Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Mother Nature doesn't care about dates"

The editors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientitsts created the Doomsday Clock in 1947. It uses the analogy of the human species being at a time that is "minutes to midnight", where midnight represents (our self-inflicted?) "catastrophic destruction". It originally portrayed the threat of nuclear annihilation, but in recent years the clock also embodies other potential global threats including climate change and biosecurity.

In 1991 the editors set the clock to 17 minutes before midnight. The Bulletin editors have now set it at five minutes to midnight. (GW)

Climate countdown: Half a trillion tonnes of carbon left to burn

To avoid dangerous climate change of 2C, the world can only burn another half a trillion tonnes 0f carbon, climate change experts warn

By David Adam


April 29, 2009

The world has already burned half the fossil fuels necessary to bring about a catastrophic 2C rise in average global temperature, scientists revealed today.

The experts say about half a trillion tonnes of carbon have been consumed since the industrial revolution. To prevent a 2C rise, they say, the total burnt must be kept to below a trillion tonnes. On current rates, that figure will be reached in 40 years.

Myles Allen, a climate expert at Oxford University who led the new study, said: "Mother Nature doesn't care about dates. To avoid dangerous climate change we will have to limit the total amount of carbon we inject into the atmosphere, not just the emission rate in any given year."

The scientists say their research could simplify political attempts to tackle global warming, which encompass a range of targets and timetables. Such proposals usually set future limits on the amount of carbon dioxide allowed to build up in the atmosphere, such as 450 parts per million (ppm), or as future emission rates, such as the UK's pledge to slash emissions 80% by 2050.

The new study effectively re-frames such targets as an available budget - to avoid dangerous climate change of 2C the world can only burn another half a trillion tonnes of carbon.

Writing in today's Nature, Allen and colleagues say a trillion tonnes of carbon burnt would be likely to produce a warming of between 1.6C and 2.6C, with a "most likely" 2C rise.

Chris Huntingford of the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology said: "Research often reveals new complexities, but this analysis could actually simplify matters for policy makers. The relationship between total emissions and future warming can be inferred largely from quantities we can observe, and is remarkably insensitive to the timing of future emissions."

The key implication of the research, the scientists say, is that access to fossil fuels must somehow be rationed and eventually turned off, if the 2C target is to be met. "If country A burns it then country B can't," said Bill Hare, a climate expert with the Potsdam Institute in Germany. "It's like a draining tank."

The research also highlights that continued high rates of fossil fuel use in the next decade will demand extraordinary cuts in emissions in future decades to hit the 2C target. Allen said: "If you use too much [carbon] this year, it doesn't mean the planet will come to an end. It means you have to work even harder the next year."

A separate study, also published today in Nature, led by Malte Meinshausen at the Potsdam Institute, use a similar approach and sets a different carbon budget. They say the world can only emit 190bn tonnes of carbon between now and 2050 if it aims for a 2C rise. Emissions over 310bn tonnes in that time lead to a 50% chance of going over 2C.

The new research does not say anything about the likelihood of reaching the 2C target. They simply change the way progress towards the target is measured.

In an accompanying commentary article, the scientists behind both studies say: "These results are not incompatible with current proposals for near-term emission targets -- the small size of the cumulative emission budgets to 2050 reinforces the need for global CO2 emissions to peak around or before 2020 so that emission pathways remain technologically and economically feasible."

They add: "Having taken 250 years to burn the first half trillion tonnes of carbon we look set, on current trends, to burn the next half trillion in less than 40. No one could credibly suggest that we should carry on with business as usual to the 2040s and then somehow suddenly stop using fossil fuels, switch to 100% carbon capture or just shut down the world economy overnight."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

To everything (turn, turn, turn)

Here are some interesting factoids on wind energy that you may find appropriate to throw out at your next cookout or town meeting.

In case you're scratching your head over the title of today's post, click here or here. (GW)

Interesting wind facts

Minnesota Post-Bulletin
April 22, 2009

One megawatt of wind capacity is enough to supply 240-300 average American homes. -- American Wind Energy Association

• The United States is No. 1 in the world in total installed wind capacity as of December 2008, with 25,170 megawatts. Here are the rest of the top 10:

2. Germany 23,903 megawatts

3. Spain 16,754 megawatts

4. China 12,210 megawatts

5. India 9,645 megawatts

6. Italy 3,736 megawatts

7. France 3,404 megawatts

8. UK 3,241 megawatts

9. Denmark 3,180 megawatts

10. Portugal 2,862 megawatts

Rest of the world 16, 686 megawatts

Total top 10: 104, 104 megawatts

World Total: 120,791 megawatts

-- Global Wind Energy Council

• The wear and tear on a wind turbine has been equated to putting 100,000 miles on a car in one year. -- Minnesota Department of Commerce

• Minnesota has mandated that utilities in the state derive 25 percent of their power for renewable resources by 2025. -- Associated Press

• Minnesota is one of 26 states to have a renewable energy mandate. -- Associated Press

• More that 5,200 megawatts of wind generation -- enough to serve 1 million average American homes -- was installed in 2007. -- AWEA

• In 2007, an analysis from global energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie found that providing 15 percent electricity from renewable energy resources by 2020 (through a federal renewable electric standard) could lower consumer expenditures by nearly $100 billion, reducing both natural gas prices and electricity prices.

• To generate the same amount of electricity as today's U.S. wind turbine fleet (16,818 megawatts) would require burning 23 million tons of coal (a line of 10-ton trucks over 9,000 miles long) or 75 million barrels of oil each year. -- AWEA

• Wind projects occupy anywhere from 28 to 83 acres per megawatt, depending on local terrain, but only 2 to 5 percent of the project area is needed for turbine foundations, roads or other infrastructure. -- AWEA

• Of every 10,000 human-related bird deaths in the United States today, wind plants cause less than one. The leading cause of bird deaths is cats, who kill 1 billion birds in the United States each year. -- AWEA

• Germany is the world leader in terms of installed wind power, with more than 22,000 megawatts installed, yet it has only a fraction of the wind energy potential that North Dakota alone has. -- AWEA

• New, larger turbines (1 to 3 megawatts) generate 120 times as much electricity as 1980s models at one-fourth the per-unit cost. -- AWEA

• Each megawatt of wind provides up to three job-years of employment. -- AWEA

• Wind provides one skilled operations/maintenance job for every 10 turbines installed. -- AWEA

• Wind projects accounted for about 30 percent of all new power generating capacity added in the United States in 2007, up from less than 1 percent in 2002. -- AWEA

• The newest turbines run at only 12 revolutions per minute.

•Because winter months are windier than summer months and cold air is denser than warm air, turbine blades push harder and turn faster to generate more electricity in the winter. -- SMMPA

• The U.S. wind energy industry shattered all previous records in 2008, installing 8,358 megawatts of new generating capacity. That is enough to serve 2 million homes. -- AWEA

• The industry now generates 25,170 megawatts of wind energy, producing enough electricity to power the equivalent of nearly 7 million households. -- AWEA

• The share of domestically manufactured wind turbine components has grown from less than 30 percent in 2005 to nearly 50 percent in 2008. Wind turbine and component manufacturers announced, added or expanded 70 new facilities in the past two years, including more than 55 in 2008. Those new manufacturing facilities created 13,000 new direct jobs in 2008. -- AWEA

• Turbines start turning when the wind speed reaches 3 meters per second (6.7 mph). To protect themselves, they stop turning if the wind reaches 20 meters per second (44.7 mph). -- Horizon Wind

• One of the largest wind turbines in the world was assembled in February off the coast of northern Germany. This 6-megawatt turbine has a rotor diameter of more than 410 feet. One of these turbines is said to produce enough energy for nearly 5,800 households.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Helping subsistence farmers become small-scale entrepreneurs

What can we say about a world in which agriculture and farmers are no longer considered to be national policy priorities? To say that we take food production for granted would be grossly understating the case. In fact, since farming in many industrialized nations has been co-opted by agribusiness, it has become a primary source of environmental problems and corporate corruption.

As Africa ponders its future and charts its course for sustainable development, let's hope its leaders do not repeat the mistakes that countries have made in promoting mega-scale, energy-intensive farming practices. (GW)

Put farming first in Africa

Without sustainable agriculture, sustainable development in Africa will remain a dream, argues Lidiwe Majele Sibanda

By Lidiwe Majele Sibanda

Guardian UK

Katine Chronicles Blog

April 27, 2009

Since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were endorsed by 192 UN member states in September 2000, they have served as a benchmark for how the international development community drafts policy and allocates funding through to the year 2015.

A top priority of the MDGs is to halve the number of people in the world experiencing poverty and hunger. While several countries have made progress in this area (China alone has lifted more than 175 million of its people above the poverty line), many other countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, still face the same hunger and poverty levels that they experienced 20 years ago. Up to 300 million Africans are facing chronic hunger.

So what can Africans do to put food on the table and money in their pockets? The answer is simple – invest in agriculture.

After decades of stagnation in agricultural yields and little investment in rural economies, African countries are beginning to prioritise the development of agricultural production and markets. Rural development and agricultural productivity improvement now feature prominently on the agenda of national governments. Continent-wide plans and investments, through programmes under the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Research into Use (RIU) and the Alliance for Commodity Trade in East and Southern Africa (ACTESA) and many others are encouraging.

CAADP is an African-owned and growth-oriented agricultural development framework that has been endorsed by African heads of state as the engine through which Africa's agricultural development will be driven. With the majority of African governments spending on average less than 5% of total national budgets on agriculture, one of CAADP's key objectives is to increase this to 10%, with the target of raising agricultural productivity by at least 6% per annum. Achieving Africa's agricultural growth requires massive investments from the global community and the on-going global financial crisis poses a threat to Africa's efforts.

Over the past generation, agriculture and farmers have been sidelined in international policy circles. During this time, agriculture's share of total aid has dropped from 17% to 3% of total spend. As a result, productivity is low. While total aid to sub-Saharan Africa remained stable during the 1990s, the proportion allocated to agriculture declined year on year. Aid to agriculture in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) member states declined as a proportion of total aid from 20% in the early 1980s to 8% by 2000. If poverty in Africa is to be reduced, aid to agriculture must be increased substantially and made to work more effectively.

The G8 agriculture ministers, who met for the first time last weekend to discuss the world food emergency, have done well to recognise the role agriculture plays in the success of a broader development agenda. The summit, held in Italy, also did well to invite the agriculture ministers from other key food exporting countries, namely China, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa, Mexico, India, Argentina, and Australia. In their final declaration, the ministers of the G8 countries stressed the importance of sound agricultural policies and strategies to underpin the investments, at national, regional and global level. They highlighted that policies and strategies need to be developed in an inclusive manner, involving all main stakeholders, including farmer organisations, and to be based on reliable statistics. The G8 ministers have endorsed CAADP as an excellent plan of what is needed to achieve food security.

It is time we realised that there can be no sustainable development without sustainable agriculture. For Africa to develop sustainable food polices partnerships are key. My organisation, the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) has joined forces with international groups from the science and technology, farming, and private sector communities to endorse a plan called Farming First among global policymakers.

Farming First calls on world leaders to take action by developing a locally sustainable value chain for global agriculture. It emphasises the need for knowledge networks and policies centred on helping subsistence farmers to become small-scale entrepreneurs, and it proposes six interlinked imperatives for sustainable agriculture: safeguarding natural resources, sharing knowledge, building local access, protecting harvests, enabling access to markets and prioritising research imperatives.

The time is right to bring about much needed policy reform to address the stubborn and widespread problems that have crippled African agriculture and rural economies.

Implementation of programmes under CAADP is critical for reducing hunger and achieving the global priorities expressed in the Millennium Development Goals.

Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda is CEO of the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network

Monday, April 27, 2009

Solar hot button

There are a lot of renewable energy advocates who have deep concerns about the rush to develop utility-scale solar and wind projects. One fear is that large corporations and utilities will impose their culture and values on these projects, ignoring core principles of sustainability and community economic development. Another concern is the focus of today's post: the potential adverse environmental impacts of massive renewable projects.

I don't believe it's an "either-or" issue. We'll still need to think and work hard about the appropriateness of specific proposals based on a variety of factors. (GW)

Solar finds it hard to squeeze water from desert

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — A westward dash to power electricity-hungry cities by cashing in on the desert's most abundant resource — sunshine — is clashing with efforts to protect the tiny pupfish and desert tortoise and stinginess over the region's rarest resource: water.

Water is the cooling agent for what traditionally has been the most cost-efficient type of large-scale solar plants. To some solar companies answering Washington's push for renewable energy on vast government lands, it's also an environmental thorn. The unusual collision pits natural resources protections against President Barack Obama's plans to produce more environmentally friendly energy.

The solar hopefuls are encountering overtaxed aquifers and a legendary legacy of Western water wars and legal and regulatory scuffles. Some are moving to more costly air-cooled technology — which uses 90 percent less water — for solar plants that will employ miles of sun-reflecting mirrors across the Western deserts. Others see market advantages in solar dish or photovoltaic technologies that don't require steam engines and cooling water and that are becoming more economically competitive.

The National Park Service is worried about environmental consequences of solar proposals on government lands that are administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It says it supports the solar push but is warning against water drawdowns, especially in southern Nevada. In the Amargosa Valley, the endangered, electric-blue pupfish lives in a hot water, aquifer-fed limestone cavern called Devil's Hole.

"It is not in the public interest for BLM to approve plans of development for water-cooled solar energy projects in the arid basins of southern Nevada, some of which are already over-appropriated," Jon Jarvis, director of the Park Service's Pacific West Region, wrote to the BLM director in Nevada.

Jarvis' e-mail from February, obtained by The Associated Press, noted that the rare pupfish's dwindling numbers prompted Nevada to ban new groundwater allocations within 25 miles of the pool.

Jarvis urged the BLM to promote technologies that use less water and hold off on permits until it finishes its assessment of the solar program next year. The BLM tried suspending new applications last year but relented under pressure from industry and advocates of renewable energy.

"Water is a big concern and the desert tortoise is a major concern, and the amount of site preparation is a concern," said Linda Resseguie, a BLM project manager. The government in reviewing each project wants to make careful decisions over what it considers "a potentially irreversible commitment of lands," she said.

Water is among the complications in deserts where more than 150 solar applications have been submitted for hot spots in Nevada, California, and Arizona, plus a few in New Mexico.

Companies are wrestling with routes for long-distance transmission lines and habitat for the threatened desert tortoise. They also are worried about a proposal being developed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for a Mojave national monument, which could put up to 600,000 acres off-limits alongside already protected park and military lands. It could affect at least 14 solar and five wind energy proposals.

The Spanish-owned energy company, Iberdrola, has submitted 12 applications in four states. Its solar managing director, Kim Fiske, said her company is planning to use photovoltaic technology in Amargosa Valley but elsewhere will evaluate each site's feasibility for water. Photovoltaic systems use conducting material to convert sunlight directly to electricity and need only nominal amounts of water to wash their solar panels, compared with the traditional steam-turbine solar that uses much larger volumes of water for cooling towers.

"Water usage is becoming the larger issue. Some companies still want wet cooling and say it's less efficient to do dry cooling, and they need 10 percent more land to get the same output," said Peter Weiner, an attorney representing solar companies. Some are exploring hybrid systems that use water during the hottest part of the day.

The government won't say how much water would be needed by applicants because those proposals are still in flux. But National Park Service hydrologists last fall tallied more than 50,000 acre feet per year — nearly 16.3 billion gallons — proposed by applications in Amargosa Valley alone, or enough to supply more than 50,000 typical American homes. Nevada previously said the basin could support only half that. Since then, some companies have dropped out or switched to photovoltaics, making that estimate of 16.3 billion gallons outdated.

Nevada's policy and legal mandates restrict water in the driest areas. California regulators warn that wet-cooled projects face an uphill climb. The two under review there so far on government land use minimal water. First up is Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy's five-square mile, air-cooled, mirror complex near the Mojave National Preserve.

In Arizona, most solar proposals are away from populous areas with the most water restrictions.

Water is "a hot button for everybody," said Fiske. "Everyone is concerned about water. It's probably one of the biggest issues."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

We are all genuises at birth

In 1976 Buckminster Fuller wrote an essay entitled "Children are born true scientists" that was published in the journal Ekistics. In it he observed:
"Children are born true scientists. They spontaneously experiment and experience and re-experience again. Seeking to sort out and find order in their experiences -- which is the mostest? Which is the leastest? They smell, taste, bite and touch-test for hardness, softness, springiness, roughness, smoothness, coldness, warmness...Innocently betrayed by the equally detoured-from-reality educational system, the young scientists are lured into foresaking their innate true scientist advantage by adopting the school-proffered mathematical tools with which to probe, sort-out-aand reassociate their experience-won information..."
Bucky went on to conclude that we are all born geniuses. Some of us are de-genuised faster than others. (GW)

Inside the baby mind

It's unfocused, random, and extremely good at what it does. How we can learn from a baby's brain.

By Jonah Lehrer
Boston Globe
April 26, 2009

WHAT IS IT like to be a baby? For centuries, this question would have seemed absurd: behind that adorable facade was a mostly empty head. A baby, after all, is missing most of the capabilities that define the human mind, such as language and the ability to reason. Rene Descartes argued that the young child was entirely bound by sensation, hopelessly trapped in the confusing rush of the here and now. A newborn, in this sense, is just a lump of need, a bundle of reflexes that can only eat and cry. To think like a baby is to not think at all.

Modern science has largely agreed, spending decades outlining all the things that babies couldn't do because their brains had yet to develop. They were unable to focus, delay gratification, or even express their desires. The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer famously suggested that "killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all."

Now, however, scientists have begun to dramatically revise their concept of a baby's mind. By using new research techniques and tools, they've revealed that the baby brain is abuzz with activity, capable of learning astonishing amounts of information in a relatively short time. Unlike the adult mind, which restricts itself to a narrow slice of reality, babies can take in a much wider spectrum of sensation - they are, in an important sense, more aware of the world than we are.

This hyperawareness comes with several benefits. For starters, it allows young children to figure out the world at an incredibly fast pace. Although babies are born utterly helpless, within a few years they've mastered everything from language - a toddler learns 10 new words every day - to complex motor skills such as walking. According to this new view of the baby brain, many of the mental traits that used to seem like developmental shortcomings, such as infants' inability to focus their attention, are actually crucial assets in the learning process.

In fact, in some situations it might actually be better for adults to regress into a newborn state of mind. While maturity has its perks, it can also inhibit creativity and lead people to fixate on the wrong facts. When we need to sort through a lot of seemingly irrelevant information or create something completely new, thinking like a baby is our best option.

"We've had this very misleading view of babies," says Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the forthcoming book, "The Philosophical Baby." "The baby brain is perfectly designed for what it needs to do, which is learn about the world. There are times when having a fully developed brain can almost seem like an impediment."

One of the most surprising implications of this new research concerns baby consciousness, or what babies actually experience as they interact with the outside world. While scientists and doctors have traditionally assumed that babies are much less conscious than adults - this is why, until the 1970s, many infants underwent surgery without anesthesia - that view is being overturned. Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting. "For a baby, every day is like going to Paris for the first time," Gopnik says. "Just go for a walk with a 2-year-old. You'll quickly realize that they're seeing things you don't even notice."

There's something slightly paradoxical about trying to study the inner life of babies. For starters, you can't ask them questions. Young children can't describe their sensations or justify their emotions; they can't articulate the pleasure of a pacifier or explain the comfort of a stuffed animal. And, of course, none of us have any memories of infancy. For a scientist, the baby mind can seem like an impenetrable black box.

In recent years, however, scientists have developed new methods for entering the head of a baby. They've looked at the density of brain tissue, analyzed the development of neural connections, and tracked the eye movements of infants. By comparing the anatomy of the baby brain with the adult brain, scientists can make inferences about infant experience.

These new research techniques have uncovered several surprising findings. It turns out that the baby brain actually contains more brain cells, or neurons, than the adult brain: The instant we open our eyes, our neurons start the "pruning process," which involves the elimination of seemingly unnecessary neural connections. Furthermore, the distinct parts of the baby cortex - the center of sensation and higher thought - are better connected than the adult cortex, with more links between disparate regions. These anatomical differences aren't simply a sign of immaturity: They're an important tool that provides babies with the ability to assimilate vast amounts of information with ease.

While the pruning process makes the brain more efficient, it can also narrow our thoughts and make learning more difficult, as we become less able to adjust to new circumstances and absorb new ideas. In a sense, there's a direct trade-off between the mind's flexibility and its proficiency. As Gopnik notes, this helps explain why a young child can learn three languages at once but nevertheless struggle to tie his shoelaces.

But the newborn brain isn't just denser and more malleable: it's also constructed differently, with far fewer inhibitory neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that prevent neurons from firing. This suggests that the infant mind is actually more crowded with fleeting thoughts and stray sensations than the adult mind. While adults automatically block out irrelevant information, such as the hum of an air conditioner or the conversation of nearby strangers, babies take everything in: their reality arrives without a filter. As a result, it typically takes significantly higher concentrations of anesthesia to render babies unconscious, since there's more cellular activity to silence.

The hyperabundance of thoughts in the baby brain also reflects profound differences in the ways adults and babies pay attention to the world. If attention works like a narrow spotlight in adults - a focused beam illuminating particular parts of reality - then in young kids it works more like a lantern, casting a diffuse radiance on their surroundings.

"We sometimes say that adults are better at paying attention than children," writes Gopnik. "But really we mean just the opposite. Adults are better at not paying attention. They're better at screening out everything else and restricting their consciousness to a single focus."

Consider, for instance, what happens when preschoolers are shown a photograph of someone - let's call her Jane - looking at a picture of a family. When the young children are asked questions about what Jane is paying attention to, the kids quickly agree that Jane is thinking about the people in the picture. But they also insist that she's thinking about the picture frame, and the wall behind the picture, and the chair lurking in her peripheral vision. In other words, they believe that Jane is attending to whatever she can see.

While this less focused form of attention makes it more difficult to stay on task - preschoolers are easily distracted - it also comes with certain advantages. In many circumstances, the lantern mode of attention can actually lead to improvements in memory, especially when it comes to recalling information that seemed incidental at the time.

Consider this memory task designed by John Hagen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. A child is given a deck of cards and shown two cards at a time. The child is told to remember the card on the right and to ignore the card on the left. Not surprisingly, older children and adults are much better at remembering the cards they were told to focus on, since they're able to direct their attention. However, young children are often better at remembering the cards on the left, which they were supposed to ignore. The lantern casts its light everywhere.

"Adults can follow directions and focus, and that's great," says John Colombo, a psychologist at the University of Kansas. "But children, it turns out, are much better at picking up on all the extraneous stuff that's going on. . . . And this makes sense: If you don't know how the world works, then how do you know what to focus on? You should try to take everything in."

While thinking like an adult is necessary when we need to focus, or when we already know which information is relevant, many situations aren't so clear-cut. In these instances, paying strict attention is actually a liability, since it leads us to neglect potentially important pieces of the puzzle. That's when it helps to think like a baby.

This new understanding of baby cognition, and the peculiar ways in which babies pay attention, is also giving scientists insights into improving the mental functioning of adults. The ability to direct attention, it turns out, doesn't merely inhibit irrelevant facts and perceptions - it can also stifle the imagination. Sometimes, the mind performs best when we don't try to control it.

The differences in how babies and adults pay attention are primarily caused by the unformed nature of the prefrontal cortex, a brain area just behind the eyes. While the prefrontal cortex has been greatly enlarged during human evolution - it's responsible for a wide variety of cognitive abilities, from directed attention to abstract thought - it's also the last brain area to fully develop, and often isn't done developing until late adolescence.

Although scientists have long held the lack of a functional prefrontal cortex responsible for all sorts of "childish" behaviors, researchers are beginning to realize that, sometimes, it might actually be better to allow the prefrontal cortex to loosen its grip.

A recent brain scanning experiment by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that jazz musicians in the midst of improvisation - they were playing a specially designed keyboard in a brain scanner - showed dramatically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex. It was only by "deactivating" this brain area that the musicians were able to spontaneously invent new melodies. The scientists compare this unwound state of mind with that of dreaming during REM sleep, meditation, and other creative pursuits, such as the composition of poetry. But it also resembles the thought process of a young child, albeit one with musical talent. Baudelaire was right: "Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will."

The immaturity of the baby brain comes with another advantage: utter absorption in the moment. The best evidence for this comes from brain scans of adult subjects as they watched an engrossing Clint Eastwood movie. The experiment, led by Rafael Malach at Hebrew University, found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, as their prefrontal areas were suppressed. At the same time, areas in the back of the brain associated with visual perception were turned on. As Gopnik notes, this mental state - the experience of being captivated by entertainment - is, in many respects, a fleeting reminder of what it feels like to be a young child. "You are incredibly aware of what's happening - your experiences are very vivid - and yet you're not self-conscious at all," she says. "You're not thinking about anything but what's on the screen."

But it's not just the movie theater that transports us back to a newborn state of mind, in which we're fully immersed in the moment. Gopnik notes that a number of other situations, from Zen meditation to the experience of natural beauty, can also lead to states of awareness so intense that the self seems to disappear. "This is the same ecstatic feeling that the Romantic poets were always writing about," she says. "It's seeing the world in a grain of sand."

If people could never regress into this babylike consciousness, then we'd struggle with the kind of tasks that require us to stop being self-conscious and lose ourselves in the job. Such moments are often described as "flow" activities, and can occur whenever we're completely captivated by what we're doing, be it stirring a risotto or solving a crossword puzzle. The Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki referred to such modes as "beginner's mind," since people are able to think like a baby, open to possibility and free of errant preconceptions.

Gopnik has discovered for herself the advantages of being able to shift between a babyesque form of cognition and a more adult frame of mind. "As a scientist, you really need to use both kinds of thinking," she says. "Sometimes you need to focus and analyze your data. But you also need the ability to be open and creative, to think in a new way if the old way isn't working."

At such moments, she suggests, we need to think with the innocence of an infant - to release the reins of attention and look anew at a world we're still trying to understand.

Jonah Lehrer is the author of "How We Decide" and "Proust Was a Neuroscientist." He is a regular contributor to Ideas.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The quest for sequestration

Geo-engineering is a thorny topic for sure. Two very thoughtful comments on yesterday's post makes that clear. One geo-engineering idea that is being actively pursued today is carbon capture (or sequestration). 

Some skeptics feel that placing emphasis on developing carbon capture techniques could diminish the sense of urgency around the need to deploy energy efficiency and renewable energy strategies. Others express serious concerns about the potential problem of vast amounts of concentrated carbon being released into the atmosphere or bodies of water at some point.

Of course, no matter how quickly and massively we can deploy renewables, the fact remains that we will still need to depend on fossil fuels to meet our energy needs during the transition and they will continue to emit greenhouse gases absent some sort  of technological intervention.

There are no easy answers. (GW)

Will carbon capture work?

By Roger Harrabin
BBC News
April 23, 2009

The UK government has given a massive boost to world ambitions to develop clean-coal technology. It announced a decision that will herald a new generation of coal-fired power stations in the UK - but all of them will have to have their CO2 emissions partially captured by cutting-edge technology.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has finally come of age. After years of skulking in the shadows of disbelief it is about to claim its place in the sun.

CCS has been championed by industries who stand to gain from it and by a few greens who reasoned it was the only technology which allowed China and India to burn the black stuff under their feet without sending emissions spiralling even higher.

It was distrusted by many mainstream environmentalists who saw it is a dangerous diversion from cleaner, renewable technologies.

Those fears have not completely evaporated - but it was significant to see green groups congratulating the Energy Secretary, Ed Miliband, for his leadership and vision, whilst harbouring residual doubts.

The CCS announcement was historic. Looking through the archive, I heard a TV reporter in 1969 intone that Drax in North Yorkshire might be the last coal power station to be built in the UK, as nuclear became the fuel of the future. And no new coal power station has been commissioned in Britain for more than 30 years.

Most energy experts now agree that coal has to play a part in securing energy diversity - especially with the intermittency of wind and uncertainty of nuclear new-build.

Building conventional coal stations would torch the UK's climate targets - so carbon capture was the only way out.

That solution was foreseen by few people in government five years ago. It has taken an impending crisis in energy and climate to focus minds on the need to fund the technology, probably with a direct levy of a few percent on bills, and - crucially - to insist that it is fitted.

Pioneering plants

Some important questions remain over the technology. I believe that it will prove feasible, if costly. The US has been injecting CO2 into rock to extract oil for decades.

I have visited three plants pioneering the technology - Polk in Florida where coal is "cooked" to produce gas and dust; Schwarze Pumpe in Germany where CO2 is captured in a pilot project by scrubbers in the chimney; and In Salah in the Sahara where BP is pumping its CO2 emissions into desert rocks.

They all appear to be working fine as components of the CCS process, and it is likely that they will work together in the UK for the whole process.

Some greens have been asking what happens if the CO2 leaks. But the CO2 will be locked into tiny cavities in the same sorts of porous rock that hold natural gas.

The pipes that lead to them will be capped with concrete. It is much safer than putting the CO2 into the air.

Cost uncertainty

There are risks and uncertainties, though. Greenpeace points out that if CCS does go wrong, the UK will be left with a batch of coal-fired power plants that ruin all its climate targets.

The government is allowing leeway for the technology to be proven by insisting only that firms should install carbon capture on 20-25% of their emissions.

This is rational and fair, says Mr Miliband. The Opposition asked if there would be any limit to the emissions from the new plants until such time as the technology was deemed proven. They did not receive an answer.

There is more uncertainty on cost. When this project was first mentioned a few years ago the sum of half-a-billion pounds per plant for the extra equipment was mooted.

Now people are talking of between £1-2bn (of money raised from a levy on consumers).

Power firms managed to run rings round governments and gain billions of pounds in windfall profits from the EU Emissions Trading System.

In the unequal negotiation between teams of highly-paid industry consultants and hard-pressed civil servants, can we be confident that the consumers will not be ripped off?

Reduced efficiency

The other little-mentioned factor is that CCS is by no means emissions-free. Each plant takes carbon to construct, and coal is carbon-heavy in its mining and transport.

It also takes extra energy to run the capture and storage process, meaning that substantially more coal has to be mined and shipped.

The calculation does not include the energy involved in mining, transport or the manufacture of the capture equipment.

The independent engineer John Busby, who brought these figures to my attention, guesstimates this means that 50% more energy would be consumed for the same electricity generation.

He points out that we import 75% of our coal which is hard won, especially in China, where fatalities are high - and he asks if we are making the right decisions with CCS.

While other environmentalists have mostly fallen in line with CCS, the Green Party is resolutely against.

The Greens say it is incumbent on the government to create the maximum number of jobs with any policy.

They say that wind power and energy insulation easily trump CCS on job-creation as well as on environmental protection.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"If we get sufficiently desperate..."

I am not a fan of geo-engineering. These are very large-scale projects designed to curb climate change by modifying critical biospheric processes. My concerns stem primarily from the fact that our understanding of Earth's synergetic dynamics is very rudimentary. That means the potential for creating unintended consequences as a result of deploying these technologies is huge. Even more frightening is the fact that nation's can exercise geo-engineering options unilaterally, in attempts to improve their local conditions without regard of its widespread impacts.

Right now, geo-engineering is being seriously proposed as an approach to climate change capable of generating results within a fairly short time frame -- serveral months to a year.

Let's hope we don't back ourselves into a corner that leaves geo-engineering as our only viable option for avoiding humanity's greatest catastrophe. (GW)

Does Anyone Understand Geo-Engineering?

Research may be needed to evaluate alternatives to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

By Kevin Bullis
Technology Review
April 23, 2009

On more than one occasion in recent weeks, President Obama's science advisor, John Holdren, has said that he supports research into geo-engineering, a controversial approach to addressing climate change that would involve large-scale engineering projects designed to cool the earth in the event that efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions fail to curb global warming.

It's not clear whether Holdren's personal views will prevail at the White House, but coordinated federal research on geo-engineering would be a marked change from current policy. Very little money is currently spent on this kind of research, and there is no coordinated effort to assess the potential benefits or risks of the various approaches that have been proposed. In part, this is because so many experts have ruled out geo-engineering entirely, citing the potential for unforeseen side effects. Holdren's position, however, reflects that of a growing number of researchers who say that a continued growth in carbon dioxide emissions and a lack of effective political response to global warming could make geo-engineering necessary.

Geo-engineering schemes fall broadly into two categories: those designed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and those designed to shade the earth and reflect sunlight back into space to cool the planet. Some researchers, for example, have proposed seeding the oceans with iron particles to fertilize carbon-dioxide-consuming algae. Others, including the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, have suggested injecting sulfurous particles into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, where they would block a small fraction of sunlight that reaches the earth. Other proposals range from the extremely simple--painting roofs white to reflect sunlight--to the extremely costly and elaborate: assembling sunshades in space.

To be effective, these schemes would have to be done on massive scales, and so far, researchers lack the experimental data and computer models needed to determine how they might affect ecosystems or weather patterns worldwide. The uncertainty is compounded by the fact that scientists have a poor understanding of how natural systems deal with carbon dioxide. About half of the carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels and other human activities is absorbed by plants and the ocean, but scientists don't know precisely how this works or whether it will continue.

Without understanding how the natural systems work, it's difficult to predict how engineering schemes could change them--a fact acknowledged even by proponents of geo-engineering. John Latham, a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, CO, says that more research is needed to understand the unintended consequences of all proposed geo-engineering approaches, including his own. Latham's plan would entail spraying fine mists of seawater from wind-powered boats; the mist would increase the reflectivity of low-lying clouds, thus shading the earth. But he admits that it could also cause changes in precipitation, potentially leading to droughts. Latham says that large-scale experiments and better computer models are needed to better understand the potential effects of his idea. If these experiments and models suggest that there will be problems, "we should drop the scheme, unless we can find a way out of it." But so far, the necessary tests haven't been possible. "The problem is," Latham says, "with one or two tiny exceptions, there's been no funding."

David Victor, a fellow at the Program for Energy and Sustainable Development, at Stanford University, put it more starkly in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. "Despite years of speculation and vague talk, peer-reviewed research on geo-engineering is remarkably scarce," he wrote. "Nearly the entire community of geo-engineering scientists could fit comfortably in a single university seminar room, and the entire scientific literature on the subject could be read during the course of a transatlantic flight."

There has been a small amount of federally funded research into geo-engineering, but the numbers pale in comparison to the billions being spent on other research and development as part of the federal stimulus package this year ($3.4 billion will be spent on efforts to capture carbon dioxide from power plants and store it underground). From 1998 to 2005, the Department of Energy sponsored research into iron fertilization, spending about $25 million over that period. In the end, the approach proved not to be promising. According to the DOE, only a "very small portion" of the carbon dioxide absorbed by fertilized phytoplankton settled to the bottom of the ocean, where the carbon would have been stored more or less permanently, so the research was abandoned.

A few million dollars more has been spent investigating other schemes, such as ways to increase the amount of carbon dioxide stored in the soil by switchgrass and poplar trees, an approach that could increase natural carbon sequestration by several billion gigatons a year--a large part of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. There have been other projects, including those looking at ways to enhance the absorption of carbon dioxide from rocks. But there has been no coordinated effort to sort through different approaches or to fund large-scale tests.

In 2006, Holdren wrote that "the 'geo-engineering' approaches considered so far appeared to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects." These are points that he has reasserted in recent days.

Yet he evidently thinks that these approaches need to be studied seriously, in case global warming pushes governments to put drastic measures on the table. "Climate change is happening faster than anyone previously predicted," Holdren said at a recent forum at MIT. "If we get sufficiently desperate, we may try to engage in geo-engineering to try to create cooling effects, and we may try to scrub greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere technologically." In a recent e-mail to the New York Times, he said that if that happens, we need to better understand how these schemes will work.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The path to a clean energy economy must flow through the grid

President Obama was in Newton, Iowa yesterday where he delivered a powerful and inspiring speech in observance of Earth Day. The centerpiece of his address was his challenge to the U.S. to lead the global clean energy revolution. Among other things he pointed to the U.S. Department of Energy's report that describes how 20% of the nation's electricity demand could be met with wind energy without the need for major technological breakthroughs. The President also announced the release of the Department of Interior's Rule that paves the way for renewable energy development on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

One thing is clear: achieving these goals will require improvements to the electric grid. What's not as clear are the details. Do we need a transcontinental super-grid, or would a more regional approach make sense? Is there something in between? (GW)

The Supergrid: Practical or a Pipe Dream?

By Kate Rowland

energy biz insider

April 22, 2009

With all the recent discussion of a national or "super" grid by the federal politicians, it's easy to forget that the idea is not new. In fact, the concept of a wide-area transmission network enabling the trading of high volumes of electricity across vast distances dates back to the 1960s when Europe began unifying its system.

The concept behind the super grid, or mega grid, is simple: the build-out and management of inter-system and cross-national linkages between electric transmission systems, using either conventional or superconducting cables that have both been suggested in various proposals and smaller pilot projects. The benefits include connecting renewable energy generators to distant electricity markets, removing various congestion problems, and improving the ability to handle intermittent energy sources, such as wind and solar, by balancing them across vast regions.

Over the ensuing years, the quest to link distantly located renewable electricity sources -- such as hydro, wind and solar -- via long-distance transmission lines to other geographic areas consuming the power has evolved and developed to take advantage of advancing technology, such as high voltage direct current.

Steven Pullins, president and chief executive officer of Horizon Energy Group, says the premise for long-distance generation has changed over the past decade. "The premise has moved from moving cheap generation at point A to load centers at point B, to obtaining access to remote renewable energy at point A to load centers at point B."

Renewable resources are the differentiator between the super grid of the past and today's vision, says Richard Lordan, the Electric Power Research Institute's technical director of power delivery and utilization. He says a high-voltage superhighway could support wind integration in three ways: First, it could be used to tie wind farms together, as wind can vary widely from region to region, and a bulk transmission system could smooth out its intermittent nature. Second, it could be used to transmit power from the wind farms to the load centers. Finally, it could reach out and connect to balancing sources such as energy storage plants or demand response centers.

To date, the chief obstacles to any general national transmission grid plan have been the significant cost, as well as local NIMBY opposition to siting new transmission lines. However, with regions more connected now than ever before by regional transmission organizations, and competitive merchant generators now also branching out on competitive merchant transmission lines, the possibility of a workable super grid is within reach. There are hurdles to be conquered first, though, which may still prove difficult without legislation delineating state and federal responsibilities in managing a national super grid.

A super grid is technically feasible, according to Pullins. The question, though, isn't whether it's feasible, but whether it's the best plan. "Just because we can does not mean we should. With the growth of distributed energy resources, local solutions to peak load, and a new drive for conservation and energy efficiency, a super grid for long-distance transmission seems less important in the overall picture. This is a strategic question that our industry has talked around, but not addressed straight on yet."

Lordan feels there are other hurdles, too. "The challenge will be in how the costs are allocated so that those who benefit pay accordingly. Areas with abundant wind will benefit because they have access to customers for their product, and load centers on the coasts benefit by having access to low-cost, clean power. However, the stakeholders in between may not receive the benefit of low-cost wind. They may only get the high-voltage transmission line crossing through the region."

Connect America

The federal government seems to be looking seriously at its possibilities. U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel laureate Dr. Steven Chu has long been an advocate of a national, high-voltage electricity super grid, and even pitched the idea to Samuel Bodman, George W. Bush's energy secretary, as early as 2005. Chu recently reiterated his interest in a high voltage transmission system, calling it "much more efficient transmission."

North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate committee on appropriations' subcommittee on energy and water, has said there is an "absolute need" to connect the United States. Citing planning, siting and pricing as issues: "There needs to be a 'connect America' transmission system and we don't have it. If you don't solve all three of them, it won't work."

Pullins feels a super grid development strategy in the United States will likely be led by the regional transmission organizations and independent system operators. That is because of their particular skills in integrated resource planning. But the primary development, he says, will come from a merchant transmission community.

"There are a couple of reasons for this, but primarily the substantial investment requirement will be beyond the willingness of the investor-owned utilities, municipals and cooperatives to risk," Pullins says. "Hence, merchant transmission companies will be the way the industry manages the large capital project risk. This also separates the inevitable question of who benefits and who pays from the IOUs, municipals, and cooperatives where state and local stakeholders are active."

Almost from the first days of speculation about what the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act might hold for the electricity industry, the concepts of smart grid and super grid have melded in public perception. Indeed, incorporating intelligent control technologies in a super grid may require changes to the status quo. "A super grid strategy will have to address the nexus of a large renewable penetration and substantial distributed resources reflecting from the distribution level into the transmission operations," Pullins says. "I believe this will require a much more distributed control philosophy than the transmission controls can handle today."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

U.S. offshore wind energy gets a kick-start today!

I've always wanted to do a "Breaking News Blog". Well this is it! President Barack Obama and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar are expected to announce that the "Rule" for developing offshore renewable energy projects on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) will be released today.

This paves the way for a number of east coast offshore wind projects that are chomping at the bit to get going -- most notably Cape Wind which has been in the pipeline for over eight years!

This is great news and will make Earth Day 2009 truly historic and memorable. (GW)

Offshore wind turbines get further boost from Obama administration

New rules to be released by the Interior Department pave the way for projects along the Atlantic Coast -- including one on Nantucket Sound opposed by the Kennedys.

By Jim Tankersley
Los Angeles Times
April 22, 2009

Reporting from Washington — The Interior Department will announce new rules today that clear the way for the first offshore wind turbines to be erected along the Atlantic Coast.

The rules will set long-awaited guidelines for offshore leases, easements and royalty payments that the Bush administration worked on for years but did not complete.

The guidelines represent the most aggressive move yet from an administration that hopes to shift the nation's offshore energy supply from oil to wind power. President Obama is expected to mention the rules today in his Earth Day appearance at an Iowa wind turbine factory.

Offshore wind power is currently used to generate electricity in Europe, where land for traditional onshore turbines is scarce. There are no offshore wind farms in the United States.

The most prominent proposed development would be built on Nantucket Sound off Cape Cod, Mass. That project has been opposed by the Kennedy family and others in part because it would be visible from Martha's Vineyard and other scenic areas.

The new rules reflect the administration's desire to develop alternative energy sources to offset the need for additional offshore drilling for oil and gas.

As gas prices soared during last year's presidential race, Obama and his Republican opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, both agreed to consider expanding offshore drilling, including along the California coast.

But since taking office, Obama has delayed a Bush administration plan to expand drilling while the Interior Department has focused on developing offshore wind power. The department recently estimated that offshore wind turbines could someday supply more than enough electricity to meet the nation's current demand.

"There are many states, especially along the Atlantic seaboard, that are ready to move fast forward with this," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a recent interview. He said he saw offshore wind as having "significant potential" to round out an energy policy that includes clean-coal research, land-based wind and solar energy generation, and potentially more offshore drilling.

Offshore wind is an attractive energy source because the wind blows stronger and more consistently offshore. In addition, turbines off the Atlantic coast -- and, eventually, the Great Lakes and deeper waters off California -- would be near the population centers that use the most electricity.

But offshore wind turbines cost more than traditional wind turbines. Current technology also limits the turbines to shallower waters such as those found off the East Coast, which has less powerful winds.

The administration is trying to change that. The Energy Department plans to spend economic stimulus funds on research to improve offshore turbine blades.

At least two projects appear set to go -- a development by Massachusetts-based Cape Wind Associates and one by Deepwater Wind, in Rhode Island. Other projects in New Jersey, Delaware and New York are close behind.

The Cape Wind project has long been controversial but, thanks to backing from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and other state political leaders, appears poised for construction by the end of 2010.

Rhode Island officials have signed a deal with Deepwater for an offshore farm that could be finished within three years. The state hopes eventually to draw 15% of its electricity from offshore sources, said Andrew Dzykewicz, commissioner of Rhode Island's Office of Energy Resources. Deepwater also has agreed to manufacture the pilings for the turbines in the state, creating an estimated 800 jobs.

Developers have also proposed projects in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Pacific Ocean, which boasts some of the nation's strongest offshore winds. But those deep-water projects would be more expensive and require the turbines to be built on floating platforms.

"There's definitely huge potential" on the West Coast, said Mike Dvorak, a Stanford University research assistant and engineering doctoral student who has studied California's offshore wind conditions extensively. "But it's more of a future game."

Plenty of wonders

To all those who don't consider EVERY day as Earth Day: Happy Earth Day! Following is a list of eco-wonders of the world compiled by the folks at Plenty Magazine. I think they may have been better off referring to these sites simply as seven eco wonders rather than presenting it as"the" definitive list.

What the heck. No harm done. Have some fun -- let the debates begin. (GW)

The seven eco wonders of the world

Present and future landmarks that embody our new era of sustainability.

April 13 2009

The Seven Wonders of the World. The phrase, first used by ancient Greek historians like Herodotus, recalls a simpler time, when the human influence over nature was an awesome mystery. From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Great Pyramid of Giza, the magnitude and mastery displayed by the ancient wonders were staggering to our ancestors.

Century by century, through advances in technology, engineering, and exploration, our collective sense of what constitutes a marvel has changed. But even recent rankings of world wonders—a set called the New Seven Wonders of the World, based on global voting results, was announced in Lisbon last summer—herald our ability to triumph over nature. Today, at the dawn of a new eco era, this old-school monument standard makes us, well, wonder. Should we celebrate endeavors that cast us as conquerors of the natural world, or those that connect with and sustain our environment?

The editors decided we need a new list of wonders—one with an eco-enlightened perspective. So we searched the globe. We visited today’s most progressive, iconic structures. And we studied blueprints for projects now under construction that represent a better form of development for tomorrow. We insisted that these eco wonders connect our built and natural realms, cultivating hope for a brighter, greener, more innovative century. And lo and behold, Plenty’s Seven Eco Wonders of the World was born: present and future marvels (in no particular order) that prove our civilization can leave an eco-friendly imprint.

1. Museum of Biodiversity, Panama
The Eco Wonder: The density of plant life in Panama is greater than in Brazil or China. Such incredible variety inspired local leaders to erect a new Museum of Biodiversity—aka the Bridge of Life—on a conspicuous site at the Pacific mouth of the Panama Canal. Designed by iconoclast Frank Gehry, the Bridge of Life will be as colorful as a parrot’s plumage. Once it opens in 2010, the Panama City museum will house an original edition of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and it will feature twin semicylindrical aquariums, and “Panamarama,” a three-story, fourteen-screen film space.

What’s Behind It: Sensing the need for a new national icon, Panamanian nonprofit Fundación Amador is developing the museum with Gehry; the surrounding botanical park with New York’s Edwina von Gal; and the educational exhibits with Toronto design guru Bruce Mau. The Smithsonian Institute and Panama’s national university are also advising.

Eco-touring Tips: Soberania National Park, a lush rain forest preserve, is just minutes away. Many visitors stay at Canopy Tower, an observatory in the tropical park, amid the roar of howler monkeys and the blue flash of Morpho butterfly wings. More than 1,500 islands dot Panama’s coasts, making it a kayaker’s paradise.


Chongming Island. (Photo: ZUMA Press)

2. Dongtan, China
The Eco Wonder: Called by its designers “the world’s first purpose-built eco city,” Dongtan will be powered entirely by renewable energy sources and supplied with battery or fuel-cell vehicles and solar-powered water taxis. Plans call for Dongtan, which will be located on Chongming Island in the Yangtze River Delta near Shanghai, to house up to half a million people by 2050. Tourist attractions will include a leisure park, a science exhibition, an educational center, and wildlife conservation areas surrounding Dongtan’s three distinct villages.

What’s Behind It: Even skeptics of this Chinese eco wonder are impressed. The Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation is developing the site with contractors who use a mix of traditional and innovative measures like low-energy air-conditioning and green roofs. Dongtan will use half the water and create one-sixth the waste of a comparable city, even with 20 acres set aside for producing native foods like corn, rice, and fish. Nearby farms will be restored as wetlands, with a 2.1-mile buffer around the city to control ground pollution.

Eco-touring Tips: By the time World Expo 2010 comes to Shanghai, as many as 5,000 people will call Dongtan home. A one-hour ferry ride far from the big-city bustle, pastoral Chongming Island is crisscrossed with canals and dirt roads, and hosts the largest migratory bird sanctuary in China.


3. Nysted Havmøllepark, Denmark
The Eco Wonder: The Dutch are known for windmills, but it’s the Danish who now claim the world’s second-largest offshore wind farm, located in shallow but navigable waters 6 miles off the shore of the bucolic southern coastal town of Nysted. Gently rotating blades reach out more than 130 feet from their colossal 225-foot posts. Seen from the sky, the 72 sleek, marine-gray towers rise from the ocean in neat rows, marking out a parallelogram.

What’s Behind It: Denmark leads the globe in the push for renewable energy. More than 5,000 turbines on land and 200 offshore produce about one-fifth of the nation’s energy. The Nysted project, a joint venture between several European companies led by DONG Energy, has an annual output of 595 million kilowatt-hours, enough to supply 145,000 homes. Three of every four Danish wind farms are owned by individuals or cooperatives.

Eco-touring Tips: Visitors can sail in the unrestricted waters around the Nysted wind farm using sailing directions found on the farm’s website. Frequent tours leave from Nysted, where sport fishing is another popular local pastime. On shore, the Rødsand area is well-liked for its dunes, seaside campsites, game reserves, and a European Union bird sanctuary—and don’t miss the Egholm Ulvecenter, a wolf park and museum.


"Living Roof" at California Academy of Sciences. (Photo: Associated Press)

4. California Academy of Sciences, California
The Eco Wonder: With its steep, undulating 2.5-acre living roof, the glass-walled California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco looks like it rose from the ground around it. Covered with 1.7 million wildflowers, strawberries, and herbaceous perennials, the roof serves as a habitat for birds and San Bruno elfin butterflies, an apt topper for a natural history museum, planetarium, and aquarium rolled into one.

What’s Behind It: Designed by Italian modernist architect Renzo Piano with Monterey green-roof design firm Rana Creek, the $488 million building is shooting for a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating—a first for a museum. Built mostly of recycled materials, the natural showplace heats and cools itself with almost no external energy. Inside, there are more than 20 million living and preserved animal species from 170 countries displaying nature’s diversity. There’s even an alligator swamp and a rainforest.

Eco-touring Tips: The Academy opens this fall in Golden Gate Park. Nature lovers can plan picnics and hikes in the 1,000-acre park when visiting. San Francisco, a global capital of eco chic, offers a near-endless selection of urban pleasures. Pick up a map from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s impressive selection and two-wheel it wherever you go.


Part of the Eden Project complex. (Photo: youMayCallMeSheep)

5. Eden Project, England
The Eco Wonder: The biome conservatories of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, are more than visually stunning. The giant geodesic domes made of inflatable plastic-like “pillows” enclose millions of plants, 5,000 species in all, laid out in botanical gardens that reveal how the plant kingdom supports human life. Billed as the world’s biggest conservatory, the otherworldly structures are also arguably the most environmentally advanced. Just one biome, the Humid Tropics section, covers 4 acres under a 180-foot-tall canopy, and is replete with butterflies, birds, and lizards. Yet the Eden Project’s main mission is for visitors to have fun—which explains why more than a million people enter the recyclable foil bubbles every year.

What’s Behind It: Millionaire record producer Tim Smit worked on another area attraction, the Lost Gardens of Heligan, before he envisaged his Eden, working with cofounder and architect Jonathan Ball, and horticultural gurus Peter Thoday and Philip McMillan Browse. Smit later enlisted British enviro-architect Nicholas Grimshaw to design the biomes.

Eco-touring Tips: By train, bus, or car it’s four and a half hours from London to the Eden Project in southwest England. Cyclists earn discounted tickets and line-jumping status at the biomes. Nearby activities include hiking the Camel Trail and Dartmoor National Park, plus Heligan’s Lost Gardens.


6. Menara Mesiniaga, Malaysia
The Eco Wonder: The fifteen-story Menara Mesiniaga stands as one of a handful of eco-friendly high-rise buildings designed by architect Ken Yeang. Full of open-air sky gardens with mature trees and tropical breezes, Yeang’s eco structures, most of which are found in his home country of Malaysia, are unlike any other tall buildings in the world. Menara Mesiniaga’s canopied sunroof, distinctive louvers, and open-air garden balconies give occupants the sense of being outdoors in airy spaces planted with tall trees and dappled with sunlight. From inside, floor-to-ceiling windows offer panoramic views of the surrounding area.

What’s Behind It: Yeang’s bioclimatic design, better known as passive low-energy architecture, makes these towers work. The architect gained international renown by touting a future with “hairy” and “breathing” buildings, a reference to his patented ventilation techniques; high-rise vegetation sprouting from balconies; and open-air lobbies with picnic areas and playgrounds. Yeang believes that skyscraping cities are vital to our future, reducing sprawl while contending with booming populations. To work, they must bring in nature, fresh air, and sunlight where it’s least expected.

Eco-touring Tips: To witness the natural inspiration for Yeang’s architecture, stay at the Taman Negara eco resort, nestled deep in the world’s oldest tropical rainforest northeast of Kuala Lumpur.


7. Star Axis, New Mexico
The Eco Wonder: Part land art and part astronomy lesson, Star Axis occupies a remote plot in New Mexico near Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Conceived as a naked-eye observatory connecting people to the heavens and earth, the project has been underway for more than 30 years. The result, with its pink granite solar pyramid and a star tunnel precisely parallel to the Earth’s axis, will be eleven-stories high and a tenth of a mile wide—a majestic and monumental bridge between land and sky.

What’s Behind It: Charles Ross, a physics-student-turned-sculptor from New York, conceived of Star Axis in 1971. His idea was to create chambers and tunnels so people could experience the Earth’s spinning and movement in various time frames, from one hour to one season to one 25,920-year cycle of procession. Ross is well-known for celestial works—his prism installations at Harvard University create spectrum light that changes with the Earth’s rotation.

Eco-touring Tips: To look 13,000 years into the future, plan ahead. Star Axis is not officially open yet (the target date is 2010), though much of it is complete. The site is on Chupinas Mesa, where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains meet the eastern plains; check for updates.

Story by CC Sullivan. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in June 2008.