Monday, April 30, 2007

GE announces plans to build world's largest solar energy plant in Portugal

Pursuant to their commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, countries like Germany and Spain have instituted a number of innovative policies designed to and spur the deployment of renewable energy technologies by making them more cost competitive with fossil fuels.

Here in the U.S. federal policies like the Production Tax Credit (PTC) and state mechanisms like Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) have helped renewables like wind and biomass effectively compete with coal, natural gas and oil (all of which, for the record, receive significant subsidies of their own). Nonetheless, even with the PTC and RPS (in some states) in place, the cost of photovoltaics (PVs) -- solar panels designed to produce electricity -- continue to be prohibitively costly for most consumers.

Feed-in tariffs (
a set price per unit of electricity that a utility or supplier has to pay for renewable electricity from private generators) have been adopted in a number of EU countries (and a few states in the US) to address this problem -- with some measure of success. They play a critical role in GE's proposed Portuguese PV farm described below. (GW)

GE to open solar plant on Portuguese farm

By Claudia H. Deutsch
The New York Times

April 27, 2006

The sheep that have long grazed 60 hectares of farmland in Serpa, Portugal, will soon have to share their space with the world's largest solar energy plant.

Next month the company PowerLight, using $75 million of General Electric's money, will begin installing on the 150 acres the first of what will be 52,000 solar panels, capable of generating 11 megawatts of electricity - enough to light and heat 8,000 homes.

GE Energy Financial Services, the conglomerate's energy financing arm, will own the plant, and PowerLight will continue to run it. The companies expect it to be fully operational in January.

Both companies concede that it remains far more expensive to produce energy from sunlight than from fossil fuels, or even wind, and that the plant may not make money right away.

"Solar is not yet highly profitable, but we know we'll get a good payback from this project," said Andrew Marsden, managing director of European operations for GE Energy Financial Services.

The Portuguese government, seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, has introduced legislation that forces utilities to pay 31 euro cents a kilowatt hour for solar energy. Spain and Germany have similar programs, and Italy recently introduced one as well.

"It takes a huge amount of work to develop these projects, to get the permits, to find the modules - and solar energy still costs more than fossil fuels or wind," Marsden said. "So we are only going to invest in countries with supportive regimes."

That list does not yet include the United States. Richard King, a team leader in the Energy Department's photovoltaic research group, said that many homeowners, particularly in California, had installed rooftop panels, as had some Wal-Mart stores and other businesses. But King conceded that American economics did not yet favor solar energy.

He said people in Portugal and many other parts of Europe were already accustomed to paying 25 cents to 30 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity.

In the United States, the cost still averages 10 cents to 14 cents, "and utilities are just not going to buy 25-cent solar electricity," he said.

King said the Energy Department was already spending about $78 million a year to seek ways to bring down the cost of photovoltaic cells, and that President George W. Bush had asked Congress to authorize an additional $63 million a year. "We want to mainstream solar energy by 2015," he said, "and that means putting it on cost parity with any other source of energy."

Solar panels are arrays of semiconductors that convert light to electricity. The wattage can be used directly in a home or fed into a utility's power grid.

PowerLight, which was founded in 1991, already operates three interconnected clusters of solar panels in Bavaria that together generate 10 megawatts of electricity, and it is building a 3- megawatt plant in Las Vegas, which will be the largest in the United States.

GE's manufacturing arm makes rooftop solar panels that are appearing in California and New Jersey. And Energy Financial Services already has $162 million invested in assorted solar projects that generate about 149 megawatts of electricity.

But solar farms remain expensive to build, and a persistent shortage of the purified silicon needed to make solar panels has been a barrier to the industry's growth.

Alex Urquhart, the unit's president, said solar energy was among the areas that his group was actively exploring, but for now, "The overall picture is still dominated by wind."

That may change, though. The silicon shortages are easing, and developing technologies are making solar installations more productive. For example, the PowerLight panels used in the Portugal project track the sun as it moves across the sky, to maximize exposure.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The greening of Boston

The city of Boston, under the leadership of Mayor Tom Menino, is quietly taking steps that may make it the greenest city in the nation. This past January the Boston Zoning Commission approved several amendments to the Boston Zoning Code to require all projects over 50,000 SF to be designed and planned to meet the “certified” level using the US Green Building Council’s, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building rating systems.
The next step in the greening of Boston is a plan to plant more than 100,000 trees in the city's neighborhoods. As the mayor points out planting trees has no downside. It is an effective way to address climate change while simultaneously improving the overall quality of life of the city's neighborhoods -- a great example of "thinking globally and acting locally". (GW)

A plan takes root: City to plant more than 100,000 trees
By Jenna Russell
Boston Globe
April 28, 2007

By expanding the urban forest by some 20 percent to cover more than one - third of the city, leaders hope to reap a range of benefits, including cooler temperatures in summer, absorption of carbon dioxide and storm water runoff, and increased psychological well-being among residents.

As part of the initiative, the mayor will also announce a new partnership with the US Forest Service that designates Boston as an urban experimental forest -- one of three such sites in the country -- where scientists and arborists will conduct research to document the effects of trees on people and the environment.

"There's no downside to having more trees," Menino said in an interview. "They bring people together and give people pride in their neighborhood."

The push to increase the tree cover in the city reflects growing national awareness of the value of urban trees, after decades when their potential to help cities address environmental problems was little considered. The project began with a comprehensive inventory of the trees in Boston, conducted by the city and private organizations over three years and completed last fall. Among the inventory's findings: The tree canopy covers 29 percent of Boston, more than several other major East Coast cities.

Tree cover varies widely: West Roxbury, the city's leafiest neighborhood, is almost half-covered by canopy, while South and East Boston each have coverage of less than 10 percent. Officials say the planting of 100,000 trees will bring the proportion citywide to 35 percent by 2020.

The program, expected to cost about $15 million , will be paid for with city, state, federal, and private money, said officials. The goal is for most of the trees to be planted on private property and paid for by private foundations, corporations, and developers.

Menino has proposed spending $500,000 next year to plant street trees. The cost of all the street tree plantings is an estimated $2.5 million. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation has committed $600,000 over the next decade to plant trees on its properties, which make up half the open space in the city, and will pitch in an additional $200,000 to help pay for plantings on private property, said James Hunt, environmental services chief for the city.

The inventory that was completed last fall found that Boston has about 500,000 trees, including those along streets -- trees counted by hand by some 300 volunteers -- and those in open spaces such as parks and college campuses, which were counted using aerial photography. The census includes public and private land.

In Baltimore and New York City , where similar surveys have been done, trees cover 20 percent and 25 percent of the cities, respectively. New York's mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg recently announced a plan to plant a million trees in the next decade; New York City has about 5 million trees.

Environmental benefits are among the biggest reasons for the surging interest in tree-planting, specialists said. Trees remove pollutants from the air and cool urban neighborhoods by absorbing heat and providing shade. They absorb storm water that would otherwise run into city sewers. They have also been linked in some studies to lower rates of health problems among the residents living near them. And because they ab sorb carbon dioxide, believed to be the main culprit in climate change, they are seen as a way to help offset carbon em issions.

"Trees take in greenhouse gases -- that's what trees do," said Michael T. Raines, director of the Northern Research Station of the US Forest Service, which will oversee Boston's experimental forest. "If we manage the trees carefully, we can probably impact 10 percent of the climate change problem."

Future research will look for links between crime rates and the percentage of tree canopy in Boston neighborhoods; if they find correlations , researchers will then dig deeper to identify possible reasons.

The Boston inventory, conducted by a collection of government agencies and non profit groups known as the Urban Forest Coalition, included some surprises: Researchers expected to find some 50,000 trees along public streets in Boston, but the tally was only 35,000. Three-quarters of the street trees were in good health.

Acknowledging that trees on privately owned land and in large green spaces tend to be healthier than street trees, city officials plan to partner with private institutions and individuals in order to plant many of the trees on private land. The city plans to set up a website where residents can request trees to plant on their properties ; trees will be provided to those who agree to care for them , said Hunt.

As part of the effort, officials are planning a program to award carbon e mission-offset credits to residents and businesses that plant trees or contribute money.

The tree-planting, originally scheduled to kick off on Arbor Day yesterday but delayed by bad weather, will begin today with a ceremony in Geneva Cliffs, a 2-acre green space in Dorchester. Officials expect to plant 2,000 trees this year, including in empty tree pits along city streets. The city hopes to plant more than 10,000 trees annually from 2013 to 2015; the number will then drop back to 2,000 by 2020.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Germany pledges to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 40%

Back in the mid 1970s the United States Congress held hearings leading up to the enactment of the “Energy Policy Conservation Act,” representatives from the major automobile manufacturers were invited to testify on the proposed Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. These would establish mileage standards for new passenger cars in accordance with the testing and evaluation protocol set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

These proposed standards were extremely controversial at the time. Congress specified that CAFE standards must be set at the “maximum feasible level.” Determinations of maximum feasible level were to be made considering four factors: (1) Technological feasibility; (2) Economic practicability;(3) Effect of other standards on fuel economy; and (4) Need of the nation to conserve energy.

The major automobile manufacturers all sent representatives. German and Japanese manufacturers sent engineers. American car makers sent lawyers.

Germany and Japan read the writing on the wall and got the jump on developing fuel efficient automobiles.

As Yogi said, "It's like déjà vu all over again". (GW)

Germany plans to cut climate emissions by 40%

27 April 2007

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel (center in the above photo) has unveiled an eight-point climate-change action plan, promising to cut the country's greenhouse-gas emissions by 40% before 2020, or double the amount pledged by the EU as a whole.

The new German plan to slash greenhouse-gas emissions by 40% before 2020 goes beyond the EU's commitment formulated by EU leaders at their Spring Summit in March. During that meeting, the EU-27 promised a unilateral 20% reduction by 2020, increasing even to 30% in the event of large economic powers such as the US and China following suit.

Berlin's Climate Agenda 2020 calls for a "transformation of the industrial society". In order to reach its 40% target (a reduction of 270 million tonnes of CO2), the document proposes eight measures:

  • Modernising power stations (-30 million tonnes);
  • doubling the amount of combined heat and power (CHP) use (- 20 million tonnes);
  • increasing the share of renewables in electricty production to 27% (- 55 million tonnes);
  • cutting electricity consumption by 11% (-40 million tonnes);
  • improving energy efficiency of buildings (-41 million tonnes);
  • using more renewables for heating (-14 million tonnes);
  • increasing fuel and engine efficiency in transport and more use of biofuels (-30 million tonnes), and;
  • reducing emissions of other (non -CO2) gases such as methane or F-gases.

Gabriel's plan explictly rejects a revival of nuclear power and sticks to the coalition comprise between the SPD (Social Democrats) and CDU-CSU (Christian Democrats) to phase-out atomic energy. The investment costs for these plans would be €3 billion, whereas climate change could lead to damage costs of €137 billion, the report states in a short paragraph on financing.

Germany is clearly trying to position itself as climate-change leader in the run-up to the June G8 meeting in Heiligendamm.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Let's make a (eco) deal

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is politely but forcefully challenging the international environmental community to put its money where its mouth is on climate change. His country is willing to forgo drilling for oil beneath the Amazon rainforest in exchange for annual payments equal to half the estimated value of the oil.

It sounds like a serious "twofer" to me: sequestering oil and preserving a section of the Amazon. (GW)

Ecuador Seeks Compensation to Leave Amazon Oil Undisturbed

Environmental News Service
April 24, 2007

QUITO, Ecuador, April 24, 2007 (ENS) - The government of Ecuador will wait up to one year to see if the international community offers to compensate the country for not developing a major oil field in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Energy Minister Alberto Acosta says. The area of lush, primary rainforest shelters a unique diversity of animals and plants.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and his government say that if the international community can compensate the country with half of the forecasted lost revenues, Ecuador will leave the oil in Yasuni National Park undisturbed to protect the park's biodiversity and indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation.

"The first option is to leave that oil in the ground, but the international community would have to compensate us for immense sacrifice that a poor country like Ecuador would have to make," said Correa in a recent radio address.

President Correa estimates the compensation figure at around US$350 million per year.

"Ecuador doesn't ask for charity," said Correa, "but does ask that the international community share in the sacrifice and compensates us with at least half of what our country would receive, in recognition of the environmental benefits that would be generated by keeping this oil underground."

The government's offer is in response to intense opposition to oil development in the area from Ecuador's vocal environmental and indigenous organizations who urgently strive to keep this continous primary rainforest intact.

The oil fields, known as Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha, ITT, are the largest untapped oil fields in Ecuador. They have been estimated by Ecuador's government and analysts to contain 900 million to one billion barrels of oil equivalent, about a quarter of the country's known reserves.

On April 4, Petrobras signed a memorandum of understanding with Ecuador's state-run oil company Petroecuador, in which the companies plan to jointly develop the giant oil block. Petrobras said the partners also are considering building a crude oil upgrading plant on site at ITT.

Since late March, Petroecuador also has signed agreements for the development of ITT with Sinopec of China, Enap of Chile, and the Venezuelan State Oil Company PDVSA.

"We now have an unprecedented opportunity to work with a progressive administration in order to save one of the greatest spots on Earth," said ecologist Dr. Matt Finer of Save America's Forests, a conservation group based in Washington, DC. "What are urgently needed now are viable proposals from the international community to present to President Correa."
ITT is located within one of the most remote and still intact parts of Yasuni National Park, globally renowned for its record levels of biodiversity for everything from trees and insects to mammals, birds, and amphibians.

Moreover, ITT is located within the ancestral territory of the Waorani and it is widely believed that several clans are living in voluntary isolation within the project area.

"This presents a landmark opportunity to sequester up to half a billion tons of CO2 while conserving Yasuní's astounding biodiversity and cultural heritage," said Max Christian of the Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology program at the University of Maryland.

"If the international community is serious about mitigating climate change and impacts to ecosystems, structuring a debt-for-carbon swap here offers a very real financing possibility," Christian said.

Ecuador is a country of 13 million people, more than half of whom live in poverty. The government claims that oil revenue is necessary to meet the development needs of its citizens. These revenues account for around 40 percent of the federal budget every year.

Ecuador is burdened with over 15 billion dollars of external debt, including substantial amounts owed to the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank - more than enough to cover Ecuador's ITT compensation offer.

Yasuni National Park protects one of the most biologically rich regions in the world, including a large stretch of the world's most diverse tree community and the highest known insect diversity in the world. It is one of the most diverse places in the world for birds and amphibians.

Yasuni shelters 25 mammal species that are of global concern according to IUCN-The World Conservation Union, including the endangered Amazon tapir, the largest land mammal on the continent, and at least 10 monkey species.

Relatives of the Waorani, the Tagaeri and Taromenane, are believed to be living in voluntary isolation in the ITT area. These groups are renowned for their giant spears and regarded as among the fiercest tribes on Earth. Dr. Finer says they maintain no peaceful contact with the outside world and are completely dependent on a thriving rainforest for survival.

Because of Yasuni's biological and cultural importance, it was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989.

In January, in order to protect the Tagaeri-Taromenane, the Ecuadorian government created an Untouchable Zone - a large area off-limits to oil activities and logging just to the south of ITT.

To the immediate west of ITT is Petrobras' controversial Block 31, where development plans have been stalled for nearly two years due to strong opposition from environmental, scientific, and indigenous organizations.

Several indigenous organizations opposed the creation of the Untouchable Zone because it still allowed oil activities within presumed Taromenane-Tagaeri territory within ITT and Block 31.

In May 2006, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures in favor of the Tagaeri-Taromenane due to the threats posed to them from oil activities along with illegal logging.

These measures request that the Ecuadorian government "protect the territory in which they inhabit, including actions required to prevent the entry of others."

Juan Ernesto Guevara of Finding Species, a conservation group with offices in Ecuador and the United States, says, "Government approval of oil activities within ITT, as well as Block 31, would represent a violation of these precautionary measures."

To find out more about the uncontacted peoples of the Amazon, visit:

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The future of oil & sustainable development: A Nigerian perspective

Climate change is not the greatest challenge facing society today. No, the real challenge is finding ways to eradicate poverty, genocide and AIDS -- for starts -- while simultaneously working to minimize the impacts resulting from the Earth's greenhouse-gas-altered atmosphere and restoring its chemical integrity.

Africa, China and India in particular have a great deal to say about how the transition to a sustainable world will unfold which makes it clear that this will not be as easy. The "Truth" may be a lot more inconvenient than we've been led to believe. (GW)

Meeting oil industry challenges: An OPEC perspective

By Mohammed Hamel
Nigerian Tribune
April 24, 2007

Speech delivered by Mr. Mohamed Hamel, Head, Energy Studies Department, on behalf of OPEC's Secretary General, HE Abdalla Salem El-Badri, at the 8th International Oil Summit, Paris, France.

Let me start by thanking the organisers for the invitation to present on behalf of OPEC’s Secretary General, HE Abdalla Salem El-Badri, to such a distinguished gathering and on such important topics. Given the history and nature of our industry, the use of the words ‘challenges’ and ‘cooperation’ for today’s session could not be more apt.

The oil industry has successfully dealt with many challenges in the past; through technology development, extended reach, innovative ways of doing business and by continuously creating and developing new opportunities. Today, in a more global and interconnected world the challenges continue, some new, others the result of past actions and behaviours, but all necessitating innovative thinking, collaboration, timely adaptation and swift action.

To the fore and perhaps the overriding challenge is that related to sustainable development. The focus is on ensuring healthy economic growth, rapid social progress and environmental protection in a mutually-supportive manner. Like in the past, energy will be essential in this respect. Our reference case projections to 2030 show global energy demand increasing by around 1.7 per cent annually. It also highlights that fossil fuels will continue to provide more than 90 per cent of the world’s total commercial energy needs, with oil remaining the leading source in the global energy mix, although its share may decrease from 39 per cent to 36 per cent.

Regarding oil, the reference case scenario displays world demand rising at an average annual rate of 1.4 per cent during this period, climbing from 84.6 mb/d in 2006 to 118 mb/d in 2030. Developing countries account for most of this rise, with consumption doubling from 29 mb/d to 58 mb/d. More than two-thirds of this growth will be in Asian developing countries. For oil, the main source of future increases will be in the transportation sector. Thus, the industry is very sensitive to any technology, policy and economic developments in this sector.

To complete the future demand outlook, what I need to underline are the uncertainties in all this. Doubts over how future oil demand plays out translate into large uncertainties over the amount that OPEC Member Countries (MCs) will eventually need to supply, signifying a heavy burden of risk. For example, to 2020, scenarios developed by the OPEC Secretariat highlight that the amount of oil required from OPEC could range by close to 9 mb/d. And this is where we come to the security of demand challenge; for the oil industry as a whole and for OPEC MCs specifically.

In monetary terms, the corresponding range for MCs is somewhere between $230 billion and $500 billion, representing a huge uncertainty for MCs upstream investment requirements, all with competing needs in such areas as health, education and infrastructure. In addition, a large amount of idle capacity would put much downward pressure on prices and be detrimental to vital export revenues. In fact, the risks have heightened recently. For example, recent policy initiatives that discriminate against oil, involving subsidies for competing fuels and higher tax rates, may see even lower demand for oil products in general, and for OPEC oil in particular.

In the EU, Member States have agreed to adopt a binding 2020 target to increase renewable fuel use by 20 per cent. And the US is promoting the use of ethanol with subsidies and has set out ambitious targets for increasing the use of alternative fuels. The most recent proposal in the US – the Alternative Fuels Standard Programme – sees alternative transport fuel hitting almost 2.3 mb/d by 2017. This is approximately 1.5 mb/d more than what has been laid out in OPEC’s reference case over the same period.

It begs the question: will producing countries need to revisit their investment plans, in the face of policies that lean towards a movement away from oil? Investments in capacity that will just lie idle do not make sense. While OPEC has offered in the past, and will continue to offer in the future, adequate levels of spare capacity for the benefit of the world at large, it cannot be expected to invest in what to all intents and purposes is a back-up security policy in case alternative fuel policy initiatives fail to materialise.

With regards to policies, it is also worth mentioning the continuing upward trend in the taxation of oil products. This has evolved over the past three decades despite the up and down nature of crude price behaviour. This throws up a challenge to the industry as a whole as most of the end-consumer price ends up in the budget of the consuming country government. It means that only a relatively small fraction is left to recover costs and provide returns to producers and those investing in the industry.

The uncertainties I have just described also impact the downstream. Our analysis reveals tightness in the refining sector in the form of inadequate refining capacity which has been putting much pressure on oil prices generally. The extent to which refining tightness will ease will depend on the evolution of what is currently a neck-and-neck race between refinery capacity growth and demand growth.

OPEC’s assessment of existing refinery projects indicates that investments, including new units and maintenance and replacement, total $455 billion, with the largest number of capacity additions and investment taking place in the Middle East. As with the upstream, however, timely investment needs to take into account policy initiatives. Uncertainties related to the levels of future products demand and non-refined supplies are currently resulting in additional risks, for a sector traditionally characterised by low margins and high volatility.

Alongside the investment issues I have highlighted, it must also be appreciated that we are presently in a period when costs are significantly inflated, in part, as a result of the low oil price environment ten years or so ago. This led to the implementation of downsizing and cost-cutting strategies in particular in the services sector. According to CERA, upstream costs have increased by 53 percent over the last two years. It leads me to the question: is this cost behaviour structural or cyclical? Whatever the answer, it is a huge challenge facing the industry and an issue that needs to be continually monitored.

The industry’s expansion is also being significantly constrained in the area of human resources. A shortage of skilled labour for drilling, engineering, procurement, construction and other services and a downturn in the number of students in energy fields are serious reasons for concern. As an industry today it often appears that we have an image problem and we are becoming less attractive as a career choice. One of the reasons is that the industry is unfortunately often painted as one in its twilight years or the cause of many of the worlds’ ills. To counteract these views, the industry needs to make concerted efforts to help facilitate education and training in energy disciplines. We need to make the industry attractive to prospective graduates – this includes making it easier for students to enrol in universities across national borders.

Let me stress at this juncture that despite the many uncertainties surrounding the future demand for its oil, in spite of the extremely high costs and the shortage of skilled labour, OPEC MCs are investing heavily in maintaining existing capacity and building new capacity, to ensure that markets are adequately supplied at all times and there is a comfortable level of spare capacity. Going forward, OPEC crude capacity expansion plans already in place are expected to result in almost 40 mb/d of crude capacity by the end of 2010, underpinned by more than 140 projects totalling more than $120 billion. In addition, many MCs are investing in the downstream, both inside and outside of their borders, thus contributing to alleviating the current downstream tightness. OPEC is doing its share and is committed to ensuring order and stability in the international oil market, with secure supply, reasonable prices and fair returns to investors.

What all this points to is the fact that the energy security challenge is one that requires a shift from talk of one-way dependence to interdependence. It is a two-way street. For example, while net oil imports in OECD countries is around 60 per cent of their total demand, oil exports in OPEC MCs account for no less than 77 per cent of total exports. The role of oil is equally important to the economic growth and prosperity of consuming-importing countries as well as to the development and social progress of producing-exporting countries. The concern of consuming countries for the secure flow of oil at reasonable price is matched by the concern of producers for predictable demand, non-discrimination against their products, access to markets, reasonable and stable prices for their exhaustible resources and adequate revenues for their socio-economic development.

I would like now to turn to another extremely important challenge for the future of the oil industry: the protection of the environment, both locally and globally. Up front, let me stress that the oil industry has a long history of successfully improving its environmental credentials, for both the production and the use of the world’s leading energy source. For example, as this slide shows, tailpipe emissions of non-CO2 substances have been enormously reduced over the past three decades.

In the global environment arena our MCs have invested billions of dollars over the past decades in flared gas recovery projects. This represents a significant contribution to the reduction – by more than half since the early 1970s – of the amount of gas that has been flared per barrel of oil produced. Globally, it is extremely important to underscore that an increase of fossil fuels use, as painted by all scenarios, can be made compatible with the objective of limiting or reducing the level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

We need to look at technological options that allow the continued use of fossil fuels in a carbon-constrained world. One promising option is carbon capture and storage (CCS), applied to large stationary sources of CO2 emissions, such as power stations and industrial sites, which together account for over half the energy-related CO2 emissions. CCS can also be used in conjunction with CO2-enhanced oil recovery. Last year, OPEC held a workshop with the EU in Riyadh on CCS, a demonstration of its commitment to this technology. It is also joining the IEA GHG R&D Programme.

In the area of CCS and similar technologies, industrialised countries, having the financial and technological capabilities, should take the lead, by promoting large-scale demonstration projects. This includes through the possible use and probable redesign of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

The challenges described all point to the need to develop and explore, existing and new avenues of cooperation, in the context of an increasingly interdependent world. Efforts at expanding dialogues are something our Organization has, and continues to devote much energy to. The most recent result of this was the establishment of energy dialogues between OPEC and a number of other industry stakeholders: the EU, China, Russia, a number of other non-OPEC producers and the IEA.

This year will also witness OPEC broadening its talks. In late March, there was a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Bangkok, and early talks will be held with Japanese officials from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Tokyo. I would also like to highlight the role of the International Energy Forum (IEF) in promoting the producer-consumer dialogue. Its Secretariat in Riyadh is also the home of the Joint Oil Data Initiative (JODI) and OPEC is extremely proud to have played a significant part in the development of JODI. The initiative has quickly evolved into an internationally-respected initiative focused on advancing the transparency, quality, timeliness and flows of energy market data.

Allow me to conclude by bringing you back to the issue I mentioned at the beginning of my speech: sustainable development. The goal in every decision we make needs to take into account its three pillars: economic growth, social development and environmental protection. With all OPEC Member Countries, developing ones, the issue of sustainable development is one close to the Organization’s heart. In fact, His Excellency Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah, the Second Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Energy and Industry for Qatar, holds the Chair at the present 15th session of the influential United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. What needs to be recognised is that sustainable development means different things to different people. In this world, it is abundantly clear that many social and economic disparities exist.

Today, 1.1 billion people are currently living on less than $1 a day, almost two billion have no electricity and many people rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating in unsustainable ways. For them, energy is not just about the pumps being full, the public transport infrastructure ticking over, or the DVD player being to hand. It is about having the basic energy services to help eradicate poverty, support health care and education, provide the rudimentary conditions for economic development and enhance living standards. I am proud here to mention our sister organisation, the OPEC Fund for International Development, which is contributing its share to poverty alleviation, through developmental actions in 119 countries.

So just as oil played and continues to play a key role in fuelling the development of industrialised countries, so it will also help fuel the growth of today’s developing nations. It is thus essential that we continue to meet the challenges our industry faces.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Who's minding the global food bank?

China's emergence as an economic power determined to raise the standard of living of its populace is placing immense pressure on the world's resources -- especially with respect to food and energy. That fact combined with the surge in interest by America and other countries to find biofuel substitutes for oil (in search of energy independence) is having profound impacts on agriculture and global food security.

"How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor" by
C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer appears in the May/June 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs. They report on the "Ethanol Bubble" noting that
"The enormous volume of corn required by the ethanol industry is sending shock waves through the food system...Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn -- which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year."
American farmers are planning to plant "wall-to-wall corn" for the purposes of producing ethanol. That's what government subsidies dictate they do in order to
rescue their failing farm businesses from bankruptcy. How long will it take for world leaders to realize that if the lure of windfall profits tempt more and more farmers to grow crops for fuel than for food, it won't be long before we create a world of very rich and extremely poor starving people? (GW)

To Fortify China, Soybean Harvest Grows in Brazil

RONDONÓPOLIS, Brazil — For more than 2,000 years, the Chinese have turned soybeans into tofu, a staple of the country’s diet.

But as its economy grows, so does China’s appetite for pork, poultry and beef, which require higher volumes of soybeans as animal feed. Plagued by scarce water supplies, China is turning to a new trading partner 15,000 miles away — Brazil — to supply more protein-packed beans essential to a richer diet.

China’s global scramble for natural resources is leading to a transformation of agricultural trading around the world. In China, vanishing cropland and diminishing water supplies are hampering the country’s ability to feed itself, and the increasing use of farmland in the United States to produce biofuels is pushing China to seek more of its staples from South America, where land is still cheap and plentiful.

“China is out there beating the bushes,” said Robert L. Thompson, a professor at the University of Illinois who is a former director of agricultural and rural development at the World Bank. The goal, he said, is “to ensure they have access to long-term contracts for minerals and energy and food.”

Once, the biggest bilateral food trade flowed between the United States, the world’s largest food exporter, and Japan. But countries with vast arable land available for expansion, particularly Brazil, are now racing to meet demand in China, whose population of 1.3 billion is 10 times that of Japan’s.

Farmers in the United States have started planting far more corn for ethanol at the expense of other crops, including soybeans. But after the United States grain embargo by President Richard M. Nixon in the early 1970s helped spawn Brazil’s soybean industry, American farmers are not giving up their leading role in the grain trade easily.

With a far superior system for transporting crops to global markets, American farmers still enjoy many advantages over their new competitors from Brazil and elsewhere in the developing world. Infrastructure and financing constraints in Brazil will keep the competition to feed China in flux for years to come.

But the longer-term trends are apparent. At the heart of the shift is the global competition for land to grow crops. Brazil, which farms about 175 million acres, has room to double its available cropland to equal the scale of the United States, analysts say, even without clearing any more of the Amazon rainforest.

“All of a sudden you have a global market for land, a competition between several different products for the same amount of land,” said Sergio Barroso, president for the Brazil operations of Cargill, the biggest grain trader in the world. Brazil’s soybean industry is losing acres to sugar cane for ethanol production in some areas, he said, and is competing with corn, cotton and cattle.

“If you put it all together between feed and food,” Mr. Barroso said, “it is going to be a tremendous challenge.”

Expectations ran high three years ago when Hu Jintao, the president of China, visited South America and toasted a strategic partnership with his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, predicting trade between the countries would double to $20 billion. China pledged $10 billion in investments.

To some extent, Brazilians have been disappointed in the follow-up. The Chinese have struggled with red tape in Brazil and hesitated while waiting for Brazilian rules to activate public-private investments. “Very little has happened,” said Pedro de Camargo Neto, a former official in the agriculture ministry in Brazil who is now an agribusiness consultant.

But China has continued its buying spree in Brazil. The soybean trade between the countries has exploded. Last year Brazil sent nearly 11 million tons of beans to China, a 50 percent increase from the previous year and nearly double the amount shipped in 2004. Early indications are that Brazil has produced yet another record crop, and analysts expect that China will devour most of it.

While the United States remains the largest producer of soybeans, last year Brazil became the biggest exporter. This year the United States will regain the crown, but its soybean exports are expected to fall by 23 percent by 2009-10, according to the Agriculture Department.

For all the gains here, though, the surge in exports to China has created unease among many in Brazilian agriculture, who worry the tightening relationship will accelerate a development model in which Brazil is too reliant on sales of raw natural resources rather than higher-value products. And after enjoying a trade surplus with China, Brazil slipped into a deficit in the most recent quarter as the Chinese stepped up shipments of manufactured goods.

The challenge of supplying China is already showing signs of strain. A soybean boom has turned to a bust in the last two years for many farmers here in Mato Grosso, a state in western Brazil the size of Texas and Kansas that produces more than a third of the country’s beans.

Near Rondonópolis, Rogerio Salles watched recently as a handful of combines harvested the last soybeans on his 17,500-acre farm ringed by eucalyptus and rubber trees. “Just because we’re producing a lot of beans here doesn’t mean we’re making money,” he said.

The strong Brazilian currency and a transportation bottleneck are conspiring against many Mato Grosso farmers. Most of the beans are trucked south more than a thousand miles along highways riddled with potholes. At the ports, some ships wait at anchor up to a month before finding a dock to load the beans.

“If major investments are not made in transport infrastructure, China cannot count on this region being a stable supplier to its market,” Mr. Salles said. “There’s a lot riding on this.”

Moving soybeans from Mato Grosso to ports in Brazil costs more than four times what American farmers spend to get beans from the Midwest to New Orleans and the Pacific Northwest. As a result, Brazilian farms realize far less for their crops than their American counterparts.

Brazil’s agricultural sector has been dominated by large investors who bought huge tracts at cheap prices, and by multinational grain traders — like Minneapolis-based Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, based in Decatur, Ill. — that have built storage, provided financing and lined up the overseas buyers.

Through his Maggi Group, Blairo Maggi, the governor of Mato Grosso, is the largest soybean grower in the world, and a major financier, with 400,000 acres of his own under production.

”It has been all about a land grab in Brazil,” said Daniel W. Basse, president of AgResource, an agricultural research consultancy.

For the farmers in Mato Grosso, prosperity has been elusive lately. Growers in the state amassed $14.5 billion in debt in the last two years. Farmers say they can no longer afford storage space, forcing them to sell their crops as soon as harvested, rather than wait for higher prices.

“You do all the work, you plant the right crops,” Mr. Salles, the local farmer, said. “But even when you do everything right, you still lose.”

The growers’ desperation has allowed the major grain traders to tighten their grip. Brazilian farmers say they are paying up to 25 percent more for supplies like fertilizers provided by the traders, who are paid back with the crop. “We are becoming slaves of the big trading companies,” said Ricardo Tomczyk, another farmer in Rondonópolis.

José Luiz Glaser, the general manager for grains and oilseeds at Cargill Brazil, said that Cargill stopped financing several farmers in Mato Grosso last year after they failed to pay their bills.

Such orphaned farmers could soon find new Chinese benefactors, who are looking to make inroads in the clubby world of Brazilian agriculture, said Charles Tang, president of the Brazil-China Chamber of Commerce. Brazilian farmers say they would welcome Chinese money. But they worry about China’s growing clout as a soybean buyer. Memories are still fresh of the 2004 “red beans” incident, when China rejected shipments of Brazilian soybeans after claiming they were contaminated.

To try to counter Chinese influence, Brazilian producers are working with American growers to diversify their buyers. American soybean producers organized a joint trade mission with Mato Grosso farmers in December to India, another huge potential growth market.

The Chinese want to connect directly with Brazilian farmers, bypassing the multinational grain merchants. While they have yet to make a major purchase of cropland in Brazil, they are looking to invest in improved facilities and upgrade the antiquated rail system.

China began looking overseas for more soybean supplies in the mid-1990s, when the scope of its land and water problems became clearer. Beijing has also chosen to use more of its arable farmland to grow fruits and vegetables, crops that make better use of China’s cheap labor and scarcer water supplies to generate higher returns on the export market.

In northern China, where soybeans traditionally have been grown, water tables are dropping at a rate of 3 to 10 feet a year, according to Wu Aimin, a researcher with the China Groundwater Information Center in Beijing.

“It takes a thousand tons of water to produce one ton of grain,” said Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental research and advocacy group. “So the most efficient way to import water is in the form of grain.”

Monday, April 23, 2007

Coal under fire

As far as electricity generation in this country is concerned, coal is still king. In his book "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future" Jeff Goodell points out something that may surprise and certainly dismay many:

"In truth, the United States is more dependent on coal today than ever before. The average American consumes about twenty pounds of it a day. We don't use it to warm our hearths anymore, but we burn it by wire whenever we flip on the light switch or charge up our laptops. More than one hundred years after Thomas Edison connected the first light bulb to a coal-fired generator, coal remains the bedrock of the electric power industry in America...We may not like to admit it, but our shiny white iPod economy is propped up by dirty black rocks."
"The Future of Coal", a recently released by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study group co-chaired by Professors John Deutch and Ernest Moniz, predicts that despite concerns about climate change: "coal will increase under any foreseeable scenario because it is cheap and abundant." This report was written before the Supreme Court ruling on CO2 emissions. That decision and subsequent policies constraining CO2 emissions could have a major impact. (GW)

Coal Assaults Continue

By Ken Silverstein
EnergyBiz Insider
April 18, 2007

A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needs to do more study before it issues permits to allow coal companies to perform any surface mining that would bury vital headwater streams. While the decision may get overturned by a higher court, it does emphasize the need to balance economic and environmental concerns.

Beyond the issue of mountaintop mining, the ruling carries implications with respect to the future use of coal-fired power generation. That's because U.S. lawmakers appear likely in the coming years to pass legislation that would constrain carbon output. Any such law would make it increasingly costly to build coal plants, which produce the preponderance of greenhouse gases. As a result, utilities would then be forced to rethink business strategies.

The assault on coal continues with mountaintop mining being one of the battles. In his decision, Judge Robert Chambers of the Southern District West Virginia said the corps failed to demonstrate that the strip mining technique is lawful. That marks the fourth time a federal judge has revoked mountaintop removal mining access, although in each case the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond has overturned those orders.

The corps maintains that it has adhered closely to the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, noting that the mines for which it issued permits will cause "no significant impact." That position is supported strongly by the coal industry.

Two federal appeals court judges disagree, however, writing in a dissenting view from the other Richmond-based jurists that, "This case is of exceptional importance to the nation and, in particular, to the states of the Appalachian region. The Appalachian mountains, the oldest mountain chain in the world, are one of the nation's richest, most diverse, and most delicate ecosystems, an ecosystem that the mountaintop coal mining authorized by the corps' general permit may irrevocably damage."

That sentiment in combination with the general desire to curb greenhouse gas emissions will have a major affect on the coal industry. If the United States starts regulating carbon emissions and subsequently allows such credits to be traded, they will sell for at least $25 a ton. Because less sophisticated coal plants produce at least twice the carbon emissions as other alternatives, the industry must develop new technologies or risk losing market share to natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy forms.

Emissions aside, mountain removal mining literally sheers off the tops of mountains to get at the underlying coal seams. But, the rock and dirt that is removed in the process is subsequently placed in the surrounding valleys and therefore buries some streams, harming overall water quality. Roughly 6,700 permits were issued between 1985 and 2001. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 1,200 miles of streams have been buried while at least 380,000 acres of local forestry have been devastated.

"This decision does give the corps another chance to try and show that they can issue permits for valley fills in streams without violating the law," says Steven Roady, an attorney for Earthjustice that sued the corps over this issue. "But the evidence to date shows that the corps has no scientific basis -- no real evidence of any kind -- upon which it bases its decisions to permit this permanent destruction to streams and headwaters."

Sensible Solutions

The ultimate goal is to come up with a sensible solution -- one that minimizes environmental harm while giving coal-dependent states a chance to prosper. The issue does not just affect the people of rural West Virginia, Kentucky and Eastern Tennessee. It also touches everyone else. Coal is used as the primary fuel form for about 50 percent of the electricity generated in this country.

Mountaintop mining accounts for a third of all coal mined in Appalachia and a study by Marshall University says that 15,000 jobs and $2.4 billion in economic output in West Virginia alone depend on these mining operations. The Energy Information Administration estimates that coal reserves in Appalachia are 55.2 billion tons while coal production tied to mountaintop mining in West Virginia alone is 52 million tons annually.

The strip mining technique gained prevalence in the 1990s, largely because about 90 percent of the resources that lay beneath those peaks were available for production. After the area is mined for coal, it must be "reclaimed" and turned into something useful. Coal companies and economic developers also said that the newly-created flat land -- a scarcity in many parts of Appalachia -- has turned once unusable areas into thriving properties where schools, shopping malls and recreational sites now exist.

"The opponents want the world to only see active, not-yet-reclaimed sites in their pictures and articles," says Bill Raney, executive director of the West Virginia Coal Association. "The entire story, through complete reclamation, is much more truthful, but is not nearly as dramatic for those who oppose mining. The miners are `practicing' environmentalists who make sure the environment is actually protected every day at their operations."

If history is a guide, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is likely to overturn the lower federal court decision. But the fight over mountaintop removal is just one piece in the overall strategy to knock coal off its pedestal. Witness the case in which TXU Corp. became embattled over a proposal to build 11 coal-fired power plants in Texas before two private suitors proposed a buy-out of the utility.

"Now we just have to make the paradigm shift and start thinking about shipping electrons instead of coal," Leslie Glustrom, an activist with Clean Energy Action in Boulder.

The pressure will continue. Utilities that rely on coal must accept that the legislative and regulatory environment is changing. They must implement modern coal technologies while embracing the use of sustainable energy forms. It's not just about reducing the level of emissions. It's also about safeguarding their shareholders.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

(Spaceship) Earth Day

Inexorable Evolution and Human Ecology

Until humanity starts behaving
In logical ways
For logical reasons
Natural evolution will force it
To keep on behaving logically
For seemingly illogical reasons ---
Resulting inexorably, as at present,
In humanity’s backing
Rump-bumpingly into its future
While disregarding opportunities
To about-face and realize
Its inspiring passengership
Aboard Planet Earth ---
As its exploratory mothership
Of ever vaster and more exquisite
Macro – and micro-cosmic realms
And the frustrations
Of fearfully clung-to customs
Will persist unabated until
Humanity undertakes
Seriously, imaginatively,
Courageously, inspiringly
To employ effectively
The ever-more with ever less ---
Of effort, material, time
And tolerance of error
Per each accomplished task
The comprehensively anticipatory
Design science revolution ---
Being intent thereby
To make all of humanity
Successful in every sense.
As it undertakes design revolution
Humanity must also realize
That it can always afford rearrangements
Of the physical environment constituents
Which produce sustainable increases
In the proportion of all humanity
Enjoying comprehensive success ---
Provided only the task
Is physically feasible
Within ecologically critical limits
Of electro-magnetics, chemistry, time.
“We cannot afford’ assumes spending
Interstransforming as matter or radiation
Energy cannot be spent
Know-how always increases
Wealth multiplies irreversibly.
And not until then will nature
Cease to cope with humanity’s
Ignorance-prolonged inertia
Just in the same way
That human parents
Cope with their newborns’
Innocently ignorant
Self-helplessness ---
And that is by forcing man
To acquire the adequate technology
With which ultimately
To attain and sustain
That potential omni-success.
And until then it will be accomplished inversely ---
Through activating humanity’s
Death fearing instincts.
Fear forcing it to acquire
The adequate production-tool complex
As a consequence of inducing humanity
Into an investment and reinvestment
Of its best capabilities and resources
Only in preparation for war.
This inverse procedure will regenerate
To ever higher degree
Both the more-with-less energy processing
And its production equipment
And when man learns, if he does
To initiate the more-with-lessing
Under peacefully purposed auspices
Peace then will be attained
And Universe sustained
But not until then.

R. Buckminster Fuller, 1973, Earth, Inc.

Friday, April 20, 2007

A tree grows (in value) in Brooklyn

I'm willing to bet that the New York City Parks Department's estimate of the value of its city's trees is grossly underestimated. Bucky Fuller used to point to trees as examples of Nature's exemplary structural design "strategy":

"Among nature's most efficient -- and therefore most beautiful -- designs are the structuring of the great trees...The way trees hold out five-ton branches while yielding in streamline and flexing gracefully without breaking in great winds is a design accomplishment unparalleled in aeronautical engineering...Enormous amounts of water are continuously being elevated through the one-way, antigravity valving system. The tree feeds the rain-forming atmopshere by leaking atomized water out through its leaves while at the same time sucking in fresh water through its roots."

Buckminster Fuller. "Synergetics 2: Further Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking."
Without the benefit of a computer model, I'm going to guess that the true value is closer to "priceless". (GW)

Maybe Only God Can Make a Tree, but Only People Can Put a Price on It

By David K. Randall
New York Times
April 18, 2007

It seems like a Zen koan: how much is a New York City tree worth? Since New York’s first park was created in 1733, the various incarnations of the modern Parks and Recreation Department have tried to quantify a resource that at best is viewed as inherently valuable, like sunshine, or at worst is chopped down.

Trees are great for a variety of reasons, but how do you explain that to the Office of Management and Budget?” Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner, has said.

Now, for the first time, the Parks Department can actually translate the value of the city’s trees into real dollars and cents. And as expected, it’s a big number.

Step 1 was a tree census, a two-year process that sent more than 1,000 volunteers to count every tree on every street in the city. The census results were then fed into a computer program that spit out a dollar value for each of the 592,130 trees counted, a figure that does not include the roughly 4.5 million trees in parks and on private land.

The program, called Stratum, was developed by researchers at the University of California at Davis and the United States Forest Service. It takes into account several factors, including a tree’s impact on local property values, its contribution to cleaning the air by absorbing carbon dioxide, and how much its shade helps reduce energy consumption.

Factoring in the costs associated with planting and upkeep, New York City’s street trees provide an annual benefit of about $122 million, according to the Parks Department. The study concludes that New York receives $5.60 in benefits for every dollar spent on trees.

Trees in lower-density areas, typically in Queens and on Staten Island, are generally more valuable than those in Manhattan and high-density areas of Brooklyn and the Bronx because they provide the greatest environmental benefits, according to Fiona Watt, chief of forestry and horticulture for the city.

“Trees in front of single-family homes will provide greater shade, and it’s intuitive that a large tree in front of a home seems to resonate more than the same tree in front of a huge apartment building,” she said.

Trees with large leaves, like London plane trees or maple trees, are more valuable because they provide more shade and consume more carbon dioxide.

The information on the economics of the city’s trees gives the Parks Department concrete evidence when it comes to budget discussions, Mr. Benepe said. “We plan on using these values as a baseline to say that this is what we have now, and argue for additional funds to plant more trees,” he said.

The tree census found that Queens has about 40 percent of the city’s street trees, followed by Brooklyn, with about 25 percent; Staten Island, with about 16 percent; the Bronx, with about 10 percent; and Manhattan, with roughly 8 percent.

The city has made planting more trees as a small way to improve air quality part of a broad plan developed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to make the city a better place to live by 2030. Mr. Benepe called it “a happy coincidence” that the tree census puts a dollar value on a tree’s environmental benefits at the same time that the city is trying to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions.

The first step in determining a tree’s environmental value is measuring the rate at which different tree species absorb pollutants. This is being done at a monitoring station at the University of California that simulates New York’s City’s climate, said Dr. Greg McPherson, the lead designer of the program and the director of the Forest Service’s Center for Urban Forest Research.

Dollar values are assigned through an equation that compares carbon dioxide emissions from power plants with the amount of carbon dioxide that a tree species takes in, he said. Power plant smokestack emissions are used because they are easily traceable in the atmosphere, Dr. McPherson said.

The computer model determines a tree’s environmental value based on how much carbon it absorbs that would have to be eliminated from the air through some other means, and how much less carbon is emitted by power-generating plants because of a reduced demand for energy resulting from a tree’s shade.

To calculate the dollar effect of a tree on property values, the city used a 1988 study in Athens, Ga., that found that homes with a tree in front sell for almost 1 percent more than similar homes without trees.

The city took the median value of a single-family home sold in 2005 as a constant and based each tree’s contribution on its size, location and species. A large tree in front of a single-family home would have the highest value, while a small tree in front of an apartment building would have the lowest value.

Dr. McPherson said he developed his computer program over the last 25 years by incorporating several studies that showed the economic benefits of trees.

“I hope this model provides ammunition for people on the front lines who have to battle for budgets to maintain their trees and expand their urban forests,” he said.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Graphics Gremlins refuse to go away

I continue to be plagued by the almost daily experience of having graphics from one or more postings mysteriously and randomly disappear.

I apologize to all of you who all-too-frequently have been forced to stare at blank boxes with an "x" in the upper left corner where a graphic should be.

This is very frustrating, and I'm hoping the folks at Blogger will work out the kinks as soon as possible. In the meantime, I monitor things as often as possible and try to replace the dropped images as quickly as possible.

Thanks for bearing with me.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"A very risky prospect"

So... where do you suppose Russia plans to "test-drive" its prototype floating nuclear power plant that was the subject of my post yesterday?

Thanks to my friend and colleague Steven for bringing this to my attention. (GW)

Namibia: Country to Set Up Floating Nuke Activators

By Brigitte Weidich
The Namibian (Windhoek)
April 5, 2007

NEW and untested Russian nuclear technology - generating atomic energy on ships anchored offshore - is to be introduced along the Namibian coast.

During his visit to Namibia last month, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and his delegation made proposals to Government in order to address "the threat of an energy shortage in Namibia within the next five years".

Details of what the proposals entail are set out in the latest Cabinet briefing paper, which was released in Windhoek yesterday.

They include the "supply of a floating nuclear energy production ship, run by the Russians and to be connected to the national power grid for distribution to NamPower and its customers".

"The second proposal is the construction of a medium-sized nuclear power plant," the briefing paper said, without providing further details.

According to international news reports, the use of ships as atomic reactors for electricity supply entails cable connections from such ships to the shore, which are then connected to the national power grid - a very risky prospect.

Only a few months ago the Russian government approved the construction of the first of this kind of floating power plant in that country.

A shipyard in the far north of Russia that usually turns out nuclear submarines will begin construction work this year.

Rosenergoatom, Russia's nuclear power agency, said it intends to build up to six such floating nuclear power stations and that the first one will only be ready in 2010.

These plants will supply heat and electricity to far-flung corners of Russia's Far East and Far North, where it is difficult and expensive to ship coal and oil.

Russia wants to sell the controversial mobile power units to other countries such as China, India and Asian countries and now Namibia.

The power stations have a service life of 40 years, require a crew of 69 people, and generate enough heat and electricity to power a medium-sized town.

The cost of one such atomic ship is estimated at N$2,6 billion.

The Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) also wants to lease these new and untested power plants to Southeast Asian countries.

The appropriate licence was issued by the Russian Federal Service for Nuclear and Radiation Safety (Gosatomnadzor) in December 2004 already.

Thailand and Indonesia have demonstrated their interest in these plants.

Negotiations about financing such project are underway with China.

According to the New Zealand Herald, the floating nuclear power stations can be "dead anchored" in a quiet bay or towed to other destinations.

The first model will be moored in the White Sea off the town of Severodvinsk in Russia's northern Archangel region.

Sergey Obozov, a senior official at Rosenergoatom, boasted that they would be "as reliable as a Kalashnikov [AK 47] assault rifle, which are a benchmark of safety".

Sergey Kiriyenko, the head of the agency, was also confident.

"There will be no floating Chernobyl," Kiriyenako was quoted by the New Zealand Herald.

He was referring to the Soviet-era nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986.

Environmentalists have warned that the concept is risky and that the floating nuclear power stations, which could also be used to desalinate seawater, could sink in stormy weather.

They have also argued that such ships would make a prime target for international terrorists.

According to a recent report from the Norwegian-based Bellona Foundation, the floating atomic power stations are "a threat to the world's oceans".

According to yesterday's Cabinet briefing paper, the Russian Federation has also expressed interest in mining and the processing of minerals in Namibia, especially uranium and diamonds.

Other areas discussed were agriculture, fishing, the modernisation of the Namibia Defence Force's weaponry and "cooperation in the fields of communication and construction."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Offshore nukes

When I first glanced at the headline, I was sure that I'd read it wrong. Upon closer examination, I realized I was not mistaken. Russia really is about to begin construction on a series of floating nuclear power plants.

It will be interesting to see how this new approach to deploying nuclear energy affects the discussion around offshore energy. Will it be offered up as "clean" (i.e. carbon neutral) energy alternative that coastal communities opposed to the development of offshore wind farms or LNG facilities will have to consider?

Two articles follow: a recent one (April 15th) announcing Russia's intention to begin construction on the first in a series of offshore nuclear plants, and one published last fall that provides a bit more context. (GW)

Russia constructing floating nuclear power plant

Associated Press
April 15, 2007
MOSCOW — Russia began construction of its first floating nuclear power plant today, and plans to build at least six more despite long-standing environmental concerns that they are vulnerable to accidents at sea, Russian news agencies reported.

Russia justifies the program as a way of bringing power to some of the country's most remote areas, also saying some of the plants could be sold to other nations.

The head of Russia's atomic energy agency, Sergei Kiriyenko, said the plants will be safe.

"This plant is much safer than atomic energy stations on the ground," the RIA-Novosti news agency quoted him as saying at a formal ceremony at the Sevmash fabricating plant in Severodvinsk on the White Sea coast.

He cited the 2000 sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk as evidence of the reliability of the plants, which will use reactors similar to those on the submarine.

"After the boat was raised, specialists proved that the reactor could be put into service that very moment," he said, according to RIA-Novosti.

The atomic energy agency and Sevmash today signed a document on their intent to build six more floating power plants, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.

It cited the atomic energy agency as saying that talks were under way on selling the plants to unspecified Asian and African countries as well as to Russian regions.

Russian Company to Build Floating Nuclear Power Plant; 'Maybe It Will Turn Out Great'
October 16, 2006

A Russian energy company has plans to construct a floating nuclear-energy plant on a football-field size barge to deliver electricity to inhabitants of northern territories near the White Sea.

Rosenergoatom said the 200 million U.S. dollar facility will be constructed next year and will provide relatively inexpensive, reliable energy to 200,000 people in a region where harsh weather makes regular coal and oil fuel deliveries unreliable and expensive.

It's not a new idea, and the technology has been available since the 1970s when U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Company built a huge dry-dock facility in Jacksonville, Fla. Westinghouse had planned to construct nuclear plants that would be floated north along the Eastern Seaboard, providing electricity to needy customers.

Engineers would standardize construction for multiple plants in an offsite factory with increased quality control and reduced production costs before tugging a plant to its port of call.

But ultimately, says retired Westinghouse consultant Richard Orr, energy conservation following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo killed the project.

The Russian plan is to mount two reactors on a barge, float it to a port, connect power lines to the mainland, and turn on the reactors, providing communities with affordable electricity.

The plant will store waste and spent fuel in an onboard facility that workers will empty every 10 to 12 years during regular maintenance overhauls. After 40 years, the normal life span for a nuclear plant, the decommissioned plant would be towed away and replaced with a new one.

The reactor and spent fuel would go to a storage facility, but the barge could be recycled.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Norwegian foundation Bellona say they ware worried about the plan to bring back to life the Westinghouse project because of safety concerns.

One concern is that a boat could ram the plant and spill waste into the water.

An even bigger fear is that a storm could cut the plant off from the land-based power supply required to run plant operations. Should emergency generators fail, says David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Chernobyl-like disaster could ensue.

In a worst-case scenario, an overheated core could melt through the bottom of the barge and drop into the water, creating a radioactive steam explosion. Such a cloud could do far more damage than the plume of nuclear fallout kicked up by the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former U.S.S.R., Lochbaum notes, because the human body absorbs radioactive water droplets more easily than it does radioactive ash.

"Its worst day would be much worse than a land power plant's," he says.

Rosenergoatom has permission and intends to have the facility afloat in the port city of Severodvinsk in the southeastern White Sea by late 2010.

"The Russians have learned a lot about safety from the U.S. Department of Energy, Sweden and Norway -- who probably all wish [the Russians] would focus on things other than a floating nuclear power plant," says Cristina Chuen, a Russian nuclear-energy specialist with the Monterey Institute for International Studies in California.

"Maybe it will turn out great, but I just hope they did all the research to make sure it's safe."

Monday, April 16, 2007

The roads to sustainability?

Having just rejoined the ranks of "extreme commuter (see below) -- something that I'm not proud to admit (although I do commute by bus) -- I found Nick Paumgarten's article in the April 16, 2007 issue of the New Yorker entitled "There and Back Again: The soul of a the commuter" of particular interest. In it, he makes some (what some might consider disturbing) observations:

"Roughly one out of every six American workers commutes more than forty-five minutes, each way. People travel between counties the way they used to travel between neighborhoods. The number of commuters who travel ninety minutes or more each way—known to the Census Bureau as “extreme commuters”—has reached 3.5 million, almost double the number in 1990. They’re the fastest-growing category, the vanguard in a land of stagnant wages, low interest rates, and ever-radiating sprawl."
So given the above, is it possible that: (1) Better roads lead to less emission from car traffic? and (2) Restraining the capacity in the road network is an environmentally unsound measure to promote lower emission from road traffic? Those are among the conclusions reported by researchers in a recently released study, "Environmental consequences of better roads" by the European Union Road Federation. (GW)

Roads 'good for the environment', says study

13 April 2007

Bigger and better roads contribute to cutting pollution by removing bottlenecks, states a report commissioned by the EU Road Federation. The study follows criticism from green groups that investing in roads is contrary to Europe's sustainable development goals.

“More investment in road infrastructure is needed to remove bottlenecks, avoid city centres and complete missing links which together cost billions every year in lost fuel and undoubtedly contribute to the transport sector’s environmental footprint,” said the European Union Road Federation (ERF), in a paper published on 10 April 2007.

Citing a study undertaken by an independent Norwegian research organisation, the SINTEF Group, the ERF claims that infrastructure capacity increases are directly linked to decreases in polluting emissions from motor vehicles.

Using a traffic micro-simulation, SINTEF researchers showed, for example, that upgrading narrow, winding roads with modern ones or adding a lane to a congested motorway can yield decreases of up to 38% in CO2 emissions, 67% in CO emissions and 75% in NOx emissions, without generating substantially more car trips.

“Cases where road authorities and municipalities have deliberately restrained capacity to jugulate demand have been found to be environmentally counterproductive,” said the ERF.

The study follows calls by green NGOs to curb the growth in road transport in favour of more sustainable transport systems, notably by spending larger chunks of EU money on rail and public transport, which emit three times less carbon dioxide than cars.

Magda Stoczkiewicz of the CEE Bankwatch Network said: "The EU should spend less on roads and more on alternatives to cars...Building road infrastructure inflates transport demand just as printing money creates inflation, and already the Czech Republic and Lithuania have more cars per person than rich Denmark."

The ten central and eastern European member states are planning to invest more than half of the €50 billion they will receive over the next seven years in EU aid for transport, under structural and cohesion funds, in new roads and motorways, while only 30% will be spent on railways and 10% on public transport.

Green NGO Friends of the Earth (FoEE) says that this will “generate more traffic and greenhouse emissions” and has urged the Commission to “take firm steps to prevent seven years and billions of euro being lost to energy-intensive development”.

But the ERF says that more money for roads is particularly needed in countries like Poland, where just 3% of roads are to Western standard, thereby resulting in higher emissions from car traffic and in a larger number of accidents on the roads.