promotional campaign. In some ways, the campaign resembles GM's effort to tout its own hydrogen-car program. GM's focus is on a futuristic fuel-cell car. The BMW version uses internal combustion: it burns hydrogen rather than skimming off its electrons. Same message, though: hydrogen is the answer.

"Experts will tell you that hydrogen has the biggest possibility to replace fossil fuels," Draeger explained, as the wine flowed. "Please see the Hydrogen 7 as an offer. We can only make this car a reality with our partners in political science, the world of business, the energy industry." He concluded with an appeal to "politicians the world over" to make the production, delivery, and storage of clean hydrogen affordable.

The next day, I got a look at the Hydrogen 7. From the outside it looked like a normal BMW four-door luxury sedan. I opened the trunk and marveled at the heavy steel tank that held liquid hydrogen at -253 ºC. While driving, I touched a button on the steering wheel to switch from gasoline to ­hydrogen; I noted no hiccup, just a higher-pitched engine noise. The car is very nice. But does it make environmental sense?

The simple answer is no. In the context of the overall energy economy, a car like the Hydrogen 7 would proba­bly produce far more carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline-powered cars available today. And changing this calculation would take multiple breakthroughs--which study after study has predicted will take decades, if they arrive at all. In fact, the Hydrogen 7 and its hydrogen-fuel-cell cousins are, in many ways, simply flashy distractions produced by automakers who should be taking stronger immediate action to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions of their cars. As of 2003, transportation emissions accounted for one-third of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

Nobody has made this point more clearly than Joseph Romm does in Hell and High Water. Romm is an MIT-trained physicist who managed energy-efficiency programs in the U.S. Department of Energy during President Clinton's administration and now runs a consultancy called the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions. His book provides an accurate summary of what is known about global warming and climate change, a sensible agenda for technology and policy, and a primer on how political disinformation has undermined climate science. In his view, the rhetoric of "technology breakthroughs"--including the emphasis by President Bush and some in the auto industry on a future hydrogen economy--provides little more than official cover for near-term inaction.

Romm reminds us of the growing scientific consensus: we must quickly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Therefore, Romm argues, the job of political leaders is clear. Among other things, they must rapidly adopt tighter efficiency standards for homes, offices, and industry; mandate strict increases in automobile fuel economy, which means widespread adoption of ultra-efficient cars, including hybrids; and build as many wind and solar plants as possible, while cautiously expanding nuclear power. Romm even argues that we could cut nationwide carbon dioxide emissions by two-thirds without increasing anyone's annual electric bill. He cites California's three-decade record of aggressive investment in cleaner energy technologies and energy-efficiency programs. When these investments are amortized, costs stay flat while power consumption and carbon dioxide emissions plunge. Today, Romm writes, a Californian has an electric bill no larger than the average American's but generates just one-third the carbon dioxide.

The reason hydrogen-powered cars would produce more carbon dioxide emissions than regular cars starts with the fact that it takes energy to create hydrogen. One way to produce hydrogen is to extract it directly from fossil fuels; indeed, a 2004 National Academy of Sciences study predicted that fossil fuels would be the main source of hydrogen for "several decades." The other way is to split water molecules using electricity. Naturally, BMW talks up this approach, envisioning electricity that would ultimately be supplied by renewable sources. BMW brochures feature the Hydrogen 7 parked in front of wind turbines and shiny photovoltaic arrays. But renewable sources furnish only 2 percent of the world's electricity (not counting hydropower's 16 percent). Coal, by contrast, supplies 39 percent--and is the worst emitter of carbon dioxide, watt for watt. Clearly, a great use for renewable power is to replace coal power. But is it worthwhile to divert even a small part of it to the task of manufacturing hydrogen?

According to Romm's analysis, the math for hydrogen cars simply doesn't work out. Burning coal to generate one megawatt-hour of electricity produces about 2,100 pounds of carbon dioxide. It follows that one megawatt-hour of renewable power can avert those emissions. Using that electricity to make hydrogen would yield enough fuel for a fuel-cell car to travel about 1,000 miles, Romm says. But driving those 1,000 miles in a gasoline-­powered car that gets 40 miles per gallon would produce just 485 pounds of carbon dioxide. In this sense, Romm says, a vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells would indirectly create four times the carbon dioxide emissions of today's most efficient gasoline cars.

And the numbers for the Hydrogen 7 are worse, because it burns hydrogen. Combustion produces thrilling torque, but it's far less efficient than fuel-cell technology. Also counting against the Hydrogen 7 is the fact that it stores hydrogen as a liquid; chilling hydrogen and compressing it into liquid form consumes more energy than storing it as a compressed gas. "It's safe to say this is a pointless activity," Romm says. "BMW has managed to develop the least efficient conceivable vehicle that you could invent."

BMW's new car is a marvelous piece of engineering. But it is also a distraction from the real issues: we must burn less fossil fuel and reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions today. Innovative automakers like BMW should turn their remarkable skills to making cars that are more efficient--such as BMW's new 118d economy hatchback, which on average gets 50 miles to the gallon. But the Hydrogen 7 is hardly the "new standard of sustainable pollutant-free mobility" that BMW proclaims. Draeger's offer is one we would be wise to refuse.

Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
By Joseph J. Romm

Friday, March 30, 2007

Where the politics of food and fuel converge

Fidel Castro, now 80 years old and recovering from intestinal surgery appears to be regaining his health and with it, a new supply of vim and vinegar. He is apparently energized by the opportunity to take the U.S. to task over one aspect of its energy policy and one of President George W. Bush's pet projects -- biofuels.

Politics aside, President Castro does raise interesting questions Moreover, he can does so with some sense of authority. In its 2006
"Living Planet Report", the World Wildlife Fund concluded that Cuba was the only nation in the world to have achieved sustainable development. The country's success in promoting widespread sustainable agriculture (including urban agriculture) was a major factor contributing to its sustainable designation.(GW)

Castro Criticizes U.S. Biofuel Policies

By Anita Snow
March 29, 2007

Havana, Cuba (AP)

Fidel Castro lashes out against U.S. biofuel plans in an op-ed piece published Thursday, a sign Cuba's 80-year-old leader may be taking a more active role in public affairs after months sidelined by a still undisclosed illness.

The article is written in the same kind of apocalyptic style Castro typically adopts when discussing the impact of U.S. international policies on developing nations, and there was no reason to doubt he was the author.

President Bush's support for using crops to produce ethanol for cars could deplete food stocks in developing nations, the article in the Communist Party daily Granma asserts.

The headline reads: "Condemned to Premature Death by Hunger and Thirst more than 3 Billion People of the World."

"This isn't an exaggerated number; it is actually cautious," says the article distributed by e-mail early Thursday to international correspondents by foreign ministry officials.

As in some shorter messages signed by Castro in the eight months since he fell ill, the piece does not seem aimed at dispelling rumors about his health, but rather at drawing attention to his stand on world affairs.

It was unclear what the message means in terms of Castro's future role in domestic affairs.

In recent weeks, Bolivian President Evo Morales and several senior Cuban officials have indicated that Castro could soon take a more active role in public affairs and may even return to the presidency.

Castro temporarily ceded power to his younger brother Raul, the 75-year-old defense minister, on July 31 after announcing he had undergone intestinal surgery. He has not appeared in public since.

Morales recently said from Bolivia that he expects to see Castro in public on April 28 during a meeting in Havana with presidents celebrating a regional trade and cooperation pact.

Castro's condition and his exact ailment are a state secret but he is widely believed to suffer from diverticular disease, which causes a weakening in the walls of the colon.

His older brother Ramon Castro told reporters Wednesday that Fidel was doing very well but dodged questions about whether he would soon appear in public. "He's in one piece," Ramon Castro, 82, said of Fidel as he toured a cattlemen's fair and rodeo. "These Castros are strong!"

In his Thursday article, Fidel Castro quotes extensively from a Washington-datelined story by The Associated Press reporting on a meeting Monday between Bush and U.S. automakers and their comments about using corn to create ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels.

"The sinister idea of converting food into combustible was definitively established as the economic line of the foreign policy of the United States," he writes.

The Cuban leader notes that Cuba has also experimented with extracting ethanol from sugarcane.

But if rich nations decide to import huge amounts of traditional food crops such as corn from developing countries to help meet their energy needs, it could have disastrous consequences for the world's poor, Castro writes.

"Apply this recipe to the countries of the Third World and you will see how many people among the hungry masses of our planet will no longer consume corn," the article said. "Or even worse: by offering financing to poor countries to produce ethanol from corn or any other kind of food no tree will be left to defend humanity from climate change."

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reinventing sustainable development

A lot of folks seem puzzled by what the concept of sustainable development really means. You can probably chalk it up to naiveté, but the idea always seemed to make sense to me. Everything I understood about our planet Earth suggests to me that it has been sustainably developing for over four billion years -- primarily utilizing the energy from the sun and moon (radiation and gravity) to maintain the conditions necessary for life. Ecosystems evolve, individual species come and go, but the overall integrity of the planet has been preserved. Through it all, the Earth has not really increased in size. Sustainable growth is not a viable concept. It has, however developed -- rearranging its subsystems, continuously creating opportunities for new life forms to emerge and evolve. A mega-system replete with feedback loops, competition and symbiotic relationships.

Humans have the potential to consciously design and implement sustainable develop strategies capable of maintaining the conditions necessary for our coexistence with our fellow passengers aboard Spaceship Earth and to do so in ways that improve the quality of life for all humanity without compromising Nature's life-supporting infrastructure. Just like our home planet, it has to be an evolving, dynamic process.

This, for me, is a source of optimism. (GW)

A German vision: greening globalization

By Ehsan Masood
Open Democracy
March 28, 2007

A plan to link climate-change policy with biodiversity loss renews the twenty-year-old idea of sustainable development

There are many obvious ways to measure the strengths and weaknesses of the European project, whose fiftieth anniversary was marked in the European Union's weekend gathering in Berlin on 24-25 March 2007. A less familiar indicator of progress is that each of the continent's "big three" leaders can afford to see Europe's achievement also as a springboard to address major global problems: principally the most urgent one of all - saving the world from environmental loss.

In Britain, Tony Blair's government published a draft climate-change bill on 13 March which plans to set legally-binding targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 60% below 1990 levels, before 2050. This is easily the world's most ambitious individual national commitment to tackle global warming. It comes after the influential Stern report on the economics of climate change (published on 30 October 2006) which predicted that the costs of combatting global warming would be less than the damage to world economies of doing little or doing nothing to slow it down. The Stern report in turn followed Blair's commitment to make climate change (along with development in Africa) the centrepiece of Britain's presidency of the G8 group of nations in 2005.

In France, Jacques Chirac announced in 2005 that France would back a proposed international scientific panel on biodiversity. There were and are good reasons for this. The rate of decline in species numbers is the highest it has been since the last (fifth) great extinction, and is up to a thousand times the natural, background rate of extinction. Some scientists believe that we may well be on the way to a sixth extinction, and that and it is our modern industrialised life that is among the major causes. Species are threatened every time we clear land for development, or for agriculture, and when we use chemicals in the environment.

What the soon-departed Chirac wants is a periodic scientific assessment of biodiversity to help politicians understand why halting biodiversity loss is just as important as slowing down global warming. His model of a scientific panel on biodiversity is the existing group of experts known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose reports have helped to catalyse world action on global warming. There does exist a United Nations target to slow down the decline in biodiversity before 2010, but it commands nowhere near as much public or political awareness as, say, the Kyoto protocol.

In Germany, Angela Merkel has taken the lead in mapping a way ahead that matches and even exceeds the ambition of her European Union partners. Indeed, Germany was among the first countries to back the Chirac proposal; Britain, initially sceptical, is now supportive (as is another who formerly expressed doubts, Robert Watson, chief scientist at the World Bank and former chair of the IPCC.

The chancellor and current president of the G8 - herself a scientist and former research minister under her mentor Helmut Kohl - leads a government that hosted a two-day meeting of environment ministers of the G8 countries and the five major newly industrialising countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) on 15-17 March. This concluded with a plan to commission a review (on the Stern model) on the economics of biodiversity. The report will assess the monetary value of individual species and ecological systems such as forests, and then compare this with how much it would cost to replace the free services these species and systems provide to humans, if we had to replace them.

France and Britain's bold leadership is both welcome in itself and perhaps reflects the desire of the respective, retiring political figureheads to burnish their inevitably mixed legacies. Yet it could well turn out that the smartest proposal of the three is Germany's. Aside from the plan for a Stern-like review for biodiversity, Germany has also decided to connect biodiversity and climate change as among the priorities for its G8 presidency, whose high point is the summit in the Baltic resort of Heiligendamm on 6-8 June 2007. What is smart about this is that Germany seems alone among the three in realising that in the long run climate change can only be successfully tackled by also thinking about how to halt biodiversity loss.

Britain's climate-change proposals are an example. One of the ways in which the government wants to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is to convert more land for growing the kinds of plants that could be converted into fuels (known as biofuels). This may well contribute to success in reaching a climate-change target - though not if forests in developing countries are to be converted for the purpose. Africa is already losing its forests at a faster rate than in any other continent, according to a report published on 13 March by the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organisation. 16% of the world's forests are in Africa, but the continent represented 50% of forests cut down between 1990 and 2005.

The reinvention of sustainable development

Such depletion makes it essential to link thinking and policy on biodiversity and climate change - otherwise there is a risk of undermining efforts in either or both areas. "Global biodiversity policy is a fundamental component of economic policy", Germany's environment minister Sigmar Gabriel wrote in a BBC article on 9 March 2007. "We need a greening of globalisation."

Gabriel's call for a "green globalisation" is another, more elegant way of describing sustainable development, an idea that sadly seems to have gone out of fashion. As it happens, 2007 is the twentieth anniversary of its introduction into international politics. In April 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (led by Gro Harlem Brundtland) first gave public voice to the idea of economic development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Two further global summits (in 1992 and 2002) and much in the way of conferences, books, even supportive national and local legislation followed; but sustainable development has yet to move - as has happened with climate change - from the margins to the mainstream. It could be argued that the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, at which the UN climate convention was signed, helped to cement the current mould of thinking to regard climate change and biodiversity as separate and with no real mechanism for integration between the two.

There are other reasons for sustainable development's failure in practice, however. Some are set out in a paper - "A New Era in Sustainable Development" - published on 20 March by Steve Bass of the London-based think-tank, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Bass lists the inviolability of economic growth above peoples' rights, welfare or environmental processes; and related this to the fact that environmental destruction is never reflected in national accounting. That is to say, if (for example) a power-plant is built on an area formerly occupied by forest land, the power-plant will be seen as an economic gain, but at the same time the destruction of the forest and the subsequent loss of services provided through the forest (such as water purification, pollination, and soil fertility) will not be seen as the economic loss that it is.

Two other factors are important in explaining the failure of sustainability. First, it is a difficult concept to convey easily in the mass media and among politicians - it doesn't easily lend itself to snappy headlines, and doubts over its exact meaning can cause confusion (for example, sustainable development could just as easily be understood to mean "continuous economic development").

Second, sustainable development has not been adopted in a big way by any of the powerful global conservation groups whose decades-long advocacy on climate change has been central to projecting the issue to the top of the political agenda today. If, twenty years ago, they had adopted sustainable development in the same way, politicians and the media would by now have taken notice.

In their final months of office, both Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair have revealed elements of a genuine environmental vision. But by concentrating independently on climate change and biodiversity, there is a real risk that some good work may be abortive because of the inevitable competition for time, resources and political priorities. By bringing climate change and biodiversity into a common frame, Germany - assuming Angela Merkel's initiative is carried through, both at the G8 summit and at the EU summit on 21-22 June which consummates Germany's six-month presidency - may well succeed in shifting the international agenda in a progressive direction.

From the moment they take office, world leaders are in search of a legacy that will raise their status from evanescent politicians to more enduring (and legacy-leaving) statesmen. It is early days for Angela Merkel to be seeking a legacy; but green globalisation - or sustainable development - is a legacy that is looking for a leader.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The "nail house" against all odds

Courage can take on many forms. One of the most courageous act involves challenging the powers that be (including the reigning "conventional wisdom") and standing up for something you believe in. I witnessed how powerful that action can be during my years at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. That community's battle against racist policies designed to force them out of their neighborhood spawned countless heroes.

Among them, Che Madyun stood out by standing up and challenging a plan for rebuilding the Dudley Street community put forth by some of Boston's most powerful politicians and philanthropists. Following a presentation of their plan at a community meeting, Che looked the panel of experts in the eye during the question and answer session and asked a simple question that dramatically altered the history of the neighborhood: "How many of you live here?"

Today in China, another strong, defiant woman is raising eyebrows and generating headlines by defying authorities in a battle against enormous odds to protect her home. (GW)

Homeowner Stares Down Wreckers, at Least for a While

By Howard W. French
New York Times
March 26, 2007

CHONGQING, China, March 23 — For weeks the confrontation drew attention from people all across China, as a simple homeowner stared down the forces of large-scale redevelopment that are sweeping this country, blocking the preparation of a gigantic construction site by an act of sheer will.

Chinese bloggers were the first to spread the news, of a house perched atop a tall, thimble-shaped piece of land like Mont-Saint-Michel in northern France, in the middle of a vast excavation.

Newspapers dived in next, followed by national television. Then, in a way that is common in China whenever an event begins to take on hints of political overtones, the story virtually disappeared from the news media after the government, bloggers here said, decreed that the subject was suddenly out of bounds.

Still, the “nail house,” as many here have called it because of the homeowner’s tenacity, like a nail that cannot be pulled out, remains the most popular current topic among bloggers in China.

It has a universal resonance in a country where rich developers are seen to be in cahoots with politicians and where both enjoy unchallenged sway. Each year, China is roiled by tens of thousands of riots and demonstrations, and few issues pack as much emotional force as the discontent of people who are suddenly uprooted, told that they must make way for a new skyscraper or golf course or industrial zone.

What drove interest in the Chongqing case was the uncanny ability of the homeowner to hold out for so long. Stories are legion in Chinese cities of the arrest or even beating of people who protest too vigorously against their eviction and relocation. In one often-heard twist, holdouts are summoned to the local police station and return home only to find their house already demolished. How did this owner, a woman no less, manage? Millions wondered.

Part of the answer, which on meeting her takes only a moment to discover, is that Wu Ping is anything but an ordinary woman. With her dramatic lock of hair precisely combed and pinned in the back, a form-flattering bright red coat, high cheekbones and wide, excited eyes, the tall, 49-year-old restaurant entrepreneur knows how to attract attention — a potent weapon in China’s new media age, in which people try to use public opinion and appeals to the national image to influence the authorities.

“For over two years they haven’t allowed me access to my property,” said Ms. Wu, her arms flailing as she led a brisk walk through the Yangjiaping neighborhood here. It is an area in the throes of large-scale redevelopment, with broad avenues, big shopping malls and a recently built elevated monorail line, from whose platform nearly everyone stops to gawk at the nail house.

Within moments of her arrival at the locked gate of the excavated construction site, a crowd began to gather. The people, many of them workers with sunken cheeks, dressed in grimy clothes, regarded Ms. Wu with expressions of wonderment. Some of them exchanged stories about how they had been forced to relocate and soothed each other with comments about how it all could not be helped.

From inside the gates a government television crew began filming.

“If it were an ordinary person they would have hired thugs and beat her up,” murmured a woman dressed in a green sweater who was drawn by the throng. “Ordinary people don’t dare fight with the developers. They’re too strong.”

Earlier this month the National People’s Congress passed a historic law guaranteeing private property rights to China’s swelling ranks of urban middle-class homeowners, among others. Some here attributed Ms. Wu’s success to that, as well as her knack for generating publicity.

“In the past they would have just knocked it down,” said an 80-year-old woman who said she used to be a neighbor of Ms. Wu’s. “Now that’s forbidden, because Beijing has put out the word that these things should be done in a reasonable way.”

Between frenzied telephone calls to reporters and city officials, Ms. Wu, who stood at the center of the crowd with her brother, a 6-foot-3 decorative stone dealer who wore his brown hair in jheri curls, stated her case with a slightly different spin.

“I have more faith than others,” she began. “I believe that this is my legal property, and if I cannot protect my own rights, it makes a mockery of the property law just passed. In a democratic and lawful society a person has the legal right to manage one’s own property.”

Tian Yihang, a local college student, spoke glowingly of her in an interview at the monorail station. “This is a peculiar situation,” he said, with a bit of understatement. “I admire the owner for being so persistent in her principles. In China such things shock the common mind.”

Ms. Wu will in all likelihood lose her battle. Indeed, developers recently filed administrative motions to allow them to demolish her lonely building. Certainly the local authorities are eager to see the last of her.

“During the process of demolition, 280 households were all satisfied with their compensation and moved,” said Ren Zhongping, a city housing official. “Wu was the only one we had to dismantle forcibly. She has the value of her house in her heart, but what she has in mind is not practical. It’s far beyond the standards of compensation decided by owners of housing and the professional appraisal organ.”

With the street so choked with onlookers that traffic began to back up, Ms. Wu’s brother, Wu Jian, began waving a newspaper above the crowd, pointing to pictures of Ms. Wu’s husband, a local martial arts champion, who was scheduled to appear in a highly publicized tournament that evening. “He’s going into our building and will plant a flag there,” Mr. Wu announced.

Moments later, as the crowd began to thin, a Chinese flag appeared on the roof with a hand-painted banner that read: “A citizen’s legal property is not to be encroached on.”

Asked how his brother-in-law had managed to get inside the locked site and climb the escarpment on which the house is perched, he said with a wink, “Magic.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Revolution in the air and sea

Something truly revolutionary is taking place in the European Union and it is barely raising an eyebrow here in the United States. The planning and implementation of Airtricity's offshore wind-powered "Supergrid" is about as technologically bold a project as you're likely to find anywhere in the world. If it succeeds as planned it will demonstrate the viability and reliability of offshore wind. Moreover, it is proving to be a catalyst for an extraordinary level of international cooperation and coordination. I'm not sure if this proposal should be called revolutionary or disruptive.

Maybe it's both. (GW)

The European Offshore Supergrid: A Vision for Creating a More Powerful Europe

By Dr. Eddie O’Connor
WindTech International
January/February 2007

Airtricity is proposing the development of the Super grid. This project consists of a series of interconnected offshore wind farms throughout the seas of Europe. It would be commonly owned by all European states, with the wind farms dispersed across a wide geographic area, ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean and Atlantic. This broad arrangement could smooth out any intermittency of supply by capturing the wind and transmitting power from one end of the grid to the other to feed into national grids. In the event of the wind not blowing, it would also allow for the movement of brown (non-renewable) power, putting in place an infrastructure for an energy trading system. Super grid would be implemented in stages; the first being an offshore wind farm in the North Sea called the 10GW Foundation Project. It would demonstrate the project's feasibility by interconnecting the markets of the UK, the Netherlands and Germany and create economies of scale.

European fossil fuel supplies are diminishing and becoming concentrated in fewer locations. By 2025, all natural gas in Europe will be sourced in Russia and supplied through lines across the continent. According to the Stern Report, 65% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2000 were energy related. There is no unified European energy policy, only diffuse national policies.


These facts suggest broader energy-related problems for Europe: security of supply and climate change. Airtricity maintains that to obtain a sustainable future, Europe must improve in three areas: the decarbonisation of energy, securing control over its energy supply, and better interconnection between countries.

Supergrid is designed to maximize these three elements and create a situation whereby transcontinental energy policy can be better coordinated. Powered by wind, Supergrid would provide carbon-free energy. The wind belongs only to the countries over which it blows, thus the fuel would be entirely European. The project would interconnect all of the continent's energy markets.

Operating as a meshed system, it would allow for the transfer of energy between countries. Unified energy policy is difficult to enact without a physical infrastructure in place and the project aims to remedy this.


The Supergrid could serve as the base load for a carbon-free energy system. It would not be subject to traditional intermittency of supply issues. Located in the North Sea, the Baltic, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean, it would span a broad enough area that it would capture the wind off the shores of Europe. The European continent operates almost as a unified meteorological system. For every area of low pressure there is always a corresponding area of high pressure, sometimes hundreds of kilometers apart. Wind records of the last 40 years confirm this and show that some of the world's better wind resources reside offshore in Europe.

This resource could potentially be captured by a network across a large enough area. If sufficiently interconnected, it could permit the free movement of energy throughout Europe. The Supergrid is designed to achieve this outcome.


Supergrid requires a number of conditions for its implementation. The first, due to the international character of the project, is the cooperation of European governments, both national and supra national. There is a need to create a regulatory and political environment conducive to the development of offshore wind and increased interconnectivity between countries. Second, there is a need to work with like-minded and credible partners at each stage of the project's development. Airtricity already has ABB on board, and they will provide the transmission technology for the Supergrid.

Airtricity has a history of pursuing offshore projects in this vein, having worked with GE on its project near Arklow in Ireland and with Fluor on its upcoming Greater Gabbard project in the Thames Estuary. Airtricity intends to build the Supergrid in a staged process, the first being a demonstration stage aimed at proving the feasibility of the project. This is termed the lOGW Foundation Project.

The 10GW Foundation Proiect

The 10GW Foundation Project is an offshore wind farm that would be located in the North Sea, interconnecting the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. It would be the largest offshore wind park in the world, with each turbine capable of generating 5MW of electricity.

The turbines would be rooted to the sea floor with the transmission cabling running along the seabed. The project would link the markets of the three countries involved. It would not only demonstrate the feasibility of the Supergrid but it would give critical mass to the further development of core technologies and lead to economies of scale. The turbines would measure approximately 100 metres to the hub (above water) with a blade diameter of approximately 115 metres. The wind farm would have a capacity factor of 40%, which would increase once more stages of the Supergrid came on-line. This section of the project alone could provide power to 6.25 million homes and reduce carbon emissions by 30 million tonnes. Airtricity expects to begin construction in 2011 and to have the project operational by 2017.


The Supergrid is based on two technologies: offshore wind and ABB's HVDC (high voltage direct current) Light. Offshore wind is heading into its adolescence. Airtricity has built a wind farm near Arklow off the coast of Ireland, is intent on doing so in the Thames Estuary, and is developing two sites off the coast of the Netherlands and Germany.

The latter three sites will be large sites, in the region of 280-500MW, and present a stepping-stone to the Foundation Project. The transmission technology, HVDC Light, possesses enormous flexibility. It can operate in the meshed configuration required for the Supergrid so countries can trade power. It is thinner than conventional wiring, being only 95mm in width compared to traditional dimensions of 15-20cm. Once a network is created, power will always circulate on the grid. It will have a 'plug and play' aspect: it could accommodate other power sources without building an enormous supporting infrastructure.


The lOGW Foundation Project has an estimated cost of € 27.5 billion. This is calculated on the basis of a capital expenditure price of € 2.5 million per megawatt installed and a grid connection fee of € 2.5 billion. Airtricity proposes to raise these funds in the following way: 25% from equity fundraising, and the remaining 75% from investment banks in debt risk at a rate of 7.0%. The estimate of the energy prices is € 108/MWh for the first 25 years and € 63/MWh for the following 25 years.


The primary challenges faced are threefold: political, regulatory and physical. The political and regulatory issues are intertwined. The l0GW Foundation Project is the first project intended to supply power simultaneously to three different national electricity systems. This poses the problem of operating in three different regulatory environments.

It requires support at European and national levels. Undertakings are required to remove long-term regulatory and political risk from the project. If Europe recognizes the challenges it faces and realizes the potential of the Supergrid then all that is required would be some joined-up thinking. By emphasising the policy elements conducive to this project's development, the national governments and European institutions could ease any regulatory roadblocks. The physical challenges lie in the construction side. Building offshore will require further nearshore deployment so as to facilitate a learning process.

Progress thus Far

Airtricity is now sourcing suitable sites for the Supergrid in the North Sea. In terms of wining regulatory and political support, the project is already well known across the EU institutions and in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. I met Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister, and discussed Supergrid. In the recent debates in the Bundestag on the recent Infrastructure Acceleration Planning Act, Supergrid was mentioned by German parliamentarians. This legislation places the cost of extending the grid onto the big utilities, something that is advantageous to offshore wind. Airtricity is working on the development of offshore sites in the three markets of the Foundation Project. Airtricity expects to receive consent on the Greater Gabbard site in the Thames Estuary soon, and has recently announced plans to develop two offshore sites in Germany and the Netherlands. The construction of these will serve as a learning process for the 10GW Foundation Project.

Biography of the Author

Eddie O'Connor is CEO and founder of Airtricity. He was previously appointed Managing Director of Bord na Mona and is Secretary of the European Wind Energy Association. He holds a Bachelor of Chemical Engineering, a Masters in Industrial Engineering and an honorary Doctorate in Business Administration from the International Management Centres, Europe.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Africa's renewable option

The fact that numerous studies and computer models predict that the African continent will be among the hardest hit by the environmental and socioeconomic impacts resulting from climate change, seems like the cruelest twist of fate. After all, the industrialized nations -- most of all the U.S. -- are responsible for the overloading the atmosphere with carbon, bringing it precariously close to its tipping point. In the process the economies of the industrialized countries have prospered while the world's poorer nations and the environment have suffered.

But perhaps, this is Nature's way of helping the nations of Africa resist the temptation of mimicking the fossil-fueled economic development strategies of the U.S. A renewable energy path not only produces a much smaller "footprint" -- it also has the potential for contributing to a more equitable, sustainable and healthy Africa. (GW)

Renewable Sources the Key to Energy Crisis?

By Stephanie Nieuwoudt
Inter Press Service
March 24, 2007

Nairobi - Biofuel and other renewable energy sources may hold the key to Africa's energy crisis. Without intervention, this crisis is set to grow. Southern African cities such as Lusaka in Zambia, Harare in Zimbabwe, Gaborone in Botswana and Dar-Es-Salaam in Tanzania will be affected.

"The continent is rich in renewable resources which can benefit the majority of people within a few years," Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said in an address at the ministerial meeting of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) which ended in Nairobi yesterday (March 23).

TICAD was initiated by Japan in 1993 to address threats posed to the environment. Since then the United Nations (UN), the Global Coalition for Africa, the UN Development Programme and the World Bank have joined the initiative.

Steiner warned that the continent is in danger of being locked into a development path that will always place it behind the rest of the world. African countries should look at their own resources for their developmental needs and strategies.

Steiner added that if the global powers were serious about meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) it was necessary to re-think expensive energy proposals.

Although he had praise for the New Partnership for Africa's Development, a continental economic restructuring plan, he pointed out that some of its energy proposals will only benefit the poorest people in the next 20 to 30 years.

To harness hydro-electricity, as NEPAD proposes, means dams have to be built which could lead to the displacement of communities and which often have negative environmental effects.

More than 80 percent of Africa's population are without electricity. This means that human development suffers as schools, hospitals, businesses and computer networks all rely on electricity.

According to a new report by the World Bank, "Global Economic Prospects - Managing the Next Wave of Globalization 2007", the world population is expected to rise from 6.5 billion to 8 billion by 2030. This translates into an annual growth rate of 60 million people.

More than 97 percent of this growth will take place in developing countries. The mathematics is simple: more people will demand more fuel resources. Moreover, the energy needs of the urban resident are greater than that of the rural resident.

Back in 1999, a report by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), titled "Energy-Environment Linkages in African Cities", made it clear that while most of Africa was essentially rural, the rate of urbanisation was alarming.

A number of cities already dominated their respective national economies by 1999. Apart from the ones in Southern Africa, others were Lagos in Nigeria, Cairo in Egypt, Nairobi in Kenya and Kampala in Uganda.

2007 is the year in which the majority of people in the world will for the first time in human history be living in urban areas, Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of UN Habitat, told the conference.

Tibaijuka said that 75 percent of energy is consumed in cities and towns, which demands investment in urban energy generation and delivery. "No country has ever reduced poverty without investing substantially in energy. Energy is central to all human development goals. You cannot have water provision or education or health without energy."

In Africa, due to the lack of electricity, millions of people are dependant on natural vegetation in their continuous search for firewood to cook. Forests are destroyed in the process, which has a negative effect on the environment as eco-systems are wiped out.

The destruction of natural vegetation could lead to desertification when there are no water catchment systems to feed rivers and streams. And when there is no water, the population in such an area suffers in many ways. They cannot plant crops and their animals die.

The question is whether African countries are up to the task of developing their own resources. The Nobel laureate and Kenya's assistant minister of environmental affairs, Wangari Maathai said that "Africa is not poor. But the people of Africa are poor.

"They do not have the skills to use the resources they have in abundance. There can be no development in Africa if the continent does not use its resources effectively."

As an example of a cheap and effective way to store water, Steiner cited the harvesting of rainwater in Kenya. For between 100 and 150 US dollars, a household of eight people can in a short time be assured of a constant source of water.

He challenged African countries to be brave and set their own agenda in establishing a framework for individual countries to invest in their futureùinstead of relying on developed nations to point the way to development.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

"Appropriately-sized" is beautiful

In "Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare" ecologist Paul Colinvaux argues that big animals are rare in Nature because they are, for the most part, inefficient. That doesn't make them bad, necessarily. Just rare. They are rare because Nature's economy (based on energy) says that scalability, diversity and flexibility are among the most valuable attributes for preserving overall system integrity and sustainability.

Writing in "Power Struggle: The Hundred-Year War Over Electricity" Richard Rudolph and Scott Ridley state that "The electric power industry is the most money-intensive, pervasive and politicized business in modern America". Centralized energy systems were designed by power company owners (the soon-to-be-born utilities) at the turn of the 20th century. They convinced Congress to designate them "natural monopolies", and assisted in creating the system that allowed them to maximize their profits at the expense of efficiency -- and consumers.

Today we clearly need some big renewable energy projects to help replace current fossil fuel plants and offset carbon emissions. We also need to be restructure the long-standing system so community-based energy systems can compete on the proverbial and elusive level playing field. The best thinking on how to do that can be found in Rocky Mountain Institute's "Small is Profitable: The Hidden Economic Benefits of Making Electrical Resources the Right Size". (GW)

What's So Bad About Big?

“SMALL is beautiful,” wrote the economist E. F. Schumacher almost 35 years ago. In most areas of the economy, he reasoned, production had become too big and too centralized.

But he might have been wrong about the subject he knew most about: energy. When it comes to alternative ways of generating power, big may be better.

Wind, solar and other renewable-energy technologies that were once considered more appropriate for single homes or small communities are reaching levels of scale and centralizing that were formerly the province of coal- and gas-fired plants and nuclear reactors. In other words, green is going giant.

The companies that are building or dreaming up large projects argue that there are economies of scale to be gained.

In the desert north of Tucson, Arizona Public Service, an electric utility, is using an array of mirrors to concentrate sunlight and heat mineral oil up to 550 degrees; the heat vaporizes a liquid hydrocarbon, which runs a generator to make electricity.

But this is no rooftop operation. There are six rows of mirrors, each nearly a quarter-mile long, totaling nearly 100,000 square feet. The project produces one megawatt of power — enough to run a hospital or a large shopping center — but the company that installed it, now called Acciona Solar Power (formerly Solargenix), expects to open a 350-acre plant in Boulder City, Nev., soon, producing 64 megawatts with similar technology. And Arizona Public Service is one of about a half-dozen utilities that is considering a joint project to build a 250-megawatt plant based on the same technology.

Such projects run counter to some ideas of how alternative energy should be developed. Jeremy Rifkin, the author and futurist who believes that millions of people will soon be generating their own hydrogen from renewable energy, said that waste was built into large central projects because of electrical transmission losses.

“If you go and put it in the desert and bring it back in, you lose 7 to 9 percent on the way,” he said.

More to the point, Mr. Rifkin said, home-grown energy is going to be cheaper. “It’s a question of who owns and controls it at the end of the line,” he said. “If you own it on your own, it’s going to be at a cheaper price than if the utility company is going to sell it to you.”

But it is not just corporations that are finding that bigger may be better.

Hull, Mass., is about as far from an oil or gas well as it is possible to get in the United States. Its municipal utility decided in the early 1980s to build a wind turbine, making an asset from the strong breeze coming off the ocean north of Boston. The machine it built could generate 40 kilowatts, enough for a handful of homes.

Five years ago, Hull tried again, still wanting to cut energy costs and also the emissions of greenhouse gases that might one day cause the Atlantic Ocean, which surrounds the town on three sides, to creep up the beaches. It built a wind machine 16 times larger, 660 kilowatts. While the 1985 turbine was on a structure that looked a bit like a ham-radio operator’s antenna, the new one, named Hull 1, was on a 150-foot tower.

But it was too small. Last year the town installed Hull 2, which at 1.8 megawatts is three times larger. Now Hull is considering four new turbines that can produce 3.6 megawatts each. “The small one we have, purely aesthetically, is kind of an ugly thing,” said John B. Murdock, manager of the municipal electric system. With their slow-moving, graceful blades, he said, “the big ones are much more attractive.”

They also make better economic sense, he said. Earlier this year, the town put up a tiny turbine, 1,800 watts, as an educational tool, for $15,000. If 1,000 families in the area put up such machines, they would have the same output as Hull 2, at a cost of $15 million. Hull 2 cost about $3 million.

Hull’s economics are being repeated around New England and the world. Farther down the Massachusetts coast in Nantucket Sound, for example, entrepreneurs are trying to build the Cape Wind project, 130 turbines producing 3.6 megawatts each.

At Siemens Power Generation, which builds equipment for wind turbines and other generators, Randy Zwirn, the chief executive, said that the only limit to wind-turbine size might be how long a blade could be transported to the site. The company’s 3.6-megawatt machine uses a blade that is about 175 feet long.

Other companies want to build even bigger wind turbines with capacities as high as seven megawatts. A larger machine would be even higher — perhaps 250 feet — and could take advantage of the fact that winds are 20 percent stronger at 250 feet than at 150 feet, said Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson, an associate professor at Stanford’s department of civil and environmental engineering.

But in Nantucket Sound, 3.6-megawatt turbines are considered big enough. On a windy day, the 130 machines would produce as much power as a modest-size plant burning coal or natural gas.

There is certainly no point in making the project smaller, said Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind.

“You’ve got costs that include staging, marine construction, placing an electric transmission infrastructure below the seabed, acquisition of maintenance vessels, use of a port facility, spare parts, storage, manning an operations center, insurance and taxes,” he said.

For many of those items, if the project were 50 percent larger or 50 percent smaller, the costs would vary little. “These are things that you’re going to have to do, whether it’s a very small or a very large offshore wind farm,” Mr. Rodgers said. “The best bang for the buck is go to large.”

While mirrors in the desert cannot operate at the rooftop scale, the kind that can, photovoltaic cells, which turn sunlight into energy, may also work better on a big scale, experts say.

A single-home installation is fine, they say, but not cost-effective. It can become so through large-scale deployment of the kind envisioned by Bud Annan, who was the solar program director at the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration.

Mr. Annan said that the cost of a rooftop solar project was divided between the manufacturing of solar cells and installation. Some progress has been made in reducing manufacturing costs, but both parts of the equation must come down in price, he said.

Now living in Scottsdale, Ariz., Mr. Annan is working with a utility and local real estate developers to try to incorporate solar roofs into 10,000 new houses, all at once. That way, he said, the installers can go from house to house the way carpenters, plumbers and electricians do. “He can standardize his installation, and that whole second half of the equation becomes more manageable for him,” Mr. Annan said.

Clusters of houses might share a bank of batteries, so that they could guarantee a steady power output. Power that a utility can count on is worth more than power that is unpredictable. Solar energy that is connected to a battery system is available even after the sun sets, making it sell for a higher price.

Roger Little, chief executive of the Spire Corporation, a solar cell manufacturer near Boston, said his systems cost $7 or $8 per watt of installed capacity when put on rooftops, which means that the equipment needed to light a 100-watt bulb would cost $700 to $800. Half is for the cells and half is for the rest of the system, including mounting brackets and external wiring.

Mr. Little said he could lower the price to $3.60, but that the first step would have to be replacing typical solar panels, which produce about 160 watts of electricity each, with a 1,000-watt panel. The big panel would require less support material per watt than the smaller ones, he said.

But that panel would be 200 pounds, too heavy to haul up to a roof. The solution, he said, is to install it on the ground, in a big flat spot of desert — which, by the way, would be a wonderful place to build the solar-cell factory, cutting delivery costs to zero. And the bigger the installation, the lower the cost, per watt, of the other equipment required, he said.

Mr. Little is negotiating with the Tucson Electric Company to build a factory in Arizona that would produce 100 megawatts of cells a year, and run it for 10 years or so. Other cities and companies are considering similar ideas. Mr. Little said that at some point his project would turn into a “breeder,” its electric production paying for its operation.

His company already runs factories that make 50 megawatts of new cells a year. The viability of the project depends mostly on whether Congress extends the production tax credit given to renewable and nuclear energy, he said.

Arizona Public Service, which operates the solar generator north of Tucson, seems to be on a campaign to show that there is no green approach that does not work well on a corporate scale. Last year, it started raising algae, feeding them carbon dioxide from a natural-gas-fired power plant, Red Hawk, west of Phoenix. It used the algae to make biodiesel, a vehicle fuel that is more commonly made from soybeans or corn. The company is now installing bigger equipment to test the process on a larger scale.

Even for renewable energy like heating with wood (an idea that has been around for much longer than the term “renewable”), the scale is growing. For example, the University of South Carolina would like to reduce its carbon footprint and lower its natural-gas bill of $6.5 million a year. So this spring it plans to open a plant that will use wood scraps to make electricity, and use steam from the system’s waste heat to warm the campus.

This is not some wood-fired boiler. It is an $18 million gasification project that will heat the wood, mostly chips and bark, to produce a flammable gas, which will be burned in a turbine that resembles a jet engine. And the university will not run it on clippings from trees at the Columbia campus; it will take 14 tractor-trailer loads a day, about 55,000 tons a year.

Because the wood is gasified but not burned, the system, which is similar to one used in Burlington, Vt., produces less nitrogen oxides and less soot than a boiler would, said Jonathan S. Rhone, chief of the Nexterra Energy Corporation of Vancouver, British Columbia, which built the gasifier. But being that clean requires an industrial-size system.

There is another reason that it is not the kind of project that works on a small basis: it will take about 14 years to pay for itself. “We’ve been here 200 years,” said Helen Zeigler, the university business manager. “We can afford to make investments like this.” A 14-year payback would never work on a family budget, she said.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

It has to be everybody or nobody

The cover story "Global Warming: Who Loses -- and Who Wins?" in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly by Gregg Easterbrook suggests that climate change my create economic winners and losers. This is at odds with what most experts and their climate models predict. The suggestion that some regions of the world might realize competitive economic advantages as a result of climate change could make it more difficult to achieve the level of global cooperation on reducing greenhouse gas emissions that will be needed to avert humanity's irresponsible experiment with atmospheric chemistry from spinning totally out of control.

Bucky Fuller reminded us that "We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody." (GW)

Business: 'Climate action useless without global support'


22 March 2007

EU leaders have agreed to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by up to 30% within 13 years but the real battle will be in convincing the world's other big polluters to follow suit, according to business leaders.


EU heads of state and government, meeting in Brussels on 8-9 March 2007, committed themselves to reducing European CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020 compared with 1990 levels – a bold promise, when one considers that Europe is already struggling to meet its current target, under the Kyoto Protocol, of cutting these emissions by 8% by 2012.

EU leaders also pledged to raise the target to 30% if the US, China and other economic powers agreed to comparable reductions.


Europe’s pledge to unilaterally reduce greenhouse-gas emissions could not only damage economic growth and lead to industry moving to other parts of the world, but might also prove worthless if other countries refuse to join in the fight against climate change, said business leaders speaking at the European Business Summit on 16 March 2007.

Furthermore, concrete action is now needed if the target is to be more than just a gesture, they added.


Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs defended the EU plan, saying that even in the worst-case scenario – if no other countries followed the EU’s example – the decision taken by the European Council to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% "still makes sense". "Less carbon means more energy security," he said, adding that without such a shift, Europe would simply continue to pay more and more for oil and gas supplies from elsewhere.

Professor Utz Claassen, CEO of the German energy company EnBW urged rapid action at global level, saying that climate change is "life-threatening for mankind" and that the problem does not end at national or at European boundaries. He argued that the solution lay in renewables, especially solar power, for which "the potential is outstanding and fantastic" although we are still only benefiting from a very small percentage of this potential. He also underlined the "undisputable" contribution of nuclear power to both climate protection and security of supply.

Lars Josefsson, CEO of the European energy company Vattenfall, said: "Even today, we still underestimate the challenge that lies before us…We have the technologies, the capital is abundant, but we’re still lacking the policy."

He added that, if all regions of the world contributed to the fight against climate change, it would be possible to achieve a reduction of 27 gigatonnes of CO2 – ie the reduction necessary to get on track for long-term climate stabilisation – at a cost of less than €40/tonne CO2.

But US Ambassador to the EU Boyden Gray seemed unconvinced, pointing to a seeming link between Europe's "considerably lower economic growth" and its considerably lower CO2 growth between 1990 and 2004. "There are trade-offs," he said, adding that the US, on the other hand, had been more successful in decoupling economic growth from CO2 growth: "There is no reason you can't keep the economy going without emissions rising."

While admitting that the US remained a "big emitter", he said that the market could be counted upon to come up with solutions and attempted to divert the attention from the US, by pointing to the fact that China is "catching up very quickly" and that EU carbon savings are "blown away about eight times by China each year".

However, WWF’s Stephan Singer retorted: "Although the EU has only half of US levels of CO2 emissions and energy use per capita, we have the same levels of wealth in the EU," adding: "Today, we are proud to be European."

He commented that everyone keeps pointing to China, but if one looks at per-capita emissions, a person in China emits just one fifth of what the average OECD citizen emits. And, he stressed, this "fairly poor country" has committed to much more ambitious climate-change targets than the US.

He cautioned that it will be up to 20 times more expensive to clean up the mess caused by climate change later on than to invest now in clean technologies, and pointed to the job-creation potential of the renewable energy sector.

He concluded that he was sure that other countries, including Japan, Norway, Switzerland would follow suit and that this would initiate movement in the United States – once the next US president arrives.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Green collar workers

One of the most inspiring books I've ever read on the topic of the future of cities is "Bioshelters, Ocean Arks and City Farming" by Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd (unfortunately, no longer in print). Pioneers in the science and art of ecological design, Nancy and John were always convinced that cities could be healed and made whole through the (re) introduction of Nature into urban buildings, landscapes and infrastructure. That transformation appears much closer to reality thanks to Renzo Piano's application of "regenerative architecture" at the California Academy of Sciences. (GW)

The Window Box Gets Some Tough Competition

In this place where the political climate, too, is green, it is perhaps not surprising to encounter a hardy new perennial in the world of horticulture — the green roof gardener.

While others nearby toil over grapes and artichokes, Cooper Scollan spends his days hunched over some 1.7 million baby sedum and other native plants destined for hillocks atop the green roof at the new California Academy of Sciences building, nearing completion in Golden Gate Park.

Mr. Scollan, 30, is a green collar worker, responsible for the safety and well-being of what soon will be the largest continuous swatch of vegetation in San Francisco. The academy, designed by the architect Renzo Piano, whom Mr. Scollan has seen only on television, will feature the country’s most technically ambitious eco-roof, the latest example of what is known in highbrow circles as “regenerative” or “living” architecture.

It is a growing movement that originated in Germany and now includes, to name a few, bottlebrush grasses and wild rye atop Chicago City Hall, succulents on the 10-acre roof of Ford’s River Rouge truck plant in Dearborn, Mich., flowering chives and dianthus on the Bronx County building in New York, and, at an office building for the Gap in San Bruno, Calif., a coastal oak savannah landscape.

Though green roofs are hardly new — think of the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon — eco-roofs may represent gardening’s next frontier, as cities from Los Angeles to Chicago offer incentives, including fast-tracking development, to builders who forgo drab stretches of concrete in favor of a living roof. The reasons are pure Al Gore: the new California Academy of Sciences roof is expected to reduce storm water run-off by half. That water will then be used, instead of potable water, to flush toilets.

The design is also calculated to prevent the release of more than 405,000 pounds of greenhouse gases and substantially reduce the urban “heat island” generated by roads, sidewalks and parking lots.

More poetically for Mr. Scollan, who is fond of comparing his favorite plant, the towering blue “Pride of Tenerife,” to Marge Simpson’s hair, the poppies, strawberries, sedum and other California native plants on the roof will provide a wildlife park in the sky protected from windblown weeds and the vagaries of man. Should all go well, it will also attract the endangered San Bruno elfin butterfly, a coppery brown temptress.

Like meditation, he said, gardening is repetitive yet constantly changing. “Plants, like insects, metamorphize,” he philosophized, “transforming from a tangled mass of cells into a fig hanging in midair.”

As nursery manager for Rana Creek Habitat Restoration, an ecological design firm, Mr. Scollan is one of a growing number of green roof gardeners. According to a survey last year by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a nonprofit industry association based in Toronto, over 3 million square feet of green roofs were planted in North America in 2005, worth about $60 to $80 million. This year growth is expected to rise 125 percent, between 6 and 7 million square feet, said Steven Peck, the group’s founder.

Gardeners like Mr. Scollan are tackling challenges at once similar and distinct from “terrestrial” gardening, in the words of Ed Snodgrass, a pioneering green roof nurseryman in Maryland who writes an “Ask Ed” column for green and is the author of the definitive “Green Roof Plants: A Resource and Planting Guide” (Timber Press, 2006).

Mr. Scollan checks his brood each morning, when this stunningly pristine valley is still swaddled in mist. The plants’ environmental pedigree does not fend off nature’s whims: Mr. Scollan buys copious amounts of chunky peanut butter to put in mousetraps — 20 traps a week — to discourage mice from dining on mosses or on the prunella, a plant with tubular purple flowers beloved by hummingbirds.

Mr. Scollan personally raised the prunella from seed, hand-collected in Point Reyes, starting with a couple of hundred that, in less than a year, have generated more than 200,000 plants.

Although his enemies are typical — mites and aphids are high on the hit list — the unusual configuration of the roof has required horticultural derring-do. Mr. Piano’s third-story design resembles the downhill ski run at the Winter Olympics: it includes seven steep undulating hills. (Mr. Piano, who designed the new building for The New York Times, created his first green roof for a project in Berlin.)

Plants will adhere to the daunting slopes by way of 50,000 “bio trays,” biodegradable planters made from coconut fibers that allow roots to attach the trays to one another and also to the soil. (A waterproof membrane and fabric mats protect the roof from water.). As on all large green roofs, the soil is not dirt exactly but a gravel-like growing medium of granulated pumice, shales, clays and other minerals.

Paul Kephart, the founder of Rana Creek, calls the roof “the most challenging vegetative structure in the world.” The need for gardening ingenuity is likely to increase as green architecture gets ever more sophisticated, Mr. Kephart said. “The cultural idea of a beautiful place now includes ecology, aligning nature’s life cycles to ours,” he said.

Although less prone to weeds than earthbound gardens, green roofs tend to be drier and windier, said Mr. Snodgrass, a fifth-generation alfalfa farmer who saw a market niche and established one of the country’s first green roof nurseries. The logistics of roof gardening — in the case of the California Academy of Sciences, 2.6 million pounds of plants and soil — require immense forethought, especially the issue of weed-hauling.

“You do need to think about how you will get everything on and off the roof,” said Mr. Snodgrass. “It’s a whole different world than pulling up to the sidewalk in a pickup truck.”

Daydreaming while gardening is not a good strategy. “You have to be mindful that there’s an edge,” he said.

If drought-tolerant green roof grasses and other plants are a new American crop, pioneers like Mr. Scollan, who carries a pruner, assorted plastic frogs and a beat-up copy of Scientific American in his Honda, are brave new harvesters. His passion for plants started early: his mother has a green thumb. He first studied ornithology, including a stint in Central and South America with Roger Tory Peterson, who, he recalled, “could hear an Eastern meadowlark a quarter mile away with the radio on.”

Green architecture may one day be the equivalent of medieval cathedrals, but with living things the architectural inspiration, rather than soaring stone and glass.

For Mr. Scollan, creating life for the tops of buildings is “Jack and the Beanstalk” redux, but with an eco-twist. “Plants are the true magicians,” he said. “With just a few seeds sown, a whole new world is grown in the sky.”

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Animal, vegetable, mineral: conflicts of interest in Montana

Split estates: Mineral, agriculture surface rights clash in field

CHINOOK, Mont. - Herbert Vasseur has begun planning his spring farming activities while keeping a close eye on the Montana Legislature's split estate debates, specifically Senate Bill 19 in the current legislative session.

Senate Bill 19 is in the House Natural Resource committee and if passed will benefit the surface and landowners in split estates.

“Support is needed to pass this bill,” said Vasseur, a farmer, landowner and mineral owners form Chinook, Mont.

As a farmer, landowner and mineral owner, Vasseur is one of few Montanans who own both the surface and mineral rights on his farm on which he raises cereal grains. Most Montana landowners aren't as fortunate and live on split estates.

A split estates occurs when one person own the surface rights and another owns the mineral rights to a piece of land, explained Vasseur.

“There are a lot of ways split estates came about,” he said. “When the homesteaders came to Montana in the 1930s, they would get liens put against their mineral rights to pay their bills because they didn't think they would be worth anything. There were also a lot of split estates made with tax deeds and foreclosures where the counties sold the surface rights and maintained or sold the mineral rights.”

Working with another party on the development of the same land parcel can cause friction, especially when the parties have different interests, according to environmental geologist Stuart Jennings of Reclamation Research Group in Bozeman, Mont.

“Farmers and ranchers manage the land for sustainability, but miners don't,” he said. “Mining by definition isn't sustainable, harvesting the minerals and then leaving.”

Montana's mineral wealth is the reason it became known as the Treasure State, prior to being named the Big Sky State. The state has a history of mineral development, with the mining rush to Montana in the mid-1800s, about 1850 until 1900. There was a lot of small mine development until the stock market crashed in 1929, and the hard rock metal miners had no reclamation requirements, said Jennings, who specializes in land reclamation.

In addition, mineral rights owners can pursue mineral interests on land parcels with minimal to no consultation from the surface landowner.

“Mineral companies can come in and use the surface, taking land away from crop production, and many times are reluctant to give the producer compensation,” explained Vasseur. “There are companies that treat the surface owners fairly, but a lot of times the surface owners have to take the first step.”

Surface landowners have minimal rights in comparison to those who own mineral rights as a result of the 1916 Stockman Federal Act, which made mineral rights dominant over surface rights.

“That's where a lot of trouble got started,” said Vasseur. “In some places, the surface owners don't even get notification before the mining starts.”

Furthermore, surface owners are often neglected in terms of compensation for the damaged land surface, and the land itself is neglected in terms of reclamation.

Ideally, mining companies would return the disturbed salvage to pre-mining condition by replacing the topsoil and reseeding the forage, said Jennings.

“They don't always follow the rules,” he said, noting some mining companies perceive reclamation as an unnecessary cost they are unwilling to pay. “And, then weeds encroach on the property, which relates to agriculture by taking grazing land out of production.”

There are different reclamation laws for different types of mining, some of which differ on state and federal levels, explained Jennings, which makes reclamation enforcement tough.

“Federal coal reclamation law requires extensive reclamation practices to establish original conture versus the state's hard rock mining law, which is not as stringent as the federal coal law,” he said. “The state hardrock mining law doesn't require the mines to backfill open pits, but a 1972 amendment to the constitution states that all land disturbed by mining should be reclaimed. The coal mines would have to reclaim the land they disturbed, except the federal metal mine reclamation laws have failed over the years.”

Miners have patented the public land for mineral development according to an 1872 mineral law, and the state government has not quite gotten the law overturned. Proponents for more equal rights in split estates have written proposed legislation and testified to the Montana Legislature on behalf of the surface landowners.

The proposed legislation changes the terminology from “should” to “shall,” making it law for the mineral rights owners to give proper notification of mineral interest development and damages compensation to the surface landowners.

The outcome of such legislation will have an impact on the coal bed methane and coal mining development in Montana.

Coal bed methane mining involves drilling into coal streams and removing the methane by way of water and later extracting the methane gas from the water. Water quality is the limiting factor in coal bed methane development, said Jennings.

“There is wild development resistance from some landowners on coal bed methane development when in other places it may be welcomed,” he said. “In some cases, the water from coal bed methane development has been used for irrigation. Wyoming is the poster child for coal bed methane development. The amount of coal bed methane development in Montana is much smaller than in Wyoming, in which it has become a boom time for natural resources.”

Like other mining companies, methane mining companies' goal is to get the methane out of the ground with the least amount of cost, and reclamation costs are seen as additional costs in the eyes of the miners, said Jennings. Water re-injection into the coal aquifers makes sense to those outside the coal bed methane companies, but it is another cost they don't want to assume, he said.

“It's an uneasy truce between the communities and how many active coal bed methane permits there are,” added Jennings. “The coal resources are vast in Montana - it is the sixth largest in the world - and Montana could be a big player in coal mining.”

Montana has a vested interest in what is going on in Wyoming's coal bed methane industry because the Big Horn and Powder Rivers run from Wyoming into Montana, and as a result the water quality received has been low and unsuitable for irrigation.

“Coal bed methane water has the potential to add salinity to surface water,” explained Jennings, noting the State of Montana has taken Wyoming to court to settle the issue. “We'd like the water to be clean or low in salinity.”

Like the State of Montana, the agriculture community has a vested interest in the mining activities conducted across the state as mining practices can put agricultural resources at risk.

“The agricultural community needs to be engaged and study the details in hard rock, minerals and coal bed methane mining,” said Jennings. “There is nobody looking out for the ranching and farming communities, and it is not their default to question the permitting and decisions made in reference to minerals, but some engagement is necessary.”

Agriculture producers need to be “vigilant and engaged in the entire process, from the proposal and mitigations to the mining process and closure,” he said. “There are a lot of ways to do it wrong.”

Furthermore, surface landowners need to be active in negotiations with mineral rights leases to achieve proper notification and damage compensation agreements, said Vasseur, who serves as president of the Montana Land and Mineral Owners Association.

Drive-around traffic ruts in the ground caused by traffic during adverse weather and downed fences should be considered when assessing potential surface damages in negotiation, he said.

“The drive-around traffic, particularly in sizemic operations, can be just as intense as on the project trails,” Vasseur added. “They should pay the same for drive-around damage as for the project line traffic Š And, make sure you get it in black and white, otherwise it's lost when either a company agent walks out the door.”

A lot of problems between surface and mineral rights owners stem from lack of communication. This is one problem the Montana Land and Mineral Owners Association strives to solve by assisting land and mineral owners in negotiations.

The Montana Land and Mineral Owners Association was established in 1972 by a group of ranchers from the Bear Paw Mountains who were having troubles with some companies pursuing mineral interests on their land and established some ranchers' rights with the companies.

“We've continued on the same trend,” said Vasseur. “We try to keep up the relationships between the mineral companies and the membership, 95 percent of which are in agriculture - farmers and ranchers - 1 percent are industry people and 4 percent are absentee owners or out-of-state mineral rights owners.”

For more information on the Montana Land and Minerals Owners Association, check out the internet Web site at .

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A parable for these times

We arrived on Spaceship Earth without an operating manual. Consequently, we were granted a period of "permitted ignorance" as Buckminster Fuller referred to humanity's extraction and combustion of fossil fuel capital and concomitant atmospheric loading of carbon for the purposes of economic development.

Now that the jig is up, it is dawning on us that as difficult as it has been to get society to adopt preventative measures against climate change such as conservation, energy efficiency and alternative energy, attempts to intervene or adapt to changes once well underway will prove to be exponentially more challenging -- if not ultimately impossible. (GW)

Tinkering with Earth's climate to stop global warming raises new risks

By Seth Borenstein
Washington, AP
March 20, 2007
When climate scientist Andrew Weaver considers the idea of tinkering with Earth's air, water or sunlight to fight global warming, he remembers the lessons of a favorite children's book.

In the book, a cheese-loving king's castle is infested with mice. So the king brings in cats to get rid of the mice. Then the castle is overrun with cats, so he brings in dogs to get rid of them, then lions to get rid of the dogs, elephants to get rid of the lions, and finally, mice to get rid of the elephants.

That scenario in "The King, the Mice and the Cheese," by Nancy and Eric Gurney, should give scientists pause before taking extreme measures to mess with Mother Nature, says Weaver of the University of Victoria.

However, in recent months, several scientists are considering doing just that.

They are exploring global warming solutions that sound wholly far-fetched, including giant artificial "trees" that would filter carbon dioxide out of the air, a bizarre "solar shade" created by a trillion flying saucers that lower Earth's temperature, and a scheme that mimics a volcano by spewing light-reflecting sulfates high in the sky.

These are costly projects of last resort -- in case Earth's citizens do not cut back fast enough on greenhouse gas emissions and the worst of the climate predictions appear not too far away. Unfortunately, the solutions could cause problems of their own -- beyond their exorbitant costs -- including making the arid Middle East even drier and polluting the air enough to increase respiratory illnesses.

Kevin Trenberth, climate analysis chief at the United States' National Center for Atmospheric Research, said mankind already has harmed Earth's climate inadvertently, so it is foolish to think that people can now fix it with a few drastic measures.

But at Trenberth's research center, climate scientist Tom Wigley is exploring the mock volcano idea.

"It's the lesser of two evils here (the other being doing nothing)," Wigley said. "Whatever we do, there are bad consequences, but you have to judge the relative badness of all the consequences."

Studying the concept of how volcanic pollutants could lessen global warming -- the Earth was slightly cooler after the eruption of a Philippine volcano 16 years ago -- was brought to the forefront of scientific debate last summer by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen.

"It was meant to startle the policymakers," said Crutzen, of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. "If they don't take action much more strongly than they have in the past, then in the end, we have to do experiments like this."

In the past, scientists and others have avoided talking publicly about these ideas, known as "geoengineering," even though the concept was first raised in 1965. They worried that the hope of a quick technological fix to global warming would prevent politicians and the public from making the real energy sacrifices that they say are necessary to slow climate change.

David Keith, a University of Calgary engineering professor and one of the world's experts in geoengineering, says that just because tinkering with the air, water and sunlight is possible, that should not be a substitute for cutting emissions just because "we've been politically weak-kneed."

Instead, he said, such options should be researched as an "insurance policy" in case global warming is even worse than forecast. And that prospect has caused climate scientists to talk about the issue more openly in recent months.

There is also a chance that discussion of such radical ideas as a volcano or sun shade could shock the world into acting to reduce fossil fuel emissions, Keith said.

However, White House science adviser Jack Marburger said spending money on geoengineering does not make sense. The U.S. government, which spends about US$2 billion (euro1.5 billion) a year on climate change science, invests nearly all of its research on energy sources that produce fewer or no greenhouse gas emissions.

"I don't think it's scientifically feasible at this time to consider a plan like that (geoengineering)," Marburger told The Associated Press. "The real urgency is to reduce carbon dioxide."

In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change looked at geoengineering as part of its report on how to lessen global warming. It found some promise, worried about unexpected side effects and legal and ethical implications, and concluded that "unlike other strategies, geoengineering addresses the symptoms rather than the causes of climate change."

Even proponents of geoengineering research are wary.

"We are playing with fire here," Keith said. "Those of us suggesting we do something are suggesting it with real nervousness."