Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A tale of two climate skeptics

Freeman Dyson and James Lovelock are two of the world's most brilliant and respected scientists. In his youth Dyson mingled with the likes of Einstein and Oppenheimer pondering ways of unifying the micrscopic and macroscopic realms of physics. Lovelock along with Lynn Margulis developed the "Gaia Hypothesis" -- the theory that effectively transformed our world from one primarily based on physics to one based on life.

Mr. Dyson is not convinced that climate change is real. I'm a believer, but I also find his arguments to be somewhat compelling. Read why he's skeptical in the New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story "The Civil Heretic".

Mr. Lovelock, on the other hand is a true believer in climate change. What he doesn't believe is that renewable energy technologies like solar and wind can effectively address the problem. He especially deplores wind farms for what he considers to be their visual blight. For him, nuclear energy is our only hope of avoiding a climatic catastrophe. (GW)

Just when we need him, the professor has an acute attack of the Belamoids

The new planning regime for wind farms is not a 'fascist' erosion of our freedoms; it is vital for the survival of our planet

By George Monbiot


March 31, 2009

Renewable power is drifting away on the wind like thistledown. The credit has gone; the price of fossil fuels has fallen. It is impossible to work in a country whose people treat wind farms like the black death. The investors have blown overseas or put their cash back into coal.

So James Lovelock's timing is, to say the least, eccentric. Just as several major companies reveal that they are packing their bags, the venerable father of Gaia theory - possessor of one of the world's greatest minds - announces in Sunday's Observer that "intemperate injunctions about green imperatives could make [environmentalism] as dangerous" as the ideology of the Axis powers. He told the Guardian that a new planning regime for wind farms is "an erosion of our freedom [that] draws near to what I see as fascism". His grounds? The energy secretary, Ed Miliband, had mused that it should be "socially unacceptable to be against wind turbines in your area - like not wearing your seatbelt or driving past a zebra crossing".

I have great respect for Professor Lovelock. He has done more to advance our understanding of the planet's response to climate change than any other living person. But he appears to be suffering from an acute case of bellamoids (an unexpected attack of irrationality first noted in David Bellamy). He is old enough to know what fascism looks like. It embraces a wide and contradictory set of movements, but its common feature is violence in the pursuit of political aims. If Professor Lovelock knows of people who have been killed as a result of their opposition to wind farms, he should tell us.

Fascism also has a reputation for being ruthlessly efficient in implementing its chosen schemes - building autobahns, mobilising panzer divisions, making the trains run on time. This is not a charge that could be laid at the door of Mr Miliband's department. His statement was in fact an expression of utter impotence: a hand-wringing entreaty to the public after all else has failed.

The government, as far as I can tell, has not yet formally renounced the target it set in 2000: that 10% of our electricity supply should come from renewables by 2010. So far it has managed 4.9%, and it has nine months in which to make up the difference. Its objective for 2020 is beginning to look almost as unrealistic. Despite the fact that the UK has richer ambient energy resources than any other country in Europe, the government managed to beat its target for renewable power down to 15% of total energy supply, rather than the 20% adopted across the EU. Even so, this means that by 2020 35% of our electricity must be produced by wind, hydro, wave, tidal, solar or biomass generators. The technology that could be most widely deployed is wind power, but investment is melting away faster than an Andean glacier.

Shell has pulled out completely. Centrica, E.ON and BT are reviewing their plans. Sun Microsystems has suspended its projects. The Spanish company Iberdrola is cutting its investment in the UK by 40%. Scores of smaller firms are going bust. Can you hear the jackboots yet?

Such is the state's failure that even Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP who worshipped at the altar of the free market as fervently as any, now calls for "a new strategic direction and a new framework of rules, laid down by government". As it happens, the government is prepared to be ruthlessly interventionist in pursuit of other energy aims. To promote its policy of "maximising the UK's existing oil and gas reserves", it confiscates the licences of any company that fails to make full use of them. In 2007 it seized 32 blocks and parts of 40 others. It calls this approach "forcing unworked blocks back into play". But the state dares not be so dirigiste when dealing with renewables. It allows people of Professor Lovelock's persuasion to trample all over the industry.

I understand their concerns. I don't believe that wind farms should be built anywhere and everywhere. (Now that I live among them, however, I like them much more than I used to.) But the battle against wind power has grown out of all proportion to the threat it presents. The Campaign to Protect Rural England and its equivalent in Wales, the CPRW, appear to be obsessed; the CPRW should be renamed the Campaign to Publicly Rubbish Wind.

Local authorities are supposed to deal with planning applications within 16 weeks. They process 70% of other major developments - supermarkets, airport extensions, housing estates and the rest - in this period. They manage to work through just 5% of wind farms in the same amount of time: such is the public outcry.

You might imagine that the objectors are in the majority. They are not. In a survey by the Department for Business, 64% of respondents agreed that they would be happy to live within 5km of a wind development; 18% disagreed. But a very powerful middle-class constituency drives all before it, often using falsehoods to make its case. Even Professor Lovelock is not above using such tactics. In the Observer he used German figures to make his point about the UK: "the turbines are only 17% efficient". All the authoritative sources I have seen report a capacity factor for onshore wind in the UK of between 25% and 40%, and about 35% for offshore wind.

The objectors assert that the new planning act will force communities to accept wind farms. It's true that the infrastructure planning commission, rather than local authorities, will decide on projects bigger than 50 megawatts. But just 7% of the 7,000MW of onshore applications stuck in the planning process in England and Wales cross this threshold. Councils will have no discretion over new coal-burning power stations, roads and airports, but they will be able to settle the great majority of wind power proposals. There is plenty to object to in the pernicious new act, but it's hard to see why wind farms should be singled out.

The windbags have now driven most proposals offshore. But here, though the turbines can be bigger, the costs of establishment are much higher, not least because developers have to pay for their own connections to the national grid, which means laying down a long undersea cable. When you throw in the collapse of the carbon market, the reduction in the price of gas and coal, the shrivelling of credit lines and the devaluation of the pound, it's hardly surprising that investors have found something better to do.

As wind was the primary means by which the government was hoping to replace fossil fuels, the great pull-out appears to destroy any remaining likelihood that this country can meet its obligations under either the European directive or the UK's Climate Change Act. This is grim news for all but one of the earth's people. Professor Lovelock might not be around when it happens, but at least he will have the equivocal satisfaction of knowing that his prophecy - the total collapse of human society - is more likely to come true.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Do you chukudu?

It is fascinating to see what innovations end up having the greatest positive impacts on people's lives. Outside "experts" are really bad at predicting such things -- especially when trying to do so about another culture. Better off paying attention to Yogi Berra's conclusion that "You can observe a lot by looking."

What you'd observe if you looked in on the Congo these days is a simple, environmentally-sound crafted tool that is making a big difference in people's lives. It's a scooter that represents an elegant example of design science at work. (GW)

A Small Ride That's a Big Wheel in Congo

By Anna Husurska
Washington Post
March 29, 2009

GOMA, Congo

"Chu-ku-du, chu-ku-du, chu-ku-du" goes the wooden scooter as it bumps along the lava-covered streets of this central African city. It's a strange-looking contraption, like a handmade toy for grown-ups: two rubber-covered wheels connected by a board, with a steering handle atop an upside-down fork.

Even the oldest people can't remember when and how the onomatopoeically named chukudu first appeared in this part of North Kivu, an area of eastern Congo between the north shore of Lake Kivu and the heart of the Virunga National Park. But it is to Goma what the bicycle is to Amsterdam and the horse-drawn carriage to New York's Central Park.

Despite its odd appearance, a chukudu goes amazingly fast and can carry heavy loads; an owner can earn up to $10 a day -- a huge amount for the Congolese -- transporting a variety of goods. And more than that, it can help liberate the women of this region from some of the backbreaking work they face every day. Imagine if the chukudu and international aid organizations worked together to help move Congolese women along the road toward embracing their rights.

The regular traffic on the eastern Congo's pothole-strewn thoroughfares is generally a trickle of women and girls in colorful dresses walking along the side of the road, each one carrying some unbelievable cargo on her head -- charcoal, maize, perhaps the family's laundry -- as well as a child tied to her back, or water in a 20-liter container hanging from a strap around her forehead. Men pass by riding bicycles or donkeys or on foot, but they rarely carry anything more than their own personal items and perhaps a transistor radio or a notebook. The division of labor is clear.

But if a household owns a chukudu, a "maman" (Congolese for woman or lady) can ask "papa" to transport a load. She will still be multitasking 24/7, and he will still be mostly idle. But at least one heavy weight will be lifted, literally, from her shoulders. Moreover, if men share the burden of transporting loads for a family's use, that means that women and girls won't have to make as many cargo trips. And that means that they'll be safer, because crime -- especially rape -- is rampant on Congolese roads. In addition, a man with a chukudu is a potential money-earner. And to top it all off, the chukudu is environmentally friendly: Wooden scooters don't pollute.

The same can't be said for the kings of the road here: the slow convoys of white armored cars, trucks and bulldozers of the United Nations peacekeeping mission that spew clouds of exhaust and routinely clog traffic wherever they go.

Yet circumstances in North Kivu are anything but routine: The region's main claim to tragic fame is an ongoing many-sided civil war, partly the sequel to the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Until recently, the war involved rebel Tutsi groups, rebel Hutu groups, regular Congolese army and a few other motley armed bands. The Tutsi rebels disbanded in January, and many of them joined the regular Congolese army they had previously been fighting. Around the same time, the Rwandan army entered Congolese territory at the invitation of Congolese President Joseph Kabila. Together these armies, which had fought two wars against each other in the 1990s, began an offensive against the Hutu rebels, many of whom are said to be former "genocidaires."

In late February, the departure of some of the Rwandans was celebrated by a joint military parade in Goma, where civilians have an uneasy relationship with foreign militaries that have contributed to the conflict and chaos here. But there has been no clear information about how many troops have left and how many remain, and how long they will stay.

Meanwhile, the United Nations deployment of peacekeepers here is the largest it has ever stationed anywhere in the world. Of the more than 17,000 personnel of the operation known by its French acronym MONUC, about 6,000 are in the province of North Kivu. MONUC's mandate was renewed and reinforced last December; importantly, its first and foremost task is "to protect the civilian population." And this is a monumental job: The current conflict has forced an estimated 1 million people or more to flee their homes in North Kivu and seek shelter in displaced persons' camps, with other families, or in neighboring Uganda.

MONUC is the first to admit that it can't protect so many civilians at risk. Last October, when 150 people were massacred in the town of Kiwanja, MONUC -- stationed little more than a mile away -- knew nothing about the incident. MONUC soldiers have interpreters only during working hours and only on weekdays, not necessarily the timetable when atrocities occur. Moreover, not all MONUC deployments are identical, nor do they operate under the same regulations: When armed men attacked a convoy of the International Rescue Committee last October, a contingent of MONUC soldiers of one nationality simply abandoned our team. The convoy was later rescued by a peacekeeping unit from India.

The humanitarian intervention in North Kivu is also huge: Ten U.N. agencies and more than 60 international non-governmental organizations operate here, providing shelter, food, safe water and latrines and such basic amenities as blankets, soap and pots and pans. They seek to improve access to schools and health care for displaced civilians, offering catch-up programs for children who missed school because of the war, and medical and psychosocial care for girls and women who have been raped.

When the armed groups move their troops, forcing the populace into flight, and when humanitarian groups try to help the displaced by bringing them vital support, it makes for a lot of comings and goings on the roads around here.

Which brings us back to the chukudus. Those funny-looking but sturdy machines can carry hundreds of pounds of goods balanced on the central running board. This may mean several bags of cement or cases of bottled drinks, dozens of heads of cabbage strung together like bowling balls, or numerous sacks full of charcoal. The chukudu must be pushed uphill, but Goma, the destination of most of the merchandise, is at the bottom of a hill. Heading down, the chukudu acts like a skateboard, and the chukudista just has to maintain his balance, using a piece of tire pressed against the back wheel as a brake. When the scooter is empty, he rests his knee on a pad made from the sole of a flip-flop and pushes with the other leg.

Four years ago, in an effort to boost East Congolese pride and promote this very sui-generis vehicle, MONUC and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights organized a 5-km chukudu race to celebrate International Human Rights Day. Two hundred competitors, divided into juniors and seniors, took part. The winners each received a brand-new bicycle; the runners-up won prizes tailored to local needs: goats or metal sheet-roofing.

There was a minor revolt in the chukudista ranks in 2007, when the then-mayor of Goma wanted to ban the vehicles from the center of town. But that mayor is gone, and the chukudus are still here. And according to the Web site of the Padri Bianchi, an order of Italian monks who work in Goma, a Congolese nun by the name of Deodata is teaching the chukudistas basic arithmetic and how to read. "Now they are learning to raise their heads, and soon they will be demanding their rights," the Web site, Missionari d'Africa, quotes the nun as saying, somewhat defiantly.

Of course, a wooden scooter can do only so much to stop criminal behavior, change social habits, promote human rights, advance literacy and liberate the women of Congo. But every wooden wheel does its little bit.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

How green is thy forest?

These tough economic times are working to soften some foresters positions about clear-cutting and forcing them to consider adopting sustainable forestry practices. Yet another intriguing scenario that is unfolding as Nature is trying to help point to what it will take for humanity to successfully continue on this planet -- even as those invested in the status quo become more determined in their resistance.

The big question as posed in the following story from the New York Times is: "Can people really make a living off the forest without cutting it down?" (GW)

Loggers Try to Adapt to Greener Economy

LOWELL, Ore. — Booming timber towns with three-shift lumber mills are a distant memory in the densely forested Northwest. Now, with the housing market and the economy in crisis, some rural areas have never been more raw. Mills keep closing. People keep leaving. Unemployment in some counties is near 20 percent.

Yet in parts of the region, the decline is being met by an unlikely optimism. Some people who have long fought to clear-cut the region’s verdant slopes are trying to reposition themselves for a more environmentally friendly economy, motivated by changing political interests, the federal stimulus package and sheer desperation.

Some mills that once sought the oldest, tallest evergreens are now producing alternative energy from wood byproducts like bark or brush. Unemployed loggers are looking for work thinning federal forests, a task for which the stimulus package devotes $500 million; the goal is to make forests more resistant to wildfires and disease. Some local officials are betting there is revenue in a forest resource that few appreciated before: the ability of trees to absorb carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that can contribute to global warming.

Pragmatism drives the shifting thinking, but a critical question remains: can people really make a long-term living off the forest without cutting it down?

“I run into people all the time who think we’re lying and trying to go back to old logging ways,” said Jim Walls, director of the Lake County Resources Initiative in southeastern Oregon, a nonprofit agency that is trying to create jobs for rural residents in fields like biomass energy production and wildfire prevention. “It’s just not true.”

One new believer is Harold Jones. Hear him repent and reposition in the new economy.

“The only money I’ve ever made is cutting down trees,” Mr. Jones, 75, said just after coming in from thinning the stand of Douglas firs he has planted on 125 acres he owns here in Lowell. “So what I’ve tried to do in my retirement is to try to bring back and repay the Earth for a lot of the devastation I’ve caused it.”

Mr. Jones started logging in 1948 and has long rolled his eyes at “countercultural types” who protest timber sales. Yet in front of his property now are signs saying “Certified Family Forest.”

The certification process, supervised by the American Tree Farm System, requires Mr. Jones to manage and replant his land under the supervision of a professional forester. It is intended in part to give small tree farmers some credibility within the sustainable forestry movement, which promotes forest health, and to help them market their product as “green lumber.”

“It’s quite a process,” he said.

Restrictions on logging have prompted entrepreneurial thinking about the forest for years, but efforts have increased as states like Oregon and Washington have emphasized renewable energy and jobs that support it. In turn, the plummeting housing market has forced some timber companies to try to diversify — and even collaborate with environmentalists to protect forests from wildfires, disease and development.

“There’s been recognition in the last several years that we need the industry to carry out the restoration work we want accomplished,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, a senior conservation associate for the Idaho Conservation League, which is negotiating with loggers and others with the goal of getting Congress to preserve parts of the Clearwater National Forest as wilderness.

For loggers and other rural workers, survival in the future might mean abandoning fights to cut older trees in exchange for being able to salvage smaller timber from burned forests. It might mean removing or rebuilding roads and structures on federal land, whether to reduce erosion or to improve recreational access. For the Forest Service, the stimulus money for thinning reflects an increasing emphasis on preventing wildfires, rather than simply fighting them, by removing smaller trees and brush from overgrown forests.

The work may be less profitable for big timber companies than clear-cutting a hillside, but it can create jobs in places accustomed to losing them.

In Lane County, Ore., on the wet west side of the Cascade Range, the county commission is looking for revenue to replace dwindling federal payments set up a decade ago to help governments in timber regions. Lane County received about $47 million this year, but the subsidies are declining and are scheduled to expire in 2012.

Now Lane County commissioners are asking the Legislature to draft a resolution urging Congress to pay counties that have large amounts of federal forest land for the carbon that their forests trap. Such a plan would depend on Congress’s developing a system for buying and selling so-called carbon offsets.

Not everyone likes the idea. Some loggers say it would be the final blow to their efforts to restore more logging on federal land. Jobs that have disappeared, they say, will never return.

“It puts us at risk,” said Robbie Robinson, president of Starfire Lumber in Cottage Grove, about 20 miles south of Eugene. Pyramids of Douglas fir rested outside his office window, no buyers to be found. “What I sense is another whole business being built, and the real problem is being able to harvest old trees.”

Forest economists say government spending, beginning with the stimulus package but also extending to any program to buy and sell carbon offsets, will be necessary to build a new economy in the rural Northwest.

Some supporters of sustainable forestry are concerned that, despite assurances by the Forest Service, the stimulus package will create only short-term jobs in the woods and miss the chance to invest in a complete “waste chain,” in which small timber and brush from thinning projects are put to use for lumber, biomass fuel and other purposes, potentially strengthening rural economies on many levels.

“We’re doing a lot of things here that nationally we say we want to do — biomass, fuels reduction, forest health, green jobs — we’re doing all of it now,” said Josh Anderson, the timber resource manager for Vaagen Brothers Lumber in Colville, Wash., which has worked with environmental groups to preserve wilderness land but has had to lay off about half of its 200 employees in recent months.

“We want to be here to be able to do that when things improve,” Mr. Anderson said. “We need to see something that moves a long-term trend toward work on these projects. It’s got to be pretty integrated.”

Mr. Walls, of the Lake County Resources Initiative, said a planned biomass energy plant in Lakeview, near the Nevada-California border, would generate 150 construction jobs, 50 to 75 permanent jobs in the forest and 15 at the plant. The plant would generate 13 megawatts of electricity, enough to power every home in the town of 2,300 and to contribute to the broader power grid.

But for the plant to operate, Mr. Walls said, it would need a steady flow of fuel, in the form of wood byproducts, from federal forest thinning and wildfire prevention, a pipeline that may or may not become permanent. The plant is seeking about $5 million in grant money under the stimulus package.

Mr. Walls said he was told by the Forest Service’s regional office in Portland that the project was a top prospect and that a decision was expected any day. He said its chances might have improved this month when Oregon’s governor, Theodore R. Kulongoski, appointed him to a committee to help oversee stimulus spending.

Even if the Lakeview project and others like it do fall into place, Mr. Walls said, many other struggling timber towns still will need the demand for lumber to rebound. “In the end,” he said, “the housing market does have to turn back.”

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Where will you be, what will you do -- when the lights go out?

I guess we all wonder what events and "protests" like Earth Day and Earth Hour ultimately achieve. Ultimately it is about public education.

When I taught high school many years ago I started out trying to turn every student on to science. That remained my goal for as long as I taught, but I soon learned that getting though to even one of them was extremely gratifying and might -- just might -- have a profound impact on the world. (GW)

World prepares for big switch-off

Christian Science Monitor
March 28, 2009

Millions of people worldwide are being urged to switch off lights for an hour, in what is described as the biggest climate change protest ever attempted.

The initiative, Earth Hour, was begun in Sydney two years ago by green campaigners keen to cut energy use.

Correspondents say the aim is to create a huge wave of public pressure to influence a meeting in Copenhagen later this year to seek a new climate treaty.

Critics describe the event as a symbolic and meaningless gesture.

The switch-off is expected to take place in more than 3,400 towns and cities across 88 countries, at 2030 in each local time zone.

Earth Hour was launched in 2007 as a solo event in Sydney, Australia (photo), with more than two million people involved. Last year's event claimed the participation of 370 cities.

Locations taking part this time include Sydney's Opera House, Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing and the Egyptian Pyramids.

Fast-food giant MacDonald's has pledged to dim its "golden arches" at 500 locations, while celebrities such as actress Cate Blanchett and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have promised support.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon backed the initiative in a video posted this month on the event's YouTube channel.

"Earth Hour is a way for the citizens of the world to send a clear message," he said. "They want action on climate change."

People are invited to provide blogs and short video clips on how they spend their time.

Nothing new under the warm power of the sun

If you can believe it, later this year we'll be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the No-Nukes concert and John Hall's memorable song. (GW)

No Nukes

Friday, March 27, 2009

The "nexus" of water and energy is becoming an issue

It's going to be increasingly difficult to predict just how global climate change will influence our lives as it unfolds. The world is complex and nonlinear and the scenarios that have been concocted thus far attempting to describe the socioeconomic impacts of climate change simply can't adequately predict this complexity.

Case in point: many states in the U.S. arid West are scrapping plans to build fossil fuel power plants in favor of pursuing energy efficiency and renewable energy options. This is not a result of these states suddenly becoming "green". It's because they're going dry. (GW)

Water Worries Shape Local Energy Decisions

Scarcity Forces Electricity Companies to Rethink Power-Plant Plans, Providing an Opening for Renewable Sources

By Rebecca Smith
Wall Street Journal
March 26, 2009

Last month, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a utility that provides power to mostly rural areas, agreed to conduct a major study to see if it might meet growing energy needs through energy efficiency and not a big, new coal-fired power plant, as it had proposed for southeast Colorado.

One reason for the move was a challenge by Environment Colorado, an advocacy organization, about the amount of water a new plant would require.

Changes like these are happening with increasing frequency, particularly in the arid West, as mounting concerns about water begin to shape local energy decisions.

In some cases, power companies are pulling back from plans to build traditional power plants that require steady streams of water to operate. In others, renewable-energy projects such as wind farms or solar arrays are gaining momentum because their water needs are minimal.

Tri-State no longer is sure what it might build in southeast Colorado but it is going ahead with plans to build a 500,000-solar-panel project in northeast New Mexico in partnership with First Solar Inc. "There's no water requirement with solar," said Mac McLennan, senior vice president for Tri-State, based in Westminster, Colo.

Advocates for alternative energy are discovering that water issues may prove to be as important a selling point for the industry as reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.

"The more we wean energy companies off consumptive use of water, the better for everyone," said Craig Cox, executive director of the Interwest Energy Alliance, a Colorado trade group that represents power-project developers.

The electric-power industry accounts for nearly half of all water withdrawals in the U.S., with agricultural irrigation coming in a distant second at about 35%. Even though most of the water used by the power sector eventually is returned to waterways or the ground, 2% to 3% is lost through evaporation, amounting to 1.6 trillion to 1.7 trillion gallons a year that might otherwise enhance fisheries or recharge aquifers, according to a Department of Energy study.

The study concluded that a megawatt hour of electricity produced by a wind turbine can save 200 to 600 gallons of water compared with the amount required by a modern gas-fired power plant to make that same amount.

Earlier this month, Jeff Bingaman (D., N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, noted during a hearing that the "nexus" of water and energy is becoming an issue "in [power plant] permitting decisions across the country."

Landowners in the far northeast corner of California were riled recently by Sempra Energy's proposal to build a coal-fired power plant just across the state line in Nevada.

One reason residents objected was that the plant would have required vast amounts of water for cooling. "Use of groundwater is always a sensitive issue up here because we don't have much," said Jack Hanson, a member of the Lassen County Board of Supervisors.

Sempra pulled the plug on the project in late 2006, citing, among other things, water use. Since then, another big energy proposal has surfaced, but it hasn't kicked up much opposition: A dozen companies are considering building hundreds of wind turbines along Lassen County ridgelines. So far, 17 meteorological towers have been erected to verify wind speeds.

In turn, conventional power plants are turning to technology that aggressively cuts water use as they weigh the costs of installing more complicated cooling systems versus leaning on scarce resources.

A power plant recently put into service by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a unit of PG&E Corp., in the Northern California town of Antioch has a cooling system to cut its water intake from 40,000 gallons a minute to 1.6 gallons. In the past, power plants commonly were built with "once-through cooling," in which water was drawn from waterways, used once, and then put back. But the Antioch plant uses a "dry" cooling technique that recirculates water in a closed system, reducing evaporation.

Environmental groups that oppose coal and nuclear power plants are discovering that water can be a powerful tool to challenge power companies.

In 2004, Riverkeeper Inc., an environmental organization in Tarrytown, N.Y., along with six states, sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the use of once-through cooling by as many as 500 older power plants in the U.S. The suit charges that the practice violates the Clean Water Act because it harms aquatic life and fails to utilize the best technology available, a requirement of the federal act.

The case, now before the U.S. Supreme Court, stands to test how water-use issues will determine which power plants continue to operate as well as what kind of plants are built.

Nuclear plants face particular scrutiny, since they require more water than any other form of steam generation. Virginia Power, a unit of Dominion Resources, is facing a legal challenge over its right to draw one million gallons of water a minute per reactor from a man-made lake it uses to cool its North Anna nuclear power plant and into which it discharges heated water. The utility built the lake in 1978 exclusively for the plant's cooling purposes.

A group called the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League Inc. argued that heat is a form of pollution and said the state water board shouldn't have renewed the plant's water permit. Last month, a state court upheld much of the environmental group's case; the utility plans an appeal. Dominion says the man-made lake is a private body of water and therefore shouldn't fall under the federal Clean Water Act.

Water is also emerging as an important point for analysts in the investment community. "We definitely have noticed more companies having water issues," said Swaminathan Venkataraman, an analyst at Standard & Poor's credit-rating agency. "If it continues, it will give renewables another important advantage."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Is prosperity the principal source of man-made greenhouse gases?

Economics and the environment are clearly compatible concepts. That's not necessarily saying that capitalism and the environment are. In fact, Wall Street and Mother Nature may very well be inherently, inevitably and forever at odds with one other with respect to their visions of how the world really works.

If that's the case, I'd put my money on Nature's plan for sustaining the systems that support life to ultimately prevail. It really is time for an economics as if people and the environment matter. (GW)

Economy vs. Environment

By David Owen
New Yorker
Mar4ch 30, 2009

The week before last, twenty-five hundred delegates, from more than seventy countries, met in Copenhagen to prepare for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will take place there in December and will produce a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1992 and will expire in 2012. The speakers in Copenhagen were united by a sense of urgency—and for good reason, given the poor record of most participating countries in meeting their Kyoto targets for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

So far, the most effective way for a Kyoto signatory to cut its carbon output has been to suffer a well-timed industrial implosion, as Russia did after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991. The Kyoto benchmark year is 1990, when the smokestacks of the Soviet military-industrial complex were still blackening the skies, so when Vladimir Putin ratified the protocol, in 2004, Russia was already certain to meet its goal for 2012. The countries with the best emissions-reduction records—Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the Czech Republic—were all parts of the Soviet empire and therefore look good for the same reason.

The United States didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but Canada did, and its experience is suggestive because its economy and per-capita oil consumption are similar to ours. Its Kyoto target is a six-per-cent reduction from 1990 levels. By 2006, however, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars on climate initiatives, its greenhouse-gas output had increased to a hundred and twenty-two per cent of the goal, and the environment minister described the Kyoto target as “impossible.”

The explanation for Canada’s difficulties isn’t complicated: the world’s principal source of man-made greenhouse gases has always been prosperity. The recession makes that relationship easy to see: shuttered factories don’t spew carbon dioxide; the unemployed drive fewer miles and turn down their furnaces, air-conditioners, and swimming-pool heaters; struggling corporations and families cut back on air travel; even affluent people buy less throwaway junk. Gasoline consumption in the United States fell almost six per cent in 2008. That was the result not of a sudden greening of the American consciousness but of the rapid rise in the price of oil during the first half of the year, followed by the full efflorescence of the current economic mess.

The world’s financial and energy crises are connected, and they are similar because credit and fossil fuels are forms of leverage: oil, coal, and natural gas are multipliers of labor in much the same way that credit is a multiplier of wealth. Human history is the history of our ascent up what the naturalist Loren Eiseley called “the heat ladder”: coal bested firewood as an amplifier of productivity, and oil and natural gas bested coal. Fossil fuels have enabled us to leverage the strength of our bodies, and we are borrowing against the world’s dwindling store of inexpensive energy in the same way that we borrowed against the illusory equity in our homes. Moreover, American dependence on fossil fuels isn’t going to end any time soon: solar panels and wind turbines provided only about a half per cent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2007, and they don’t work when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Replacing oil is going to require more than determination.

The environmental benefits of economic decline, though real, are fragile, because they are vulnerable to intervention by governments, which, understandably, want to put people back to work and get them buying non-necessities again—through programs intended to revive ordinary consumer spending (which has a big carbon footprint), and through public-investment projects to build new roads and airports (ditto). Our best intentions regarding conservation and carbon reduction inevitably run up against the realities of foreclosure and bankruptcy and unemployment. How do we persuade people to drive less—an environmental necessity—while also encouraging them to revive our staggering economy by buying new cars?

The popular answer—switch to hybrids—leaves the fundamental problem unaddressed. Increasing the fuel efficiency of a car is mathematically indistinguishable from lowering the price of its fuel; it’s just fiddling with the other side of the equation. If doubling the cost of gas gives drivers an environmentally valuable incentive to drive less—the recent oil-price spike pushed down consumption and vehicle miles travelled, stimulated investment in renewable energy, increased public transit ridership, and killed the Hummer—then doubling the efficiency of cars makes that incentive disappear. Getting more miles to the gallon is of no benefit to the environment if it leads to an increase in driving—and the response of drivers to decreases in the cost of driving is to drive more. Increases in fuel efficiency could be bad for the environment unless they’re accompanied by powerful disincentives that force drivers to find alternatives to hundred-mile commutes. And a national carbon policy, if it’s to have a real impact, will almost certainly need to bring American fuel prices back to at least where they were at their peak in the summer of 2008. Electric cars are not the panacea they are sometimes claimed to be, not only because the electricity they run on has to be generated somewhere but also because making driving less expensive does nothing to discourage people from sprawling across the face of the planet, promoting forms of development that are inherently and catastrophically wasteful.

One beneficial consequence of the ongoing global economic crisis is that it has put a little time back on the carbon clock. Because the climate damage done by greenhouse gases is cumulative, the emissions decrease attributable to the recession has given the world a bit more room to devise a plan that might actually work. The prospects for a meaningful worldwide climate agreement probably improved last November, with the election of Barack Obama, but his commitments to economic recovery and carbon reduction—to bringing the country out of recession while also reducing U.S. greenhouse emissions to seventeen per cent of their 2005 level by 2050—don’t pull in the same direction. Creating “green jobs,” a key component of the agenda, is different from creating new jobs, since green jobs, if they’re truly green, displace non-green jobs—wind-turbine mechanics instead of oil-rig roughnecks—probably a zero-sum game, as far as employment is concerned. The ultimate success or failure of Obama’s program, and of the measures that will be introduced in Copenhagen this year, will depend on our willingness, once the global economy is no longer teetering, to accept policies that will seem to be nudging us back toward the abyss.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Solar stimulus

Every region of the country has valuable renewable energy resources that, if harvested on a small scale by individuals and communities or at utility scales like New Mexico's 30-MW solar plant could make the notion of a clean energy economy a reality in relatively short order. We risk leaving our children and grandchildren with a very diminished world if we don't exercise these options immediately.

Tri-State plans 30-MW solar plant in NM

New Mexico Business Weekly
March 24, 2009

The Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association has signed an agreement with First Solar Inc. to construct and operate a 30-megawatt photovoltaic power plant in northeastern New Mexico.

The plant, to be located in Colfax County between the towns of Cimarron and Springer, will include 500,000 solar panels and produce enough electricity to power some 9,000 homes. It will be the largest PV project by an electric cooperative and one of the largest such plants to date in the world, said Tri-State General Manager and Executive Vice President Ken Anderson in a news release.

“This is a significant venture for Tri-State that meets several objectives identified by our board of directors,” Anderson said. “It further diversifies our generation mix, it assists us in addressing carbon emissions and it helps meet our members’ renewable energy requirements.”

Denver-based Tri-State supplies wholesale power to 44 electric cooperatives, including 12 in New Mexico, 18 in Colorado and the rest in Wyoming and Nebraska.

The plant will be located within the service territory of Springer Electric Cooperative, but will provide energy to all of Tri-State’s customers. The power generated will help New Mexico co-ops meet the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which obligates them to derive at least 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Arizona-based First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR), which formed in 1999, will install half a million two-by-four-foot solar panels built with the company’s patented thin-film technology. First Solar will act as the engineering, procurement and construction contractor and will monitor and maintain the facility.

Tri-State has agreed to purchase electricity from the plant for a 25-year period, although financial and operational terms of the agreement remain confidential.

Construction will begin by April 2010, employing between 120 and 140 people. The plant will start providing energy in August, and become fully operational by the end of 2010.

The project drew praise from New Mexico politicians. U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, said it shores up New Mexico’s reputation as a national leader in renewable energy production.

“I look forward to many more projects like this coming to fruition in New Mexico and across the country as we shift from fossil fuels to cleaner, green energy,” Bingaman said in a prepared statement. “I am especially pleased to see the electric co-ops take this major leap into renewables.”

Gov. Bill Richardson said the project demonstrates New Mexico’s determination to plow forward with renewable energy development.

“New Mexico has world-class renewable resources and a ready work force,” Richardson said.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

“A new social contract” for science

Today it is more important than ever that scientists are able to clearly and effectively communicate their findings with policymakers and ghe general public. This is particularly true for environmental researchers -- especially those concerned with the interface of ocean and environment.

So as we try and cope with problems ranging from climate change to over-fishing, could there be a more crucial government agency than the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration? Most folks, including policymakers, probably have no idea what NOAA does, if they even know it exists at all.

I have a feeling that is about to change thanks to Jane Lubchenco. And that's good news for all of us. (GW)

NOAA Chief Believes in Science as Social Contract

By Cornelia Dean
New York Times
March 24, 2009

The marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco has long urged scientists to abandon the habitual reticence of the research community and spend more time engaging the public and public officials about scientific and technical issues.

Now Dr. Lubchenco, a professor at Oregon State University, is following her own advice all the way to Washington to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the government’s premier science agencies.

This is only the latest step in a long career of practicing what she preached. In 1997, as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Lubchenco called for “a new social contract” for science, aimed at helping policy makers take steps to sustain the biosphere.

The next year, she founded the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which trains environmental researchers in communication, policy-making and related skills.

She was an organizer of the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea, which since 1999 has offered information on marine conservation science to policy makers and the public. And she was a founding director of Climate Central, a Web site that went online last year with what she calls “credible and nonadvocacy” information on global warming.

Although some global warming dissidents expressed dismay over President Obama’s choice of an outspoken climate activist to head a leading government agency that deals with climate issues, a wide range of scientists acclaimed the appointment — and Dr. Lubchenco was approved by the Senate without objection on Thursday.

“If you look at her record, it’s pretty stunning,” said Jeremy B. C. Jackson, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He cited a range of her work, including what he called “path-breaking” studies on the ecology of algae and seaweed, her deciphering of biological interactions along rocky shorelines and her wider assessments of environmental sustainability.

“She has done a lot,” Dr. Jackson said in an interview. “Jane has got some blockbuster papers, cited a thousand times.”

But as another practitioner of scientific outreach, Dr. Jackson said he particularly admired her efforts in that direction. When she was president of the Ecological Society of America, he said, “she got them to recognize that there was a big bad world out there and that ecology had not contributed to the dialogue.” The Leopold program has been “extremely useful,” he said.

According to conventional scientific wisdom, researchers cannot spare time for public involvement, much less public service. Many believe that if they are not constantly immersed in new findings and new methods they will fall far and fast into the research backwash. As a result, the theory goes, those who significantly interrupt their work might as well abandon it, especially if they take on an assignment as daunting as heading a major federal agency.

Dr. Lubchenco (pronounced LOOB-chen-ko) said she intends to escape this fate.

“I remain passionately interested in the discovery part of science,” she said in an interview. She and her colleagues at Oregon State — including her husband and fellow marine ecologist, Bruce Menge — have spent 30 years building a database about the state’s coast. “You don’t walk away from that gold mine of information,” she said.

Dr. Lubchenco, 61, said her “absolutely amazing” colleagues had agreed to pick up some of the work she will leave behind when she goes to Washington. With luck, she said, “I will be able to go back to that team once I am through here, whenever that is.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Lubchenco said, one of her goals at NOAA is to establish a climate information service modeled on the National Weather Service, which is part of the agency. The weather service provides “just a phenomenal service” in making information available in ways ordinary people can understand it and act on it, she said. Dr. Lubchenco believes climate models are now sufficiently “robust” to help scientists start to do the same with climate, to help businesses, elected officials and regulators make good decisions on issues like where to put buildings or roads or wind farms.

“It is no longer enough to know what the wind patterns were for the last hundred years,” she said. “You want to know what they will be for the next hundred years — and they undoubtedly won’t be the same. So there are huge opportunities to provide services to the country.”

The idea, which she said had been broached by the National Academy of Sciences, would have to be a joint effort with other agencies involved in the issue, like the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA or the United States Geological Survey, she said.

Another major item on the NOAA agenda is the dismal state of many of the nation’s fisheries. “Congress has mandated that overfishing be ended in 2011, 2012 — there are different dates for different fisheries,” Dr. Lubchenco said. “We are not on track to doing that now.”

She said there are a range of regulatory tools to apply to the problem, particularly catch shares, a term applied to various efforts to allocate percentages of a particular fish catch in a particular area to particular individuals, companies or communities. The idea has been used successfully on parts of the west coast, but it has yet to catch on widely in the east. Dr. Lubchenco said it had “tremendous merit” as a tool for restoring the sustainability of the ocean ecosystem.

But first, she said, fishing communities, scientists, regulators and other stakeholders in the debate need to overcome a legacy of bitterness and distrust. “It really is pretty dysfunctional,” Dr. Lubchenco said. But, she added, “in the end fishing jobs depend on fish, and fish depend on healthy oceans.”

If Dr. Lubchenco does eventually return to a robust research career, it will not be the first time she has successfully challenged the way science is typically practiced.

A Denver native who attended Colorado College, she earned master’s and doctoral degrees in marine ecology from the University of Washington and Harvard and came to Oregon State in 1977, when it was a given that female scientists who wanted to have children would have a difficult time building successful research careers.

She and Dr. Menge negotiated an arrangement in which they shared one faculty appointment, and one faculty salary. “As far as we know that had never been done before,” she said in an interview shortly after Mr. Obama named her as his choice for NOAA. Eventually, they worked into full-time jobs. And their son, Duncan Lubchenco Menge, who earned a Ph.D. last year, is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, in Santa Barbara, Calif., Dr. Lubchenco said.

Dr. Lubchenco, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a MacArthur grant recipient, said she did not take the NOAA job thinking it would be another chance for her to chip away at the culture of science — not consciously, anyway. “I took the job because I had the chance to be helpful,” she said.

And she acknowledged that not all scientists will do well in the public eye. But those who remain at the lab bench can support those who speak out, Dr. Lubchenco said, as her colleagues have pledged to support her. Will that support be enough? “We’ll have to see,” she said.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Has the the impact of global warming been substantially underestimated?

The UK's chief scientific adviser is convinced that the major economic and environmental crises that have come to define the first decade of the 21st century will come to a head in 2030.

It goes without saying the result will not be pleasant. (GW)

World faces 'perfect storm' of problems by 2030, chief scientist to warn

Food, water and energy shortages will unleash public unrest and international conflict, Professor John Beddington will tell a conference tomorrow

By Ian Sample

The Independent

March 18, 2009

A "perfect storm" of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions, the UK government's chief scientist will warn tomorrow.

In a major speech to environmental groups and politicians, Professor John Beddington, who took up the position of chief scientific adviser last year, will say that the world is heading for major upheavals which are due to come to a head in 2030.

He will tell the government's Sustainable Development UK conference in Westminster that the growing population and success in alleviating poverty in developing countries will trigger a surge in demand for food, water and energy over the next two decades, at a time when governments must also make major progress in combating climate change.

"We head into a perfect storm in 2030, because all of these things are operating on the same time frame," Beddington told the Guardian.

"If we don't address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages," he added.

Food prices for major crops such as wheat and maize have recently settled after a sharp rise last year when production failed to keep up with demand. But according to Beddington, global food reserves are so low – at 14% of annual consumption – a major drought or flood could see prices rapidly escalate again. The majority of the food reserve is grain that is in transit between shipping ports, he said.

"Our food reserves are at a 50-year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50% more food. At the same time, we will need 50% more energy, and 30% more fresh water.

"There are dramatic problems out there, particularly with water and food, but energy also, and they are all intimately connected," Beddington said. "You can't think about dealing with one without considering the others. We must deal with all of these together."

Before taking over from Sir David King as chief scientist last year, Beddington was professor of applied population biology at Imperial College London. He is an expert on the sustainable use of renewable resources.

In Britain, a global food shortage would drive up import costs and make food more expensive. Some parts of the country are predicted to become less able to grow crops as higher temperatures become the norm. Most climate models suggest the south-east of England will be especially vulnerable to water shortages, particularly in the summer.

The speech will add to pressure on governments following last week's climate change conference in Copenhagen, where scientists warned that the impact of global warming has been substantially underestimated by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The latest research suggests that sea level rises, glacier melting and the risk of forest fires are at, or beyond, what was considered the worst case scenario in 2007.

Beddington said that shifts in the climate will see northern Europe and other high-latitude regions become key centres for food production. Other more traditional farming nations will have to develop more advanced pesticides or more hardy crops to boost yields, he said. In some countries, almost half of all crops are lost to pests and disease before they are harvested. Substantial amounts of food are lost after haversting, too, because of insufficient storage facilities.

Beddington said a major technological push is needed to develop renewable energy supplies, boost crop yields and better utilise existing water supplies.

Looming water shortages in China have prompted officials to build 59 new reservoirs to catch meltwater from mountain glaciers, which will be circulated into the water supply.

Beddington will use the speech to urge Europe to involve independent scientists more directly in its policy making, using recent appointments by President Barack Obama in the US as an example of how senior scientists have been brought into the political fold. Shortly after taking office, Obama announced what many see as a "dream team" of scientists, including two Nobel laureates, to advise on science, energy and the environment.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Investing in a clean transportation future

Some of his critics are complaining that President Obama is trying to do too much at one time by tackling the economy, energy and health care during his initial months in office.
But these issues are interrelated and, more importantly, can't be put on hold until we feel we have the time to deal with them.

Contrary to what some have said, investments in renewable energy technologies can reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Electric vehicles are a powerful example of just how that can happen. Fortunately, the president is putting his/our money where his mouth is by making good on his promise to support the development of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

Obama puts up $2.4 billion for electric vehicles

POMONA, California (AFP) – President Barack Obama Thursday unveiled a 2.4 billion dollar boost for electric vehicle development, vowing to compete with foreign nations in the race to be world leader on renewable energy.

"We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad or we can create them here in America and lay the foundation for lasting prosperity," Obama said on the second day of a campaign-style swing in California.

Obama said the money would be used to develop next generation plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and advanced battery components and would create tens of thousands of US jobs and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

He set a target of putting a million of the environmentally friendly vehicles on US roads by 2015.

The plan would also give a 7,500 dollar tax credit to people who buy plug-in hybrid vehicles, Obama said, as he toured a plant in southern California developing the new generation transport.

"The nation that leads on energy will be the nation that leads the world in the 21st century," Obama said.

"That's why, around the world, nations are racing to lead in these industries of the future."

The president bemoaned the fact that the United States lagged behind some of its key European and Asian trading partners in the race to develop new generation fuels and vehicles.

"Germany is leading the world in solar power," he said.

"Spain generates almost 30 percent of its power by harnessing the wind, while we manage less than one percent and Japan is producing the batteries that currently power American hybrid cars."

The funds, dispersed by the Department of Energy, will offer up to 1.5 billion dollars to US manufacturers who produce highly efficient batteries and 500 million dollars for firms that produce other components for the vehicles.

A further 400 million dollars will be devoted to evaluating plug in hybrids and building the infrastructure they need to run, including charging stations and training for technicians who will be called upon to repair them.

The funds were made available under Obama's 787 billion dollar economic stimulus law.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Denmark shows that acting on climate can be a positive experience

strategies.The Danes are convinced that it is possible to reduce energy use and carbon emissions, and achieve economic growth. Their belief is not based on theory but on experience. Denmark has become a model of how to successfully implement energy efficiency and renewable energy One of their 'secrets' is that they not only use clean energy technologies like wind turbines -- they make them as well. In fact, theirs are among the best in the world.

If all that doesn't impress you, consider this: in 2006 according to a worldwide survey conducted by University of Leicester professor Adrian White Denmark is the "happiest place on earth". (GW)

Denmark's Wind of Change

By Bryan Walsh/Samso
Februry 25, 2009

If you want to know why Denmark is the world's leader in wind power, start with a three-hour car trip from the capital Copenhagen — mind the bicyclists — to the small town of Lem on the far west coast of Jutland. You'll feel it as you cross the 4.2 mile-long (6.8 km) Great Belt Bridge: Denmark's bountiful wind, so fierce even on a calm summer's day that it threatens to shove your car into the waves below. But wind itself is only part of the reason. In Lem, workers in factories the size of aircraft hangars build the wind turbines sold by Vestas, the Danish company that has emerged as the industry's top manufacturer around the globe. The work is both gross and fine; employees weld together massive curved sheets of steel to make central shafts as tall as a 14-story building, and assemble engine housings that hold some 18,000 separate parts. Most impressive are the turbine's blades, which scoop the wind with each sweeping revolution. As smooth as an Olympic swimsuit and honed to aerodynamic perfection, each blade weighs in at 15,400 lbs. (7,000 kg), and they're what help make Vestas' turbines the best in the world. "The blade is where the secret is," says Erik Therkelsen, a Vestas executive. "If we can make [a turbine], it's sold."

But technology, like the wind itself, is just one more part of the reason for Denmark's dominance. In the end, it happened because Denmark had the political and public will to decide that it wanted to be a leader — and to follow through. Beginning in 1979, the government began a determined program of subsidies and loan guarantees to build up its nascent wind industry. Copenhagen covered 30% of investment costs, and guaranteed loans for large turbine exporters such as Vestas. It also mandated that utilities purchase wind energy at a preferential price — thus guaranteeing investors a customer base. Energy taxes were channeled into research centers, where engineers crafted designs that would eventually produce cutting-edge giants like Vestas' 3-megawatt (MW) V90 turbine. (Read TIME's "Heroes of the Environment 2008.)

As a result, wind turbines now dot Denmark, the country gets more than 19% of its electricity from the breeze (Spain and Portugal, the next highest countries, get about 10%) and Danish companies control a whopping one-third of the global wind market, earning billions in exports and creating a national champion from scratch. "They were out early in driving renewables, and that gave them the chance to be a technology leader and a job-creation leader," says Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council. "They have always been one or two steps ahead of others."

The challenge now for Denmark is to help the rest of the world catch up. Beyond wind, the country (pop. 5.5 million) is a world leader in energy efficiency, getting more GDP per watt than any other member of the E.U. Carbon emissions are down 13.3% from 1990 levels and total energy consumption has barely moved, even as Denmark's economy continued to grow at a healthy clip. With Copenhagen set to host all-important U.N. climate change talks in December — where the world hopes for a successor to the expiring Kyoto Protocol — and the global recession beginning to hit environmental plans in capitals everywhere, Denmark's example couldn't be more timely. "We'll try to make Denmark a showroom," says Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "You can reduce energy use and carbon emissions, and achieve economic growth."

It's tempting to assume that Denmark is innately green, with the kind of Scandinavian good conscience that has made it such a pleasant global citizen since, oh, the whole Viking thing. But the country's policies were actually born from a different emotion, one now in common currency: fear. When the 1973 oil crisis hit, 90% of Denmark's energy came from petroleum, almost all of it imported. Buffeted by the same supply shocks that hit the rest of the developed world, Denmark launched a rapid drive for energy conservation, to the point of introducing car-free Sundays and asking businesses to switch off lights during closing hours. Eventually the Mideast oil started flowing again, and the Danes themselves began enjoying the benefits of the petroleum and natural gas in their slice of the North Sea. It was enough to make them more than self-sufficient. But unlike most other countries, Denmark never forgot the lessons of 1973, and kept driving for greater energy efficiency and a more diversified energy supply. The Danish parliament raised taxes on energy to encourage conservation and established subsidies and standards to support more efficient buildings. "It all started out without any regard for the climate or the environment," says Svend Auken, the former head of Denmark's opposition Social Democrat party and the architect of the country's environmental policies in the 1990s. "But today there's a consensus that we need to build out renewable power."

Denmark's dominance of wind power was born in the Riso National Laboratory for Sustainable Energy. Riso, founded in 1958 to focus on nuclear research, is easy to miss on the road to the university town of Roskilde; only the test turbines on its grounds give away the campus's purpose. Turbine manufacturers from around the world test at Riso, where researchers are so expert at honing the aerodynamics of a blade that they've helped turn wind turbines from backyard mills to multi-megawatt farms.

The focus on wind continues, but today Riso — now part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) — is a global leader in hydrogen fuel-cell research, which could eventually provide a viable storage technology to counter the challenge of intermittent renewables like wind. "Environmental technology is something that can drive industrial exports for Denmark," says John Christensen, head of the UNEP Riso Centre on Energy, Climate and Sustainable Development. "We can and should take advantage of this."

The key to turning that research into reality was not just generous government aid, but the fact that Denmark stayed with it. While countries like the U.S. let tax credits for renewable energy wax and wane, smothering infant green industries in the crib, Denmark looks to the long term. In the 1990s, the government inaugurated tariffs that required utilities to offer 10-year fixed-rate contracts for wind power. That sort of security led to a rapid expansion of wind power at home — the country has more than 5,200 turbines producing in excess of 3,100 MW of electricity — and helped firms like Vestas scale up and perfect their technology so they could dominate abroad.

And it's not just wind power. Denmark's energy efficiency has vastly improved in other areas such as the use of combined heat and power, where power plants recycle the waste energy from their operations as heat, which can be distributed to homes and businesses. Denmark last year was the first European nation to sign up for the innovative electric car model promoted by start-up company Better Place, which plans to construct a network of charging stations throughout the small country. Then there's the way Danes build. Denmark doesn't quite lead the world in green building, but it is expert in certain materials. Take VKR, founded during World War II as a window manufacturer. Through its subsidiaries the firm now markets efficient skylights and vertical windows, and in recent years has shifted into rooftop solar heating. Government policies and strict regulations have helped here too. "The mega-trend today is renewable energy and energy efficiency, and we're improving them both," says Leif Jensen, VKR's CEO.

The fruits of that investment and innovation are best tasted in an unlikely place that has emerged as the symbol of Denmark's greenness: Samso island. Located in the Kattegat Strait, Samso (pop. 4,300) was far from cutting-edge when, in 1997, it won a government competition to become a model for how a community can run on renewable energy. At the time Samso was entirely dependent on oil and coal, both of which it imported from the mainland. A little more than a decade later Samso is effectively carbon negative, producing more than 100% of the electricity it needs from renewable sources, chiefly wind and biomass. The architect of that transformation is Soren Hermansen, a former farmer and environmental studies teacher, who lobbied, cajoled and pushed his initially reluctant neighbors to go green.

Island Lessons

A tour of Samso feels a bit like a greatest hits collection of Denmark's successful energy policies. The island features district heating plants fired by waste biomass such as straw. The plants provide heat to homes in lieu of more polluting oil-burning furnaces. When the sun is shining — which, admittedly, is not often — solar thermal panels provide hot water. Wind power is everywhere — on land, where towering turbines shade cows on a dairy farm, and offshore, where 10 turbines greet the incoming ferries like a row of sentinels. Many of the turbines are owned collectively by resident associations, with members chipping in to buy a slice of wind power. ("If you let people become a part of the solution," says Hermansen, "it works better.") Others are owned by single investors like Jorgen Tranberg, a dairy farmer. Tranberg, who likes to spend his spare time watching his cows on closed-circuit TV ("It's better than the news"), believes Samso's success could be replicated elsewhere. "We're not special people here," he says.

But there is something special in the way that Samso's residents — and Danes as a whole — have adapted to 21st-century realities about energy and the environment. Hermansen credits the Danish tendency to organize in groups, which helps reinforce support for going green. "To us, going for lower energy use is like a sport," he says. That sense of communal competition is shared by Denmark's Scandinavian neighbors, and may help explain why countries like Sweden and Finland are also among Europe's greenest. On a regional level, cooperation is a necessary component of Denmark's success — the Nordic nations share an electrical grid, and Denmark can take power from its neighbors when there's no wind and sell it when the breeze blows. But it also has something to do with the way people in the region think. "This is a place where people are highly motivated to address climate change," says Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund. "Denmark says, 'We can do this, come join us.'"

Within Denmark, critics worry that the current government is squandering energy leadership. When Rasmussen's conservatives took power in 2001, they scaled back subsidies for wind and other renewables. New wind installations dropped precipitously, and between 2004 and 2006 CO2 emissions increased by 3%. "They stopped everything," says Auken. One high-ranking official admits the pullback was a mistake, and last year the government released a new policy that sets sharp targets for improving energy efficiency, increases the CO2 tax and promotes the development of new offshore wind turbines. Nonetheless, the Finnish consultancy Poyry argued in a recent report that the government's new plan doesn't ensure that Denmark will meet its Kyoto targets by 2012. (Denmark has to reduce CO2 emissions to 21% below 1990 levels, one of the most aggressive targets in the world.) The government says Denmark remains on track — and they'll need to be, as the host of the climate summit. "We'll be ready for Copenhagen," says Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister for climate and energy, who will host the meeting.

Denmark's own challenges are small compared to the gargantuan task of trying to get more than 190 nations to agree on new carbon-cutting targets. (Rasmussen, an avid cyclist, compares the Copenhagen summit to the Tour de France's punishing Alpe d'Huez climbing stage — which he tried for himself last summer.) But the country does have the power of its example, showing that you can stay rich and grow green at the same time. "Denmark has proven that acting on climate can be a positive experience, not just painful," says NRDC's Schmidt. The real pain could come from failing to follow in their footsteps.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The politics of water

I'm certain that the majority of people in this country are unaware that there is an organization called "The World Water Council" and that it convenes a triennial"World Water Forum". This is as much as anything, an result of just much folks in the so-called developed world take water for granted.

There are two major, interconnected water crises in the world today. One is climate/resource related, the other political. Climate change may already be leading to water scarcity in various parts of the world.

The politics of greed most certainly has. (GW)

Fifth World Water Forum Marked by Violence and Repression

By Jeff Conant


March 17, 2009

As the World Water Forum opened in Istanbul Turkey yesterday, 300 Turkish activists gathered near the forum's entrance were faced with an overwhelming force of 2000-3000 police. The peaceful protest quickly escalated as police charged the crowd, firing water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets and lunging into the crowd with fists and truncheons.

The World Water Forum is a triennial gathering which, according to it's website, is "an open, all-inclusive, multi-stakeholder process" where governments, NGOs, businesses and others "create links, debate and attempts to find solutions to achieve water security." The World Water Council, the forum's main organizer, is dominated by two of the world's largest private water corporations, Suez and Veolia. Loïc Fauchon, president of the Council, is also the president of Groupe des Eaux de Marseille, a company owned jointly by Veolia and a subsidiary of Suez. The alternate president, Charles-Louis de Maud'huy, has been working at Compagnie Générale des Eaux, a subsidiary of Veolia, since 1978. Critics contend that the Council's links to Suez and Veolia, as well as the large representation of the business industry in the Council, compromise its legitimacy.

With 1.4 billion people worldwide lacking access to clean drinking water, and 2.6 billion lacking access to sanitation, according to WHO figures, the issue has come to the forefront of the global agenda, and sparks anger in many who are close to the problem, especially in poor countries.

At a meeting of the Freshwater Action Network, a global gathering of civil society organizations the day before the Forum's opening, Zimbabwean water activist Nyanzone Malimi warned his colleagues from many countries in the Global South, "The World Water Forum is not a politically neutral space ... it is a very ideological space, and so while we are here this week, we've got to go out there and fight and fight and fight and fight and fight."

The World Water Council and the four previous forums have promoted policies such as Public-Private Partnerships (PPP's) that put water services under private ownership. PPP's in Argentina, Bolivia, the US, and other countries have resulted in price hikes, decreased pollution control, and water cut-offs, which, in the language of the water justice movement, "deny people the right to water." Despite these and other harmful impacts, the Istanbul Water Consensus, a key document of the 5th Forum, attempts to secure the commitment of local authorities to similar water policies, including private sector management.

The police riot at the forum's gate resulted in 26 arrests and three people severely injured, two by beating and one by rubber bullets. According to Turkish law, they can be held up to 48 hours before charges are brought. They are expected to be arraigned today.

One of the Turkish organizations protesting the forum is the Campaign 'Another Water Management is Possible.' A spokesperson for the Campaign, Turkish musician Birol Topalolu, has criticized his government's current water policies, focusing on the rash of dams being planned and constructed. Turkey's General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works, or DS, plans to build 600 dams on the country's rivers, including several in the Eastern Kurdish region where the local population has been demanding political independence from Turkey for decades.

"Although it is going to create 10,000 megawatts of energy annually, they don't take notice of the damage it will cause to nature," said Topalolu. "There are plans to build 50 dams on just one river near the Black Sea. The Ilsu Dam Project will leave 313 square kilometers of settlement underwater, which will also destroy the 10,000-year-old city, Hasankeyf."
Just after the violent scuffle outside the forum's main gate, another scuffle erupted inside at the inaugural event. Ann-Kathrin Schneider and Payal Parekh of the organization International Rivers unfurled a banner reading 'No Risky Dams.' While many WWF participants applauded the protest, the police immediately detained the two. After being held in jail overnight, charged with "manipulating the public opinion," they were given the option of one year in Turkish prison, or immediate deportation. The two are expected to arrive in their home countries today.

Meanwhile, a block of southern governments led by Uruguay is building support for an alternative, legitimate forum to be led by the United Nations, and high-profile civil society voices such as Maude Barlow are calling for this to be the last World Water Forum.

Jeff Conant is the International Research and Communications Coordinator for Food and Water Watch.