Saturday, May 29, 2010

Integrating renewables into our land-and-sea scapes

According to Wikipedia, the term NIMBY ("Not In My Backyards") has only been around for 30 years. It was coined by a British politician named Nicholas Ridley. The article does not mention the nature of the project that led to Mr. Ridley's now-famous and oft-quoted creation.

I'm only guessing but I'd be willing to wager it did not originate in a low-income community. (GW)

Figuring land use into the renewable-energy equation

By Martin LaMonica

cnet news

May 29, 2010

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Imagine if your country had an unlimited budget but a limited amount of land: what renewable energy has the most potential?

Rutgers University professor Clinton Andrews and colleagues ran the numbers on this thought experiment and came up with some surprises. They identified clear limits on some technologies, notably biofuels, but concluded that the bigger challenges to renewable energy and land relate to siting energy facilities, particularly transmission lines.

Andrews presented an early version of the paper at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy conference here on Monday. The goal of this analysis and others like it is to size up the land requirements for different renewable-energy sources which, in many cases, require more land than fossil fuels and nuclear power.

As the U.S. and other countries seek to ramp up renewable-energy production, land use is becoming a more contentious issue. Already plans to build large-scale solar plants and wind farms in the U.S. have been opposed for aesthetic and environmental reasons. Even for distributed energy sources, such as rooftop panels, permitting and siting issues stand to loom large because upgrades to the electricity grid are needed, the study found.

"It's not so much the land that we need for producing the energy. It's how we move to where we want to use it," Andrews said during his presentation on Monday.

This chart (click on the image to enlarge) shows how much land would be required for each energy source to supply both 10 percent and 100 percent of the world's current energy demand.

(Credit: Taken from Alternative Energy and Land Use paper from Clinton Andrews et al. Land intensiveness data from McDonald et al (2009), land area data from Melillo et al (2009), global energy demand data from EIA.)

These land use issues are directly linked to public support for renewable energy and government policy. Deciding how and where to put renewable energy will challenge regulators, particularly on the question of federal authority of land use for energy production, Andrews said. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 brought up questions of federal versus state authority on infrastructure but energy promises to be more complicated politically.

"I think the siting challenges, especially for transmission, are even more daunting (than the Telecommunications Act of 1996). Those are hard and nobody wants to see them," he said.

Geothermal and concentrating solar

To better understand land limits, the paper's authors calculated the amount of land that would be required to generate all of the world's current energy demand with one type of energy source and how much land would be required to meet 10 percent. Using those criteria and assuming slow growth in energy demand, the authors placed all energy sources into three categories.

In the small footprint category is nuclear, geothermal, coal, solar thermal technology, and natural gas. Although only suitable for certain places, geothermal is a good candidate for expansion because geothermal plants have about the same footprint as oil and gas drilling, since they all use much of the same technology, Andrews said.

Large-scale concentrating solar power systems also have a relatively small land footprint. Concentrating solar thermal technology, which only works in desert areas, uses mirrors to generate heat and make steam which turns an electricity turbine.

By contrast, rooftop solar thermal systems for domestic hot water, which operate at lower temperatures, require more area per energy than the large-scale solar thermal systems.

A high-profile illustration of the significant transmission needs of large-scale solar thermal plans is the Desertec project to build a string of concentrating solar power plants in North Africa and ship the electricity to Europe and elsewhere. The Desertec Foundation proposes building high-voltage direct-current transmission lines to minimize electricity losses. These cables can be buried underground, although that adds to the cost.

In the second category of the land use study is solar photovoltaics and wind, which have land use requirements in the same range as petroleum and hydropower.

"Land-rich" North America can rely more on wind power than Europe, which has less available land, although conflicts over siting is one reason that offshore wind is being pushed aggressively in Europe, according to the study. One advantage of wind is that the land can be used for multiple purposes, such as farming.

Household solar photovoltaic panels (PV) can make a contribution to energy supply but the authors conclude that, based on the area required, solar, like wind, is more likely to be deployed in remote areas. Solar PV panels are unlikely to make U.S. homes self-sufficient because Americans use much more energy in their homes compared to other countries, notably Japan, the study found.

"It's hard to be self-sufficient at the current levels of consumption we're doing," he said.

Land energy hogs

The most land-intensive of all renewable energy sources is biofuels, particularly biodiesel, according to the analysis that Andrews presented.

Meeting 100 percent of the world's energy needs with ethanol from sugar cane would require nearly three times the amount of land now used for farming.

Ethanol from corn or the cellulose in plants requires more land than ethanol from sugar cane, as is burning biomass to make electricity, according to the study. Biodiesel from soy is the most land intensive by far.

"All of those are just beyond the pale. We would have to double the amount of the Earth's land area that we currently devote to human purposes to get energy from any bio sources so it's just not going to happen," he said. "For 10 percent, maybe a niche market, but don't count on them for broad solutions."

Although the study looks at which renewable source could supply all the world's energy, the authors argue that each one will enter the global energy supply based on each country's available resources and that efficiency should be improved.

Also important are technologies that lower the cost of power generation from renewables and upgrades to the electricity grid so that it can better control and store energy from renewable sources.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"...high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life”

Human-designed systems are becoming increasingly complex, yet they are downright amateurish when compared to the complexity of Nature's incredibly integrated design linking and locking the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere in an intricate regenerative dance.

Given this, shouldn't systems thinking be part of core curricula from elementary school through college? Unfortunately as Bucky Fuller pointed out time and again, our educational system is more concerned with telling children what to think instead of teaching them how to think. Or as ecological geneticist Wes Jackson put it, we reward cleverness over wisdom. (GW)

Drilling for Certainty

By David Brooks
New York Times
May 27, 2010

In the weeks since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the political debate has fallen into predictably partisan and often puerile categories. Conservatives say this is Obama’s Katrina. Liberals say the spill is proof the government should have more control over industry.

But the real issue has to do with risk assessment. It has to do with the bloody crossroads where complex technical systems meet human psychology.

Over the past decades, we’ve come to depend on an ever-expanding array of intricate high-tech systems. These hardware and software systems are the guts of financial markets, energy exploration, space exploration, air travel, defense programs and modern production plants.

These systems, which allow us to live as well as we do, are too complex for any single person to understand. Yet every day, individuals are asked to monitor the health of these networks, weigh the risks of a system failure and take appropriate measures to reduce those risks.

If there is one thing we’ve learned, it is that humans are not great at measuring and responding to risk when placed in situations too complicated to understand.

In the first place, people have trouble imagining how small failings can combine to lead to catastrophic disasters. At the Three Mile Island nuclear facility, a series of small systems happened to fail at the same time. It was the interplay between these seemingly minor events that led to an unanticipated systemic crash.

Second, people have a tendency to get acclimated to risk. As the physicist Richard Feynman wrote in a report on the Challenger disaster, as years went by, NASA officials got used to living with small failures. If faulty O rings didn’t produce a catastrophe last time, they probably won’t this time, they figured.

Feynman compared this to playing Russian roulette. Success in the last round is not a good predictor of success this time. Nonetheless, as things seemed to be going well, people unconsciously adjust their definition of acceptable risk.

Third, people have a tendency to place elaborate faith in backup systems and safety devices. More pedestrians die in crosswalks than when jay-walking. That’s because they have a false sense of security in crosswalks and are less likely to look both ways.

On the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, a Transocean official apparently tried to close off a safety debate by reminding everybody the blowout preventer would save them if something went wrong. The illusion of the safety system encouraged the crew to behave in more reckless ways. As Malcolm Gladwell put it in a 1996 New Yorker essay, “Human beings have a seemingly fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another.”

Fourth, people have a tendency to match complicated technical systems with complicated governing structures. The command structure on the Deepwater Horizon seems to have been completely muddled, with officials from BP, Transocean and Halliburton hopelessly tangled in confusing lines of authority and blurred definitions of who was ultimately responsible for what.

Fifth, people tend to spread good news and hide bad news. Everybody wants to be part of a project that comes in under budget and nobody wants to be responsible for the reverse. For decades, a steady stream of oil leaked out of a drill off the Guadalupe Dunes in California. A culture of silence settled upon all concerned, from front-line workers who didn’t want to lose their jobs to executives who didn’t want to hurt profits.

Finally, people in the same field begin to think alike, whether they are in oversight roles or not. The oil industry’s capture of the Minerals Management Service is actually misleading because the agency was so appalling and corrupt. Cognitive capture is more common and harder to detect.

In the weeks and hours leading up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, engineers were compelled to make a series of decisions: what sort of well-casing to use; how long to circulate and when to remove the heavy drilling fluid or “mud” from the hole; how to interpret various tests. They were forced to make these decisions without any clear sense of the risks and in an environment that seems to have encouraged overconfidence.

Over the past years, we have seen smart people at Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, NASA and the C.I.A. make similarly catastrophic risk assessments. As Gladwell wrote in that 1996 essay, “We have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day life.”

So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest.

This isn’t just about oil. It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Making waves off the coast of Cleveland

While most of the attention around offshore wind in the United States is centered on the proposed Cape Wind project (and with good reason), my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio is leading the way in the development of fresh water projects with a plan to build in Lake Erie.

Cleveland rocks!! (GW)

The Great Lakes Gear Up for Offshore Wind

By Herman K. Trabish
May 26, 2010

It’s near the big one they call Kitchigummi.

Dallas--The next frontier for offshore wind could be the Midwest.

The first offshore wind project on the Great lakes moved a step closer to reality with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between GE Energy (GE) and the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEED).

The MOU was announced by Ohio Governor Ted Strickland at the opening session of WindPower 2010, the annual conclave put on by the American Wind Energy Association and thought to be the biggest U.S. energy event. The MOU commits GE to providing five of its 4-megawatt (MW) state-of-the-art direct-drive offshore turbines, along with maintenance services, for a 20-megawatt installation just off Cleveland's shores in Lake Erie. Governor Strickland described it as "a first step."

Offshore industry sources confided that while GE's 4MW turbine is an impressive machine, it has yet to prove itself in the rugged offshore environment and will be especially hard-pressed to perform up to expectations in the brutal and frigid waters of Lake Erie. But savor the irony: the pollution on the once-flammable waters of Lake Erie helped prompt the birth of Earth Day and the modern environmental movement.

LEED President Larry Wagner stressed that 11 of GE's 3MW turbines have been successfully operating in a nearby and similar onshore environment close to the shoreline for five years.

If successful, LEED hopes to proceed with the development of 1,000 megawatts of offshore capacity in the same Lake Erie waters. According to Wagner, a rigorous seven-layer GIS analysis conducted by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has identified the potential for much more offshore generation in sectors of the lake unencumbered by environmental, commercial, recreational or military considerations. "The Ohio portion of Lake Erie could easily support 10 thousand to 20 thousand megawatts," Wagner said.

LEED plans for the 20MW GE installation to go online in 2012, preparing the way for the fulfillment of the 1,000MW goal by 2020. Michigan, Iowa, Ontario and Pennsylvania, among other regional states and provinces, are actively courting green energy and manufacturing facilities, as well.

When asked about financing, Wagner said LEED is interviewing developers. "A developer has come to us with a plan," he said.

One industry source who cautioned the GE turbines were unproven speculated that the project was small enough that GE Energy might be able to arrange financing but would be unlikely to obtain money to go ahead with a large-scale project until the money people see the turbines perform to expectations for two years.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"I’m wondering if it’s been overhyped..."

Climate change 'skepticitis' (my term) has spread from the U.S. across the pond to the UK. It's obviously contagious and now the entire global population may be at risk -- literally. (GW)

Climate Fears Turn to Doubts Among Britons

By Elisabeth Rosenthal
New York Times
May 24, 2010

LONDON — Last month hundreds of environmental activists crammed into an auditorium here to ponder an anguished question: If the scientific consensus on climate change has not changed, why have so many people turned away from the idea that human activity is warming the planet?

Nowhere has this shift in public opinion been more striking than in Britain, where climate change was until this year such a popular priority that in 2008 Parliament enshrined targets for emissions cuts as national law. But since then, the country has evolved into a home base for a thriving group of climate skeptics who have dominated news reports in recent months, apparently convincing many that the threat of warming is vastly exaggerated.

A survey in February by the BBC found that only 26 percent of Britons believed that “climate change is happening and is now established as largely manmade,” down from 41 percent in November 2009. A poll conducted for the German magazine Der Spiegel found that 42 percent of Germans feared global warming, down from 62 percent four years earlier.

And London’s Science Museum recently announced that a permanent exhibit scheduled to open later this year would be called the Climate Science Gallery — not the Climate Change Gallery as had previously been planned.

“Before, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this climate change problem is just dreadful,’ ” said Jillian Leddra, 50, a musician who was shopping in London on a recent lunch hour. “But now I have my doubts, and I’m wondering if it’s been overhyped.”

Perhaps sensing that climate is now a political nonstarter, David Cameron, Britain’s new Conservative prime minister, was “strangely muted” on the issue in a recent pre-election debate, as The Daily Telegraph put it, though it had previously been one of his passions.

And a poll in January of the personal priorities of 141 Conservative Party candidates deemed capable of victory in the recent election found that “reducing Britain’s carbon footprint” was the least important of the 19 issues presented to them.

Politicians and activists say such attitudes will make it harder to pass legislation like a fuel tax increase and to persuade people to make sacrifices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Legitimacy has shifted to the side of the climate skeptics, and that is a big, big problem,” Ben Stewart, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said at the meeting of environmentalists here. “This is happening in the context of overwhelming scientific agreement that climate change is real and a threat. But the poll figures are going through the floor.”

The lack of fervor about climate change is also true of the United States, where action on climate and emissions reduction is still very much a work in progress, and concern about global warming was never as strong as in Europe. A March Gallup poll found that 48 percent of Americans believed that the seriousness of global warming was “generally exaggerated,” up from 41 percent a year ago.

Here in Britain, the change has been driven by the news media’s intensive coverage of a series of climate science controversies unearthed and highlighted by skeptics since November. These include the unauthorized release of e-mail messages from prominent British climate scientists at the University of East Anglia that skeptics cited as evidence that researchers were overstating the evidence for global warming and the discovery of errors in a United Nations climate report.

Two independent reviews later found no evidence that the East Anglia researchers had actively distorted climate data, but heavy press coverage had already left an impression that the scientists had schemed to repress data. Then there was the unusually cold winter in Northern Europe and the United States, which may have reinforced a perception that the Earth was not warming. (Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a United States agency, show that globally, this winter was the fifth warmest in history.)

Asked about his views on global warming on a recent evening, Brian George, a 30-year-old builder from southeast London, mused, “It was extremely cold in January, wasn’t it?”

In a telephone interview, Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank and a climate change expert, said that the shift in opinion “hadn’t helped” efforts to come up with strong policy in a number of countries. But he predicted that it would be overcome, not least because the science was so clear on the warming trend.

“I don’t think it will be problematic in the long run,” he said, adding that in Britain, at least, politicians “are ahead of the public anyway.” Indeed, once Mr. Cameron became prime minister, he vowed to run “the greenest government in our history” and proposed projects like a more efficient national electricity grid.

Scientists have meanwhile awakened to the public’s misgivings and are increasingly fighting back. An editorial in the prestigious journal Nature said climate deniers were using “every means at their disposal to undermine science and scientists” and urged scientists to counterattack. Scientists in France, the Netherlands and the United States have signed open letters affirming their trust in climate change evidence, including one published on May 7 in the journal Science.

In March, Simon L. Lewis, an expert on rain forests at the University of Leeds in Britain, filed a 30-page complaint with the nation’s Press Complaints Commission against The Times of London, accusing it of publishing “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information” about climate change, his own research and remarks he had made to a reporter.

“I was most annoyed that there seemed to be a pattern of pushing the idea that there were a number of serious mistakes in the I.P.C.C. report, when most were fairly innocuous, or not mistakes at all,” said Dr. Lewis, referring to the report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Meanwhile, groups like the wildlife organization WWF have posted articles like “How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic,” providing stock answers to doubting friends and relatives, on their Web sites.

It is unclear whether such actions are enough to win back a segment of the public that has eagerly consumed a series of revelations that were published prominently in right-leaning newspapers like The Times of London and The Telegraph and then repeated around the world.

In January, for example, The Times chastised the United Nations climate panel for an errant and unsupported projection that glaciers in the Himalayas could disappear by 2035. The United Nations ultimately apologized for including the estimate, which was mentioned in passing within a 3,000-page report in 2007.

Then came articles contending that the 2007 report was inaccurate on a host of other issues, including African drought, the portion of the Netherlands below sea level, and the economic impact of severe storms. Officials from the climate panel said the articles’ claims either were false or reflected minor errors like faulty citations that in no way diluted the evidence that climate change is real and caused by human activity.

Stefan Rahmstorf, a professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, successfully demanded in February that some German newspapers remove misleading articles from their Web sites. But such reports have become so common that he “wouldn’t bother” to pursue most cases now, he added.

The public is left to struggle with the salvos between the two sides. “I’m still concerned about climate change, but it’s become very confusing,” said Sandra Lawson, 32, as she ran errands near Hyde Park.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Environmental justice for future generations"

Bucky Fuller was convinced that politicians are incapable of truly solving the most important problems facing humanity. The American two-party system is providing ample proof of that. But what about the UK's Green Party? They are certainly visible and seem to wield some influence.

Are they different? More importantly can they make a difference? (GW)

Caroline Lucas: 'You can do politics without selling out'

The Independent

May 25, 2010

Her election as an MP is a triumph for the green movement. But how will Caroline Lucas make a difference? She talks to Sophie Morris about turning ecological ideals into reality

As far as landmark moments in the green movement go, last Thursday was a pretty big one. The environment featured in the news as usual - there was a report saying the UK could power itself six times over with offshore renewable energy, and activists scaled London's BP building in protest at the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Both issues are pertinent to the greater cause, but the real sign of progress took place at the Houses of Parliament, where Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party, was sworn in as Britain's first Green Member of Parliament.

When we meet at Westminster she is awaiting the call to be officially anointed an MP, a process that requires, after much hanging around, declaring loyalty to our head of state, the Queen. MPs can choose to say an affirmation over the traditional holy oath, but Lucas is obliged to swear a solemn and sincere allegiance to the Queen, an unfortunate piece of protocol for the leader of a party who would abolish the monarchy. "If you don't do it, you don't get to sit," she explains. "Until we get it changed, that's what you have to do. The people of Brighton Pavilion have elected me to do a job, and that's what I have to do to do it."

As for the hanging around, what's a few hours given that Lucas, in terms of her employment with the Green Party, has been hanging around for 24 years for this moment? The party itself has been waiting almost 40 years for a sniff of power.

Did she imagine it would take this long to get a single MP into the Commons? She laughs. "Absolutely not. I joined in 1986. There was a new awareness of the seriousness of the climate crisis but also of the benefits that could be gained by tackling it in a fair and effective way. And then we had our wonderful result in 1989, winning 15 per cent of the vote in the European elections. It was a lesson, actually, to see how temporary certain bursts of enthusiasm can be, and you can't take that for granted."

In terms of "bursts of enthusiasm", she says she is certain the current media interest in her will wane with time. She is, though, accompanied by an independent film-maker who is recording her first year in office. She brushes off his presence modestly, saying it might well come to nothing. But as Lucas, her party, constituents, supporters anywhere in the country and indeed across Europe and the world know, it has to come to something. Not necessarily the bust ups, back stabbing, bitching and in-fighting that makes good telly, but something that genuinely furthers the possibilities of green power in government and clears the way for more Green MPs. Otherwise, what's the point?

"There's a real urgency to what the Green Party's about," says Lucas. "Climate scientists say we have eight-to-10 years to get our emissions down, and if we miss that window of opportunity it will be a lot more difficult logistically to avoid the worst of climate change. That makes the next few years absolutely crucial."

The policy gains Lucas can make alone are obviously small (though not to be underestimated, as the Greens' record in Europe, where she was MEP for south-east England for a decade, and at the London Assembly, show). The Greens want emissions reduced by 10 per cent year on year. It's unlikely they'll get their wish on this and other policies. What Lucas can do is make sure that by the end of this Parliament, however long the coalition lasts, her party appears yet more electable - and that any last remnant of the Greens as a marginal group of mung bean idealist activists is erased forever.

"It's a huge responsibility," she says. "It's what keeps me awake at night. But it's a huge honour as well, and while I'm on my own in here, I feel very grounded by the support I have from my party and NGOs outside. I hope it's not impossible to demonstrate you can do politics without selling your principles."

Lucas wants "environmental justice for future generations," she says. But hasn't our new Prime Minister, David Cameron, just made the very same commitment, promising his Government will be the "greenest ever"?

"That's not very difficult, is it?" she says."Labour has been so appalling on the environment. The one thing they did was pass the Climate Act, but even then they got the wrong targets, and they didn't even have the right policies to meet the wrong targets. They weren't prepared to take real leadership on the issue and to use the same kind of political commitment they brought to the Iraq war. The fact Tony Blair chose not to put his political capital behind climate change but went for something as nasty and disastrous as Iraq is a real tragedy. He failed to see he could have made his mark in a positive way."

That said, she's no cheerleader for the new coalition. She dismisses Cameron's promise of green leadership as rhetoric and part of the continuing process of "decontamination and rebranding" of the Tory party. One of the biggest coalition compromises, the Liberal Democrats' agreement to a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) rather than Proportional Representation (PR), affects the Green Party as radically as any environmental policy. "I'm desperately disappointed that the zeal for opening up this place so people's voices really count, by introducing some form of proportional representation, has been lost," says Lucas.

PR would have given the Green Party a much better chance of winning more seats in future elections. "This whole system is set up against smaller parties. Not just the electoral system but the media as well. If you're not at Westminster, you're not really there in the media's mind." To be fair to the political media, there are well over 600 MPs to chase around the country, so following up anyone without office is not always possible. But Lucas thinks it was probably media coverage, specifically the leaders' debates, which caused her colleague Adrian Ramsay to lose out in Norwich South to the Liberal Democrat candidate. "In terms of the national picture, the Lib Dems were presented as the alternative," she says. "If they hadn't had so much extra profile it would have been very different. It gave the impression there were no alternatives on a whole range of issues, from cuts to public services or Afghanistan. By simply turning a two-party stitch up into a three-party stitch up, the media did the British public a disservice."

Even more disappointing for Lucas was the fact no party made the environment a priority in their campaign. It barely got a mention. No doubt due in part to the fact that, in an economic downturn, politicians believe the only thing voters care about is money. The other problem is that being green is seen as a lifestyle choice that demands a huge amount of effort and substantial sacrifices. Lucas points out that building a green economy will create jobs in all areas, from green energy provision to a quality self-sufficient food system. "Everyone has associated environmental changes with a loss of quality of life. There are lots of things I find hard, but that's because we don't have an enabling policy framework to make it easy for people to live a green lifestyle. You can't blame people for not leaving their cars at home when there isn't an alternative."

When Lucas joined the Green Party it didn't look like much of an alternative. It has been slow to modernise - only electing Lucas as the sole party leader in 2008 - and accept that to win seats in Parliament it has to structure itself and behave as mainstream parties do, however that sits with its own views of how politics should be done.

Lucas found the Greens "via lots of activism and organisations like CND". She believes there is always a role for non-violent direct action - "when you're dealing with something as potentially serious as runaway climate change and you've got a government that doesn't listen, taking those actions does put the issue on the agenda" - and has been arrested for protesting outside the Faslane nuclear base and at Westminster. But as a former press officer she knows that how is she personally is perceived, as her party's figurehead, is as important, if not more so, than policy. As such, her gentle manner, understated dress and modest but forthright way of engaging with the issues is a refreshing counter to our brusque, bully boy way of doing political business at the moment.

If this approach continues to work, the electorate's opinion of her could change in line with that of her own parents, Conservative voters. "I think they felt the Green Party was not a very serious way to be spending your time," admits Lucas of their initial reaction to her chosen path. "To be fair to them, once I'd got into the European Parliament they decided it was a bit more respectable that they'd thought."

Monday, May 24, 2010

"We are not here to bemoan our plight, we are here to promote our trade"

Now that we are developing the ability to manufacture at the molecular level and perhaps even create new forms 0f life (see last week's posts), is it possible as James Lovelock predicts that someday our food will come from counter-top nano-machines and farms will be rendered obsolete? (GW)

French farmers bring rural reality to Champs Elysées

Paris avenue transformed overnight to highlight crisis in agricultural sector

By Lizzy Davies

May 23, 2010

As the busiest, most traffic-friendly road in the French capital, there is usually very little that is field-like about the Champs Elysées, or Elysian Fields.

Today, however, the cars that usually speed through the famous avenue were brought to a halt and the cobblestones paved over with grass as la France profonde took over the most urban landscape in the country.

By bringing in 8,000 plots of earth and 150,000 plants to the city and installing them, amid sheep and cattle, along three-quarters of a mile of the thoroughfare, struggling farmers are attempting to highlight an aspect of French life which they believe is too often overlooked by Paris.

In the ravages of a crisis which has seen production costs soar and product prices fall, representatives of the agricultural sector say farmers are being brought to their knees.

But William Villeneuve, president of the young farmers' union, insisted the greening of the Champs Elysées was more a celebration than a protest.

"We are not here to bemoan our plight," he said. "We are here to promote our trade." The farmers wanted to make French consumers reflect on "what they have on their plates" and how it got there, he added.

Organisers of the event, which cost private investors €4.2m to stage and was due to run today and tomorrow, said they hoped to attract up to two million people to the newly bucolic avenue running from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde.

From wheat and mustard to grapevines and Limousin pigs, the avenue's pavements have been carpeted with lorry-loads of produce from all over France, among it 650 fully grown trees and a vast array of flora intended to symbolise the country's biodiversity.

Gad Weil, an outdoor events planner co-ordinating the Nature Capital event with the young farmers' union, said the spectacle had brought people together in order to showcase Gallic agriculture.

"Lorry drivers, truck drivers, farmers, woodsmen, events planners: these men don't usually work together, but here everyone is doing so with a smile," he said during the night-long operation that transformed the Champs Elysées into a long strip of greenery. Visitors were able to buy plants and produce for themselves, as well as tasting regional specialities and, this afternoon, taking part in a mass barbecue organised by Paris butchers.

For the 55,000 members of the young farmers' union, the stunt has a more serious purpose. Agricultural workers are one of the most alienated sections of Nicolas Sarkozy's electorate and, as a steep fall in revenues causes anger to grow, farmers have used increasingly eye-catching means to draw attention to their grievances. Last month, more than 1,000 cereal farmers drove to the capital on tractors to protest against their plummeting standard of living.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bioinspired wind turbine

Synergy among arrays of vertical axis wind turbines.


I mean, Bioinspired! (GW)

Caltech researchers find schooling fish offer new ideas for wind farming

California Institute of Technology
May 17, 2010

The quest to derive energy from wind may soon be getting some help from California Institute of Technology (Caltech) fluid-dynamics expert John Dabiri—and a school of fish.

As head of Caltech's Biological Propulsion Laboratory, Dabiri studies water- and wind-energy concepts that share the theme of bioinspiration: that is, identifying energy-related processes in biological systems that may provide insight into new approaches to—in this case—wind energy.

"I became inspired by observations of schooling fish, and the suggestion that there is constructive hydrodynamic interference between the wakes of neighboring fish," says Dabiri, associate professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at Caltech. "It turns out that many of the same physical principles can be applied to the interaction of vertical-axis wind turbines."

The biggest challenge with current wind farms is lack of space. The horizontal-axis wind turbines most commonly seen—those with large propellers—require a substantial amount of land to perform properly. "Propeller-style wind turbines suffer in performance as they come in proximity to one another," says Dabiri.

In the Los Angeles basin, the challenge of finding suitable space for such large wind farms has prevented further progress in the use of wind energy. But with help from the principles supplied by schooling fish, and the use of vertical-axis turbines, that may change.

Vertical turbines—which are relatively new additions to the wind-energy landscape—have no propellers; instead, they use a vertical rotor. Because of this, the devices can be placed on smaller plots of land in a denser pattern. Caltech graduate students Robert Whittlesey and Sebastian Liska researched the use of vertical-axis turbines on small plots during a class research project supervised by Dabiri. Their results suggest that there may be substantial benefits to placing vertical-axis turbines in a strategic array, and that some configurations may allow the turbines to work more efficiently as a result of their relationship to others around them—a concept first triggered by examining schools of fish.

In current wind farms, all of the turbines rotate in the same direction. But while studying the vortices left behind by fish swimming in a school, Dabiri noticed that some vortices rotated clockwise, while others rotated counter-clockwise. Dabiri therefore wants to examine whether alternating the rotation of vertical-axis turbines in close proximity will help improve efficiency. The second observation he made studying fish—and seen in Whittlesey and Liska's simulation—was that the vortices formed a "staircase" pattern, which contrasts with current wind farms that place turbines neatly in rows.

Whittlesey and Liska's computer models predicted that the wind energy extracted from a parcel of land using this staggered placement approach would be several times that of conventional wind farms using horizontal-axis turbines. Once they've identified the optimal placement, Dabiri believes it may be possible to produce more than 10 times the amount of energy currently provided by a farm of horizontal turbines. The results are sufficiently compelling that the Caltech group is pursuing a field demonstration of the idea.

Dabiri has purchased two acres of land north of Los Angeles, where he is establishing the Caltech Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy (FLOWE). The pilot program at the site will feature six vertical turbines on mobile platforms.

Dabiri and his team will systematically move the turbines around, testing various configurations to find the most efficient patterns.

"Our goal is to demonstrate a new technology that enables us to extract significantly more wind energy from a given parcel of land than is currently possible using existing methods," says Dabiri. "We want to take advantage of constructive aerodynamic interference between closely spaced vertical-axis wind turbines. Our results can potentially make better use of existing wind farms, allow for wind farms to be located closer to urban centers—reducing power transmission costs—and reduce the size of offshore installations."

Three of Dabiri's turbines are being provided in partnership with Windspire Energy. In exchange for the use of the turbines, Dabiri will share his research results with the company. Each Windspire turbine stands approximately 30 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and can generate up to 1.2 kW of power.

"This leading-edge project is a great example of how thinking differently can drive meaningful innovation," says Windspire Energy President and CEO Walt Borland. "We are very excited to be able to work with Dr. Dabiri and Caltech to better leverage the unique attributes of vertical-axis technology in harvesting wind energy."

Three turbines from another manufacturer have been purchased; the six turbines give the pilot facility a total power capacity of 15 kW, enough to power several homes.

"This project is unique in that we are conducting these experiments in real-world conditions, as opposed to on the computer or in a laboratory wind tunnel," says Dabiri. "We have intentionally focused on a field demonstration because this can more easily facilitate a future expansion of the project from basic science research into a power-generating facility. Our ability to make that transition will depend on the results of the pilot program."

The initial phase of the study will attempt to demonstrate which configuration of units will improve power output and performance relative to a horizontal-axis wind turbine farm with a similar sized plot of land.

"In the future, we hope to transition to power-generation experiments in which the generated power can be put to use either locally or via a grid connection," Dabiri says.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"There's not a single question about them that we can definitively answer"

I love it when historians discover events and artifiacts from the past that they simply cannot understand or explain. These often involve the creation of amazing instruments or knowledge about natural events (the story of the Dogon People and their apparent knowledge of the Sirius B double star system, among others, comes to mind).

The assumption here of course is that we know and understand more about the world than peoples of the past could possibly know and understand. (GW)

Library of Congress holds conference on origins of portolan charts

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post
May 22, 2010

John Hessler, mathematical wizard and the senior cartographic librarian at the Library of Congress, slipped into the locked underground vaults of the library one morning earlier this week.

Slim, handsome, intense, bespectacled, Hessler approached a priceless 1559 portolan chart on the table before him, sketched in the hand of Mateo Prunes, the Majorcan mapmaker. The nautical map of the Mediterranean and Black seas is inked onto the skin of a single sheep.

It is a rare representative of one of the world's greatest and most enduring mysteries: Where and how did medieval mapmakers, apparently armed with no more than a compass, an hourglass and sets of sailing directions, develop stunningly accurate maps of southern Europe, the Black Sea and North African coastlines, as if they were looking down from a satellite, when no one had been higher than a treetop?

The earliest known portolan (PORT-oh-lawn) chart, the Carta Pisana, just appears in about 1275 -- with no known predecessors. It is perhaps the first modern scientific map and contrasted sharply to the "mappamundi" of the era, the colorful maps with unrecognizable geography and fantastic creatures and legends. It bears no resemblance to the methods of the mathematician Ptolemy and does not use measurements of longitude and latitude.

And yet, despite it's stunning accuracy, the map "seems to have emerged full-blown from the seas it describes," one reference journal notes. No one today knows who made the first maps, or how they calculated distance so accurately, or even how all the information came to be compiled.

"The real mystery is that if you took all the notebooks from the sailors used in making these charts, along with the coordinates and descriptions," Hessler says, tapping the glass that covers the ancient vellum, "you still couldn't make this map."

Hessler, 49, is one of the world's leading experts in trying to decode the mysteries of the maps, and presented some of his dazzlingly intricate research at a Friday conference at the library, "Re-Examining the Portolan Chart: History, Navigation and Science."

Sponsored by the Philip Lee Phillips Society, the fundraising arm of the library's Geography and Map Division, it drew about 200 academics, donors and collectors to a day-long session that presented the ancient mystery of the portolans (from the Italian word for "ports"). It was one of those moments in which Washington, invariably portrayed as a dry city of faceless bureaucrats, revealed itself as a place filled with people who could, with a little fictional help, just as easily be the basis for a ripping good thriller.

"People think maybe the Romans made the first ones and they've been lost, or the Phoenicians, or even aliens," says Evelyn Edson, author of "The World Map: 1300-1492," and one of the conference's speakers. "It certainly seems related to the introduction of the compass, in the 11th century. But there's nothing at all to explain how they were made. . . . It's been very tempting for people over the years to try to make up the answer."

"The ancient Greeks and Romans had traditions of map-making, there's Ptolemy, and there's a line of progression," Hessler says. "But here, it just explodes out of nowhere. It appears to be a true invention of the Middle Ages."

Hessler's means of research isn't cultural or nautical -- it is entirely mathematical. He has taken 22 of the few hundred portolan maps known to be in existence and measured them against modern maps of the same area. He uses, say, 100 points of comparison on each map and then applies complicated algorithms to calculate the differences between each point on each map. (We could go into your basic Euclidean transformation method of calculating scales of error, and of course the Helmert transformation, but since these calculations take three or four months for each map, let's just move along.)

Hessler compares these two maps on a computer-modeled overlay, with the scale of error then plotted onto a "deformation grid." He is then able to see where the charts were more accurate and where they were less accurate, from which he infers where sailing and close observation took place, and which areas were more loosely charted. This, in turn, reveals more about the birthplace and methodology of the map. For example, the maps were good in the various seas of the Mediterranean, but terrible once out in the Atlantic, rounding up to the British Isles.

"That tells me different sources were used to make the same map," he says. "So now you start to discover where those different charts came from, and how they got to the mapmaker."

The maps usage began to come to an end during trans-Atlantic exploration. For all their regional accuracy, the mapmakers did not know how to calculate for the curvature of the earth on a flat map. Across the Mediterranean, they could take you from port to port because the distances were comparably small. Over the distance of the Atlantic, if you set out for modern-day Miami, you'd wind up on Long Island.

Still, they were reliable guides to the known world for 400 years, and they have concealed the secrets of their origins and methods for another four centuries, leaving the answers to the realm of novelists and storytellers.

"Even with all the research that has been done on them the world over," Hessler says, looking up from the Prunes masterpiece, "there's not a single question about them that we can definitively answer."

Friday, May 21, 2010

The (software) code of life?

Four decades ago, I used to spend hours watching the computer simulation called "Life" play itself out on my Atari computer screen. That simple - yet powerful program showed how a few fundamental rules can not only cause order to be created out of chaos, but also give rise to self-replicating structures.

Craig Ventor, leader of one of the teams that decoded the humane genome has developed a much more sophisticated version of that game. Ventor and a team of scientists has actually created a form of artificial life in a test tube that is derived from a software code stored on a computer.

He says his discovery has changed his definitions of life. Back in the 60's when I was playing the "game of life" I would have found this news exhilarating. Today it scares the hell out of me. (GW)

Synthetic cell is a giant leap for science, and could be bigger still for mankind

By Steve Connor
The Independent
May 21, 2010

Scientists have succeeded in creating artificial life in a test tube, in a development which promises to revolutionise biotechnology.

The research opens the way for scientists to create new life forms that can be genetically programmed to carry out a variety of functions, such as producing carbon-free fuel or made-to-order vaccines and providing new forms of food and clean water. However, the study also raises ethical concerns about the technology falling into the wrong hands, and, for instance, being used to make biological weapons, or by scientists to "play God" with life.

The research team, led by Craig Venter, who previously directed one of the teams which decoded the human genome, said they had created synthetic life in the form of a new species of bacteria that operates entirely under the control of a man-made set of genetic instructions, originally stored on a computer. They synthesised the genome of a bacterial cell and used it to "boot up" the empty cell of another species of bacteria, which then replicated freely as if it were carrying its own set of genetic instructions instead of a set made in a laboratory.

"This is the first synthetic cell that's been made, and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesiser, starting with information in a computer," Dr Venter said.

"We start with a living cell but the synthetic chromosome totally transforms that living cell to this new synthetic cell," he added.

Dr Venter dreamed of creating artificial life 15 years ago when he led a study that produced the first decoded genome of a microbe. After years of trying to work out the minimal set of genes necessary for life, and many more years trying to overcome the technical difficulties of constructing an entirely artificial genome, he has finally succeeded in realising his vision.

"This is both a baby step and a giant step. It's a giant step because, until this was done, it was only hypothetical that it could work. It's a baby step in terms of all the distance we have to go before you can buy fuel made from carbon dioxide or have new medicines or new sources of food," Dr Venter said.

"It's a new enabling technology, but it tells you as much about the definition of life as anything else. We consider it a philosophical leap, being able to start with information in the computer, build the chromosome chemically and have it active. That has never been done before. It has changed my definitions of life and how dynamic it is - simply by putting new software into the cell, the cell starts producing the new proteins coded for by that software and creates a new cell. So life is much more dynamic than most people envision and the dynamic process is totally controlled by the software of life, which is the DNA," said Dr Venter.

Some ethicists, however, expressed concerns. "Venter is not merely copying life artificially ... he is going towards the role of a god - creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally," said Professor Julian Savulescu, an ethicist at the University of Oxford.

Professor John Harris, an expert on biomedical ethics at Manchester University, said: "This is heady stuff which Venter admits has powerful potential for both good and ill. While Venter is very precise about the possible benefits he is not specific about the dangers. This work deserves enthusiasm, but only so long as the risks are given attention commensurate with the benefits."

The milestone, published in the journal Science, was achieved by a team of 24 scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland. They received $40m (£28m) funding. Some came from the US Department of Energy, some from drug companies interested in new ways of making vaccines and other pharmaceuticals and from oil companies keen to develop new sources of energy.

The scientists used the published genome of a microbe called Mycoplasma mycoides to construct their own synthetic version in the form of a circular chromosome made of a molecule of DNA composed of a sequence of 1,080,000 "letters" of the four-letter genetic alphabet; this was stitched together from shorter fragments made in a laboratory "gene machine".

The researchers then placed this synthetic chromosome into the cell of another species of bacterium, M. capricolum, which had had its own chromosome removed. After months of trial and error - when one mistake in the million letters led to a three-month delay - the scientists managed to "boot up" these empty cells so that the M. capricolum cells replicated normally, but without any of its own genes or proteins and only with those of M. mycoides.

Scientists in Britain applauded the achievement as one of the most important moments in genome research. "[It] is a landmark study that represents a major advance in synthetic biology," said Professor Paul Freemont of Imperial College London, co-director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology.

"This now provides a 'proof of concept'. The applications of this enabling technology are enormous and one might argue this is a key step in the industrialisation of synthetic biology leading to a new era of biotechnology," he added. Professor Douglas Kell, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said the study was an important step in the development of a new area of science. "Synthetic biology is a relatively new field and within the global research community there is some truly avant-garde science happening."

However, other commentators condemned the work, claiming that it is being promoted with unrealistic expectations and could end up creating more problems than it can solve.

"What is really dangerous is these scientists' ambitions for total control over nature, which many people describe as 'playing God'. The claim of authorship of nature goes hand-in-hand with the claim to monopoly patent rights over it," said David King of Human Genetics Alert.

"Scientists' understanding of biology falls far short of their technical capabilities. We have already learnt to our cost the risks that gap brings, for the environment, animal welfare and human health," Dr King said.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Black farmers seeking justice from the government appeal to the president

As subsidy checks continued to be delivered to giant industrial "farmers" at Manhattan addresses, black farmers are still waiting for the federal government to make good on a settlement reached years ago that would make (partial) amends for discriminatory practices that denied them government farm loans they qualified for.

I've been following this for some time now. Thanks to my friends at the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative for bringing this recent update to my attention. (GW)

Black farmers still waiting for justice

By Shawna Shepherd
May 19, 2010

Mecklenburg County, Virginia (CNN) -- On his southern Virginia farm on a recent warm Saturday, John Boyd Jr. needs a dose of rain before he can plant soybeans.

More than 200 miles away in Washington, Boyd has a bigger problem on his hands. President Obama has promised to help black farmers who have not received the $1.25 billion settlement owed to them after years of being denied government farm loans and support from federal programs because of the color of their skin.

"This is not about us complaining, this is about the government not doing what they promised they were going to do time and time again," Boyd said.

The 1997 case against the U.S. Agriculture Department, Pigford v. Glickman, was settled out of court 11 years ago but tens of thousands of farmers missed the filing deadline to submit claims.

As a senator, President Obama sponsored a measure in the 2008 Farm Bill that reopened the case, known as Pigford II.

In February, the Obama administration brokered a $1.25 billion settlement for Pigford II, but Congress missed a March 31 deadline to fund it. Another deadline, May 31, approaches.

Once a week for more than a decade, Boyd trades his work boots and jeans for a suit to make the drive to Washington. Boyd will not receive a payout from the settlement. It's his job as president of the National Black Farmers Association to lobby on behalf of those eligible to get what's owed to them.

"I'm not a full-time farmer; I wish I was. I find myself spending two or three days a week in Washington, and I'm getting to the point where I'm tired and I actually don't want to be there," he said. "But I'm going to finish this job, I'm going to finish this fight."

Boyd is particularly upset the president has not been more vocal about the issue. The lobbyist is blunt about saying the issue of race is complicating the White House response.

"I do think that the administration doesn't take it head-on because it's solely a black issue," Boyd said. "How can you get away [from] race on this issue where we were discriminated against by the Federal government?"

White House officials insist race is not a factor and say they're eager to get the money into the hands of the farmers.

"The president's approach to this is not based on the color of skin but because of what is right," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said.

But the farmers say they just can't wait much longer. People such as John Moses Bonner are literally dying off. The Virginia farmer recently passed away at the age of 87 without ever getting the money the government owed him.

Boyd spoke at Bonner's memorial service in Dinwiddie, Virginia, and afterward said, "It really hurts to be here and have to deliver a message at Mr. Bonner's going home services that Congress failed to act."

Under the terms of a process overseen by a federal judge and dating to 1999, qualified farmers could receive $50,000 each to settle claims of racial bias. In addition, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said those farmers may pursue a claim for actual damages from the bias, and potentially receive up to $250,000.

If Congress misses the May 31 deadline, the farmers may withdraw from the class-action settlement and pursue independent litigation against the government. Boyd hopes it won't come to that.

"The black farmers don't have their money and the person to grieve to is the president, a black president that has been supportive in the past," Boyd said. "We need him to help us finish the job. I don't think Congress is going to do it on its own without the president from the microphone saying he would like to see black farmers get justice from the government."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Putting consumers in charge of their electricity rates

As Amory Lovins reminded us decades ago, the cleanest source of electricity is the "negawatt" -- the electricity we don't use as a result of conservation and efficiency measures. Demand Side Management (DSM) is the technical term for the toolbox that contains a wide array of gadgets and strategies designed to help electricity providers and consumers manage their demand for power and in some cases save money in the process. (GW)

Electricity: The New Math

'Smart' Meters Know When You're Cooking, Cleaning; How About Dinner at 4?

By Rebecca Smith
Wall Street Journal
May 18, 2010

One of modern life's most durable features—fixed-price electricity—is slowly being pushed to the sidelines, a creeping change that will influence such things as what time millions of Americans cook dinner and what appliances they buy.

Driving the change is the rollout of so-called smart meters, which can transmit data on how much power is being used at any given time. That gives utilities the ability to charge more for electricity at peak times and less during lulls. Spreading out electricity consumption more evenly across the day leads to more efficient use of power plants and lower emissions.

Advanced meters "put consumers in charge of an expense that's often thousands of dollars a year and in ways that were never possible before," said John Geary, vice president of innovation for TXU Energy, a Texas power seller. "They won't be flying blind anymore."

Utilities, economists and even behavioral psychologists are still trying to figure out the best way to convince consumers to cut their power at the right time. They worry that folks will be in for a jolt if they suddenly are exposed to wildly fluctuating prices—possibly prompting a smart-meter backlash.

But if prices don't change, it would undercut the purpose of rolling out the costly smart meters in the first place.

Maxing Out

"Regulators are conflicted about whether to protect people from volatile prices or let people experience them so they change their habits," said Stanford University economist Frank Wolak, an expert on energy markets.

Consumers have mixed feelings, too. Some say it feels coercive. Others say it is needed to cut down on the emission of greenhouse gases.

Houston-based Reliant Energy Inc. started offering a rate plan this year that has two prices for electricity in the winter and three in the summer. The highest price occurs from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer.

Dennis Banks, a retired computer database designer, signed up for the new Reliant plan because utility bills for his 1,350-square-foot home in Richardson, Texas, have run as high as $600 a month. He has cut his bills in half, he said, by cooking dinner before 4 p.m., when higher prices kick in, and running his electric tools for a new furniture-refinishing business when juice is cheapest.

"I've had months where the power bill is as low as a hundred dollars," he said. "That's a first."

He likes the weekly emails he gets from Reliant that tell him how much power he has used and projecting his monthly bill. "If I need to squeeze my nickels, I change what I'm doing," he said.

Although Mr. Banks likes the program, he thinks it may be hard for working families with inflexible schedules to adjust as he has, especially without home automation.

Other people fear the rate plans, if they are pushed out too fast, could hurt vulnerable members of society.

"How can you expect a frail, elderly person to turn down the air conditioning on a hot day to avoid high prices?" said Irwin "Sonny" Popowsky, Consumer Advocate for Pennsylvania, a state that is moving more slowly toward dynamic pricing.

Currently, some utilities have completely flat rates, while others charge tiered prices to discourage heavy consumption.

In either case, old-fashioned meters typically keep a running tally of usage and are read once a month.

The new system uses digital meters to charge prices that vary during the day.

Though fewer than 10% of U.S. homes have smart meters now, the Department of Energy is funding efforts that will boost that number to nearly a third by 2015. The majority of homes in California and Texas, the two most populous states, will have smart meters by 2013.

Smart meters lie at the heart of efforts to get Americans to use less electricity. Power generation accounts for about 40% of greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S. A 2009 federal study found that smart meters could help cut peak electricity use by 20%.

In California, power plants totaling 30,000 to 35,000 megawatts of capacity are needed on a typical day. But 50,000 megawatts or more are needed on hot days. That forces generators to turn on their least efficient and most polluting plants to meet demand. In New York, average demand is 42% less than peak-time demand. Flatten peak use, experts say, and system costs drop, as does pollution.

In Davis, Calif., schoolteacher Jean Salk and her family get power under a plan, similar to the one in Texas, that is offered by her utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Fifteen times a year, it can notify her that it is jacking up the price of electricity to 60 cents a kilowatt hour from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. That is about five times the normal price.

In exchange, she gets a discount on electricity the other 350 days a year. Her family, which includes two teenagers, kept an eye on the energy-guzzling air conditioner last summer on the days with peak prices.

"We'd go as long as we could without turning on the air conditioner," she says. "I remember one day my son announcing, 'Half an hour to go!' We sort of liked the challenge."

Appliance makers like Whirlpool Corp. and General Electric Co. are working on products that can respond to price changes by switching to energy-saving modes—for example, a clothes dryer that can decrease its heat but keep tumbling and refrigerators that can delay its ice-making function.

Some utilities are toying with the idea of using cash rebates instead of high prices. Mark Spellmann, a psychologist who has worked for Reliant Energy, thinks rebates send the message that utilities are uncertain they're doing the right thing. Utilities shouldn't soft-pedal change that's coming, he said, but should explain why change is needed.

His suggestion: "Show customers a nasty, belching power plant and say, 'Don't make me turn this on!' "

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The widening racial wealth gap

In 1995 Professors Melvin Oilver (my childhood neighbor/buddy) and Thomas Shapiro wrote a landmark book entitled "Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality". They went to great lengths to draw the distinction between income and wealth. They made a case for what they called asset-based social policy that emphasized the need to adopt the long-view for developing wealthto complement the more conventional policies that focused on near-term (and no less important) income needs.

It's apparent that the struggle for racial equality with regard to wealth is far from over. (GW)

A $95,000 question: why are whites five times richer than blacks in the US?

• Study finds gaping racial divide in household assets
• Economic policies blamed for growing inequality

By Chris McGreal
May 19, 2010

A huge wealth gap has opened up between black and white people in the US over the past quarter of a century – a difference sufficient to put two children through university – because of racial discrimination and economic policies that favour the affluent.

A typical white family is now five times richer than its African-American counterpart of the same class, according to a report released today by Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

White families typically have assets worth $100,000 (£69,000), up from $22,000 in the mid-1980s. African-American families' assets stand at just $5,000, up from around $2,000.

A quarter of black families have no assets at all. The study monitored more than 2,000 families since 1984.

"We walk that through essentially a generation and what we see is that the racial wealth gap has galloped, it's escalated to $95,000," said Tom Shapiro, one of the authors of the report by the university's Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

"That's primarily because the whites in the sample were able to accumulate financial assets from their $22,000 all the way to $100,000 and the African-Americans' wealth essentially flatlined."

The survey does not include housing equity, because it is not readily accessible and is rarely realised as cash. But if property were included it would further widen the wealth divide.

Shapiro says the gap remains wide even between blacks and whites of similar classes and with similar jobs and incomes.

"How do we explain the wealth gap among equally-achieving African-American and white families? The same ratio holds up even among low income groups. Finding ways to accumulate financial resources for all low and moderate income families in the United States has been a huge challenge and that challenge keeps getting steeper and steeper.

"But there are greater opportunities and less challenges for low and moderate income families if they're white in comparison to if they're African-American or Hispanic," he said.

America has long lived with vast inequality, although 40 years ago the disparity was lower than in Britain.

Today, the richest 1% of the US population owns close to 40% of its wealth. The top 25% of US households own 87%.

The rest is divided up among middle and low income Americans. In that competition white people come out far ahead.

Only one in 10 African-Americans owns any shares. A third do not have a pension plan, and among those who do the value is on average a fifth of plans held by whites.

Shapiro says one of the most disturbing aspects of the study is that wealth among the highest-income African-Americans has actually fallen in recent years, dropping from a peak of $25,000 to about $18,000, while among white counterparts of similar class and income it has surged to around $240,000.

In 1984, high-income black Americans had more assets than middle-income whites. That is no longer true.

"I'm a pretty jaded and cynical researcher in some way, but this was shocking, quite frankly, a really important dynamic," said Shapiro. "This represents a broken chain of achievement. In the United States context, when we are thinking about racial equality and the economy we have focused for a long time on equal opportunity.

"Equal opportunity assumes that some people who have that opportunity are going to have pretty high achievements in terms of their jobs, their work, their income, their home ownership.

"The assumption in a democracy is that merit and achievement are going to be rewarded and the rewards here are financial assets. We should see some rough parity and we don't."

The report attributes part of the cause to the "powerful role of persistent discrimination in housing, credit and labour markets. African-Americans and Hispanics were at least twice as likely to receive high-cost home mortgages as whites with similar incomes," the report says.

Although many black families have moved up to better-paying jobs, they begin with fewer assets, such as inheritance, on which to build wealth. They are also more likely to have gone into debt to pay for university loans.

"African-Americans, before the 1960s, first by law and then by custom, were not really allowed to own businesses. They had very little access to credit. There was a very low artificial ceiling on the wealth that could be accumulated. Hence there was very little, if anything, that could be passed along to help their children get to college, to help their children buy their first homes, or as an inheritance when they die," said Shapiro.

Since the 1980s, US administrations have also geared the tax system to the advantage of the better off. Taxes on unearned income, such as shares and inheritance, fell sharply and are much lower than taxes on pay.

"The more income and wealth people had, the less it was taxable," said Shapiro.

There were also social factors, the study found. "In African-American families there is a much larger extended network of kin as well as other obligations. From other work we've done we know that there's more call on the resources of relatively well-off African-American families; that they lend money that's not given back; they help cousins go to school. They help brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, with all kinds of legal and family problems," said Shapiro.