Thursday, September 30, 2010

Something extraordinary is happening across Italy...

There are some places where modern wind energy technology and beautiful landscapes are not only compatible, but are generating lots of synergy -- and revenue as well. (GW)

Ancient Italian Town Has Wind at Its Back

By Elisabeth Rosenthal
New York Times
September 28, 2010

TOCCO DA CASAURIA, Italy — The towering white wind turbines that rise ramrod straight from gnarled ancient olive groves here speak to something extraordinary happening across Italy.

Faced with sky-high electricity rates, small communities across a country known more for garbage than environmental citizenship are finding economic salvation in making renewable energy. More than 800 Italian communities now make more energy than they use because of the recent addition of renewable energy plants, according to a survey this year by the Italian environmental group Legambiente.

Renewable energy has been such a boon for Tocco that it makes money from electricity production and has no local taxes or fees for services like garbage removal.

A quintessential Italian town of 2,700 people in Italy’s poor mountainous center, with its well-maintained church and ruined castle, Tocco is in most ways stuck in yesteryear. Old men talking politics fill gritty bars, and old women wander through the market. The olive harvest is the most important event on the calendar.

Yet, from an energy perspective, Tocco is very much tomorrow. In addition to the town’s wind turbines, solar panels generate electricity at its ancient cemetery and sports complex, as well as at a growing number of private residences.

“Normally when you think about energy you think about big plants, but here what’s interesting is that local municipalities have been very active,” said Edoardo Zanchini, in charge of Legambiente’s energy division. “That this can happen in a place like Italy is really impressive.”

Italy is an unlikely backdrop for a renewable revolution. It has been repeatedly criticized by the European Union for failing to follow the bloc’s environmental directives. It is not on track to meet either its European Union-mandated emissions-reduction target or its commitment to get 17 percent of its total power from renewable sources by 2020, experts say.

Currently, only 7 percent of Italy’s power comes from renewable sources.

But the growth of small renewable projects in towns like Tocco — not only in Italy, but also in other countries — highlights the way that shifting energy economics are often more important than national planning in promoting alternative energy.

Tocco was motivated to become an early adapter because Italy already had among the highest electricity rates in Europe, and nearly three times the average in the United States, and it could not cope with the wild fluctuations in fossil fuel prices and supply that prevailed during the past decade.

At the same time, the costs of renewable energy have been falling rapidly. And as in much of Europe, the lure of alternative power here was sweetened by feed-in tariffs — government guarantees to buy renewable electricity at an attractive set price from any company, city or household that produces it.

In the United States, where electricity is cheap and government policy has favored setting minimum standards for the percentage of energy produced from renewable sources rather than direct economic incentives like Europe’s feed-in tariffs, stimulating alternative energy has been only mildly successful. But in countries where energy from fossil fuels is naturally expensive — or rendered so because of a carbon tax — and there is money to be made, renewable energy quickly starts to flow, even in unlikely places like Tocco.

With its four wind turbines (two completed in 2007 and two last year), Tocco is now essentially energy independent from a financial standpoint, generating 30 percent more electricity than it uses. Production of green electricity earned the town 170,000 euros, or more than $200,000, last year. The town is renovating the school for earthquake protection and has tripled the budget for street cleaners.

Kieran McNamara, Italy desk officer for the International Energy Agency, said that although small renewable energy projects were not enough to sustain an entire industrial economy like Italy’s, they were important.

“These small projects have their own intrinsic value and make a very, very positive contribution in countries where electricity prices are high,” Mr. McNamara said.

High electricity prices in Italy are a result of various forces, according to the International Energy Agency: Italy has almost no fossil fuels of its own, and until last year, it banned nuclear power plants; new plants will take a decade to build even if strong public opposition can be overcome. Although Italy has officially opened the former state electricity monopoly, Enel, to private competition, the country does not yet have a functioning market, the energy agency has found.

Large renewable projects are still rare in Italy compared with other European countries because Italian planning and permitting procedures are so complicated.

The type of renewable energy coming from small towns like Tocco depends on local resources. In the northern Alpine counties there is a heavy reliance on hydropower and the burning of agricultural waste. Italy’s scorching south tilts a bit more toward solar, although wind, too, is important there because it is by far the most cost-effective renewable technology, the energy agency said.

Tocco itself was primed for success. In a mountain valley that serves as a thoroughfare for passing winds, Tocco was chosen as the site for an early European Union demonstration project in wind power in 1989. It had two inefficient wind turbines installed that lasted about a decade and were not replaced, meeting at best 25 percent of the town’s electricity requirements. Residents called them “sacks of noise.”

But in recent years, with improved technology, silent turbines and a meager public purse, town officials took another look at wind.

“We knew what we were doing and where to put them,” said Riziero Zaccagnini, the town’s popular blue-jeans-clad mayor, who came back from studies in Rome to start agitating for new turbines and was elected in 2007.

As is common in both Europe and the United States, the new turbines are owned and operated under a contract with a private energy company. The company installed the turbines and sells electricity to the national grid. Tocco profits because the company leases the land on which the turbines stand and gives the town a cut of the profits it makes from selling electricity generated with local wind.

Though more electricity is produced than consumed in Tocco, its residents do not use the electricity it produces directly because relying entirely on local wind energy could leave the town vulnerable to blackouts during periods of calm.

Impressed with their new turbines, Tocco’s residents have lately turned to renewable resources to resolve other civic problems, like a financial scandal at the town’s ancient cemetery, a riot of pastel stucco tombs, festooned with flowers and photographs of departed elders. In the past decade, one management company went bankrupt and another absconded with residents’ upkeep fees.

An installation of solar panels now lights walkways, powers the office and generates an income of 1,500 euros a year, or $2,000, to pay for maintenance. The project has also created new types of work for local electricians.

A growing number of wealthier homeowners are paying these experts to install solar panels. The stucco home of Domenico Marini, a dental technician, has roof panels in addition to a koi pond and garden gnomes. His monthly electricity bills have dropped to $0 from as much as $700.

Tocco has won awards from international environmental groups for its efforts in renewable energy. But, said Mayor Zaccagnini, that is not really a strong motivation:

“We’ve gotten lots of kudos from outside, but people here care more that we now have money to fill potholes.”

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Designing safer offshore wind practices

Transferring people and equipment on and off wind turbines perched in the ocean or Great Lakes is no easy matter - even under calm conditions. When the waves are rolling, the task is especially daunting. Offshore oil and gas operations rely primarily on helicopters to do this, but that 's prohibitively expensive when you're dealing with hundreds of turbines.

The Carbon Trust is sponsoring a design competition to address this important issue. (GW)

Competition launched to improve access to offshore turbines

New Energy Focus
29 September 2010

Competition launched to improve access to offshore turbines

The Carbon Trust has launched a competition to find solutions to the problem of safely transferring engineers and equipment from vessels to offshore wind turbines as they get further offshore.

The Carbon Trust has today (September 29) launched a global competition to find solutions to the ‘problem' of transferring engineers and equipment safely from boats to offshore wind turbines.

The project aims to improve the economics of offshore wind by boosting revenues by up to £3 billion at a "crucial time" for the next generation of Round 3 offshore wind farms.

According to the Trust, the need for better access is driven by the location of the next generation of wind farms to be built over the decade - with projects set to be located as far out as 300km offshore.

Currently, wind farms are typically less than 20km from shore in relatively benign sea conditions, claims the Carbon Trust, however, it explains that the next generation of projects will have to operate in harsh conditions, making operation and maintenance challenging.

The competition aims to identify and develop the necessary technologies for access of far-offshore wind turbines, focusing on:
  • Transfer systems - to transfer personnel and equipment from vessel to turbine, potentially with motion-compensation;
  • Vessels - vessels for transporting personnel and equipment from permanent bases or mother-vessels to turbines, incorporating a transfer system;
  • Launch and recovery systems - systems fitted to the permanent bases or mother-vessels for launching and recovering daughter-vessels from the sea.
Commenting on the importance of the competition, energy minister Charles Hendry, said: "As developers seek to get wind turbines into deeper waters, where the wind blows more wildly and the waves are stronger, it is vital that access and safety are maximised and costs minimised.

"This competition will help turn ideas into reality, and successful innovators will see their solutions power the next phase in the UK's offshore wind expansion."

The Carbon Trust claims that the problem they need to address is getting safer and more reliable transfers for maintenance staff who step off boats onto ladders on the side of turbines.

While this works effectively and safely in calm seas, conditions in future wind farms may be so rough that transfers may only be possible 160 days a year, according to the Trust.

The government-funded body claims that if safer, more reliable transfers were possible, it would increase the window for performing maintenance activities, which would increase the operating hours of the turbines and improve the overall economics of the wind farm.

The competition aims to generate at least a 4% increase in turbine availability through the development of new technologies for the most challenging sea conditions. This, in turn, could increase the power generated, which would mean saving £3 billion of lost revenue, says the Trust.

Benj Sykes, director of innovations at the Carbon Trust, commented, "To ensure we achieve the scale of offshore wind needed to meet the UK's renewable target and reduce dependency on fossil fuels, we must focus on improving the economics of offshore wind, by reducing costs and increasing revenues.

"This competition will find innovative technology solutions which will help us get as much power as possible from next generation offshore wind farms."

The competition is part of the Carbon Trust's Offshore Wind Accelerator, an industry collaboration with eight energy companies - including DONG Energy, E.ON, Mainstream Renewable Power, RWE Innogy, ScottishPower Renewables, SSE Renewables, Statkraft and Statoil -which aims to drive down the costs of energy from offshore wind by 10% (see this story).

The successful applicants to the competition will receive up to £100,000 of funding per concept to support its design and development.

The competition is supported by RenewableUK, the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST), the Royal Institute of Naval Architects (RINA), Society of Maritime Industries (SMI) and the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).

Companies can submit their designs to the Carbon Trust until November 26.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

High-tech design, ancient construction and a dose of Disney

What about humanity? What about community? These ingredients seem to be missing from Norman Foster's design for a sustainable city in the desert on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

Beginning sometime around 1968, Foster collaborated with Bucky Fuller on a number of projects. He was clearly influenced by Bucky's Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science and concept of performance-based architecture.

From what I've read about this project, many of the pieces essential to sustainability seem to be there. But there are some discordant elements as well. As a result his creation fails to create the synergy that is the best indication that he got it right.

A noble effort chock full of lessons-to-be-learned. (GW)

In Arabian Desert, a Sustainable City Rises

By Nicolai Ouroussoff
New York Times
September 25, 2010

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Back in 2007, when the government here announced its plan for “the world’s first zero-carbon city” on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, many Westerners dismissed it as a gimmick — a faddish follow-up to neighboring Dubai’s half-mile-high tower in the desert and archipelago of man-made islands in the shape of palm trees.

Designed by Foster & Partners, a firm known for feats of technological wizardry, the city, called Masdar, would be a perfect square, nearly a mile on each side, raised on a 23-foot-high base to capture desert breezes. Beneath its labyrinth of pedestrian streets, a fleet of driverless electric cars would navigate silently through dimly lit tunnels. The project conjured both a walled medieval fortress and an upgraded version of the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland.

Well, those early assessments turned out to be wrong. By this past week, as people began moving into the first section of the project to be completed — a 3 ½-acre zone surrounding a sustainability-oriented research institute — it was clear that Masdar is something more daring and more noxious.

Norman Foster, the firm’s principal partner, has blended high-tech design and ancient construction practices into an intriguing model for a sustainable community, in a country whose oil money allows it to build almost anything, even as pressure grows to prepare for the day the wells run dry. And he has worked in an alluring social vision, in which local tradition and the drive toward modernization are no longer in conflict — a vision that, at first glance, seems to brim with hope.

But his design also reflects the gated-community mentality that has been spreading like a cancer around the globe for decades. Its utopian purity, and its isolation from the life of the real city next door, are grounded in the belief — accepted by most people today, it seems — that the only way to create a truly harmonious community, green or otherwise, is to cut it off from the world at large.

Mr. Foster is the right man for this kind of job. A lifelong tech buff who collaborated with Buckminster Fuller, he talks about architecture in terms of high performance, as if his buildings were sports cars. And to some extent his single-minded focus on the craft of architecture — its technological and material aspects — has been a convenient way of avoiding trickier discussions about its social impact. (It’s hard to imagine Mr. Foster embroiled in the kind of public battles over modern architecture that his former partner, Richard Rogers, has fought with the traditionalist Prince Charles in London.)

Not that Mr. Foster doesn’t have ideals. At Masdar, one aim was to create an alternative to the ugliness and inefficiency of the sort of development — suburban villas slathered in superficial Islamic-style décor, gargantuan air-conditioned malls — that has been eating away the fabric of Middle Eastern cities for decades.

He began with a meticulous study of old Arab settlements, including the ancient citadel of Aleppo in Syria and the mud-brick apartment towers of Shibam in Yemen, which date from the 16th century. “The point,” he said in an interview in New York, “was to go back and understand the fundamentals,” how these communities had been made livable in a region where the air can feel as hot as 150 degrees.

Among the findings his office made was that settlements were often built on high ground, not only for defensive reasons but also to take advantage of the stronger winds. Some also used tall, hollow “wind towers” to funnel air down to street level. And the narrowness of the streets — which were almost always at an angle to the sun’s east-west trajectory, to maximize shade — accelerated airflow through the city.

With the help of environmental consultants, Mr. Foster’s team estimated that by combining such approaches, they could make Masdar feel as much as 70 degrees cooler. In so doing, they could more than halve the amount of electricity needed to run the city. Of the power that is used, 90 percent is expected to be solar, and the rest generated by incinerating waste (which produces far less carbon than piling it up in dumps). The city itself will be treated as a kind of continuing experiment, with researchers and engineers regularly analyzing its performance, fine-tuning as they go along.

But Mr. Foster’s most radical move was the way he dealt with one of the most vexing urban design challenges of the past century: what to do with the car. Not only did he close Masdar entirely to combustion-engine vehicles, he buried their replacement — his network of electric cars — underneath the city. Then, to further reinforce the purity of his vision, he located almost all of the heavy-duty service functions — a 54-acre photovoltaic field and incineration and water treatment plants — outside the city.

The result, Mr. Foster acknowledged, feels a bit like Disneyland. “Disneyland is attractive because all the service is below ground,” he said. “We do the same here — it is literally a walled city. Traditional cars are stopped at the edges.”

Driving from downtown Abu Dhabi, 20 miles away, you follow a narrow road past an oil refinery and through desolate patches of desert before reaching the blank concrete wall of Masdar and find the city looming overhead. (Mr. Foster plans to camouflage the periphery behind fountains and flora.) From there a road tunnels through the base to a garage just underneath the city’s edge.

Stepping out of this space into one of the “Personal Rapid Transit” stations brings to mind the sets designed by Harry Lange for “2001: A Space Odyssey.” You are in a large, dark hall facing a row of white, pod-shaped cars lined up in rectangular glass bays. (The cars’ design was based on Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for a compact urban vehicle, the D-45, which helps explain their softly contoured, timelessly futuristic silhouettes.) Daylight spills down a rough concrete wall behind them, hinting at the life above.

The first 13 cars of a proposed fleet of hundreds were being tested the day I visited, but as soon as the system is up, within a few weeks, a user will be able to step into a car and choose a destination on an LCD screen. The car will then silently pull into traffic, seeming to drive itself. (There are no cables or rails.)

It’s only as people arrive at their destination that they will become aware of the degree to which everything has been engineered for high-function, low-consumption performance. The station’s elevators have been tucked discreetly out of sight to encourage use of a concrete staircase that corkscrews to the surface. And on reaching the streets — which were pretty breezy the day I visited — the only way to get around is on foot. (This is not only a matter of sustainability; Mr. Foster’s on-site partner, Austin Relton, told me that obesity has become a significant health issue in this part of the Arab world, largely because almost everyone drives to avoid the heat.)

The buildings that have gone up so far come in two contrasting styles. Laboratories devoted to developing new forms of sustainable energy and affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are housed in big concrete structures that are clad in pillowlike panels of ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene, a super-strong translucent plastic that has become fashionable in contemporary architecture circles for its sleek look and durability. Inside, big open floor slabs are designed for maximum flexibility.

The residential buildings, which for now will mostly house professors, students and their families, use a more traditional architectural vocabulary. To conform to Middle Eastern standards of privacy, Mr. Foster came up with an undulating facade of concrete latticework based on the mashrabiya screens common in the region. The latticework blocks direct sunlight and screens interiors from view, while the curves make for angled views to the outside, so that apartment dwellers never look directly into the windows of facing buildings. Such concerns are also reflected in the layout of the neighborhood. Like many Middle Eastern university campuses, it is segregated by sex, with women and families living at one end and single men at the other. Each end has a small public plaza, which acts as its social heart.

Still, one wonders, despite the technical brilliance and the sensitivity to local norms, how a project like Masdar can ever attain the richness and texture of a real city. Eventually, a light-rail system will connect it to Abu Dhabi, and street life will undoubtedly get livelier as the daytime population grows to a projected 90,000. (Although construction on a second, larger phase has already begun, the government-run developer, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, refuses to give a completion date for the city, saying only that it will grow at its own pace.)

But the decision of who gets to live and work in Masdar, as in any large-scale development, will be outside the architect’s control. That will be decided by the landlord, in this case, the government.

And even if it were to become a perfect little urban melting pot, Masdar would have only limited relevance to the world most people live in. Mr. Foster’s inspired synthesis of ancient and new technologies could well have applications elsewhere; it should be looked at closely by other architects. But no one would argue that a city of a few million or more can be organized with such precision, and his fantasy world is only possible as a meticulously planned community, built from the ground up and of modest size.

What Masdar really represents, in fact, is the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance.

That’s obviously not how Mr. Foster sees it. He said the city was intended to house a cross-section of society, from students to service workers. “It is not about social exclusion,” he added.

And yet Masdar seems like the fulfillment of that idea. Ever since the notion that thoughtful planning could improve the lot of humankind died out, sometime in the 1970s, both the megarich and the educated middle classes have increasingly found solace by walling themselves off inside a variety of mini-utopias.

This has involved not only the proliferation of suburban gated communities, but also the transformation of city centers in places like Paris and New York into playgrounds for tourists and the rich. Masdar is the culmination of this trend: a self-sufficient society, lifted on a pedestal and outside the reach of most of the world’s citizens.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Driving down the costs of offshore wind

Offshore wind projects are expensive to build and thus the price of electricity to consumers is higher than electricity generated by onshore wind farms and fossil fuel plants such as coal and natural gas. That's the bad news. The good news is that with government support for research and development, offshore wind costs can be driven down considerably. (GW)

Wind turbine price 'could fall 25% by 2025'

UK Energy Research Centre says competition and innovation will reduce costs – provided government backs industry

By Adam Vaughan
27 September 2010

Offshore wind in the UK cost about £149 per megawatt hour in 2009. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The UK's efforts to hit its renewable energy target are likely to be boosted by a near-25% fall in the cost of offshore wind turbines by 2025, engineers claimed today. But they warned that the prices may not fall – or could even rise – if the government cuts its financing of research and development, or if competition between wind turbine makers or improvements in technology do not materialise.

Last week the Carbon Trust, which has an offshore wind accelerator R&D fund, was named on a list of government quangoes under review, while US wind turbine maker Clipper entered crisis talks with its parent company over "significant liquidity strain".

Today's report by the UK Energy Research Centre follows the opening last Thursday of the world's largest offshore farm off the coast of Kent, and predicted that offshore wind was likely to fall from £149 per megawatt hour (MWh) in 2009 to around £115/MWh in 2025. The fall, it said, would come from competition between turbine-makers driving down prices, innovation, manufacturing scale and standardisation and a better UK supply chain.

Offshore wind is seen by government as crucial in the push to meet a target of generating 30% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020, but is currently almost twice as expensive as electricity from gas power stations. The UK currently has only 1GW of installed offshore wind, the equivalent of one coal-fired power station.

Like the opening of the Thanet offshore farm, where British firms reaped just 20% of the £900m invested in the project, UKERC's report highlights the UK's reliance on foreign technology. Around 80% of offshore wind components are imported, it says, meaning the UK is failing to grow jobs and cut costs by reducing exposure to fluctuating exchange rates.

Robert Gross, the report's chief author, said: "The UK is not yet fully benefitting from being a world-leader in the field [it has the world's highest installed capacity of offshore wind power]. In effect UK consumers are subsidising Danish and German wind energy companies."

Gross also said that while it is feasible in engineering terms for around 3,000 offshore turbines to be built by 2020, it will be "a big ask" on a financial level. Earlier today, Susan Rice, managing director of the Lloyds banking group in Scotland, warned that many companies are still wary about the risks and upfront costs of building multibillion-pound offshore windfarms.

Like other sources of energy, offshore wind's costs rose considerably in the past decade despite expectations it would fall, the report notes. Capital costs for projects coming online in 2008 were double those of 2003 levels. "Rising commodity prices [steel is a key component for turbines], supply chain shortages and currency movements created a perfect storm," said Gross.

However, Gross said the better outlook today meant his report's worst-case scenario – which sees the mid-2020s price of wind power rise to £185/MWh – was "very unlikely."

Guy Shrubsole of the Public Interest Research Centre, which in May published a report on the offshore energy resource around the UK, said: "Investing now in offshore renewables will reap big rewards later. Making the right investments now could unlock an enormous renewable energy resource – one big enough to make the UK a net electricity exporter in the future." PIRC's study suggested the cost of offshore wind could drop to as low as £70-£90/MWh by the middle of the next decade.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Organic apple pie in the sky

The survival of our species on this planet will in large part be determined by how our cities respond to the challenges of climate change and overall sustainability. One of the biggest and most immediate challenges that must be met is the transformation of our urban areas from economic black holes and enviornmental wastelands to productive, healthy ecosystems. No better place to begin than with food production. (GW)

The Farm of the Future: Harvesting the Sky

Will tomorrow's cities grow their own food? A proposal to conduct agriculture in skyscrapers.

Wall Street Journal
September 25, 2010

In his new book "The Vertical Farm" (St. Martin's, 2010), Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, argues that in order to feed the cities of the future, we will need to learn to conduct agriculture in a new way—vertically. Specifically, he proposes building farms in skyscrapers, so as to use less land and to waste fewer resources.

Fifteen thousand years ago, there was probably not a single farm on the planet. Today, farms occupy a landmass the size of South America (and that excludes land set aside for grazing). Mr. Despommier believes his designs would make it possible for an entire city to become the functional equivalent of a natural ecosystem, recycling food waste and wastewater and returning a significant amount of farmland to its natural state.

Though some farming is already done indoors—strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, herbs and spices are now grown profitably by commercial greenhouses—no one has yet tried to build a working vertical farm. Urban planners are studying the concept.

[Above] is a rendering of what a vertical farm might look like and some of the features that would make it work.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Wind power a cornerstone of both profitability and sustainability"

Today's Wall Street Journal reports that GE CEO Jeff Immelt called the U.S. Department of Energy's policy on clean energy as being "stupid" at an energy event in Washington, D.C. He said that the nation is falling behind China in clean tech/energy development.

China's not the only country that leads the U.S. (GW)

World's Largest Offshore Wind Farm Opens in English Channel

Environmental News Service
September 24, 2010

LONDON, UK, September 23, 2010 (ENS) - The world's largest offshore wind farm officially opened today in the English Channel 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) from Foreness Point, off England's southeast coast.

Owned and operated by the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, the Thanet Offshore Wind Farm has 100 turbines and covers an area of 35 square kilometers (13.5 square miles).

With 300 megawatts of generating capacity, the wind farm will generate electricity equivalent to the annual consumption of more than 200,000 British households.

The opening ceremony took place at sea with Vattenfall CEO and President Oystein Loseth and British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne MP, among the participants.

"With Thanet Offshore Wind Farm, Vattenfall has taken a major step towards doubling its generation from wind power until 2011 and we continue to lead the way in offshore wind development," said Loseth.

Vattenfall is one of the biggest wind power operators in Britain and the fifth largest energy producer in Europe. To meet its 2011 target, the company will be constructing nine wind farms in six countries to supply electricity equivalent to the demand of 800,000 households annually.

"Wind power will be a cornerstone of delivering both profitability and sustainability for Vattenfall in the years to come," said Loseth. "This project would not have been possible without the British government's active support and its commitment to renewable energy."

Secretary Huhne said that the wind farm's 300 megawatts of generating capacity will take UK's total installed wind power capacity past 5,000 MW, or five gigawatts and boosted UK offshore wind capacity by more than 30 percent.

"I'm pleased that we've reached the point where 5GW of our energy comes from onshore and offshore wind - that's enough electricity to power all the homes in Scotland," said Huhne. "Getting these massive structures out here into the sea is a tremendous feat of engineering and I applaud all involved with this awesome achievement."

The construction of the Thanet Offshore Wind Farm has taken just over two years and the wind farm is expected to operate for at least 25 years. Each of the Vestas V90 turbines stands 115 meters (377 feet) tall at its highest point.

With the Thanet facility now operational, Britain generates more offshore wind power than the total generated in all the rest of the world.

"We are in a unique position to become a world leader in this industry," said Huhne. "We are an island nation and I firmly believe we should be harnessing our wind, wave and tidal resources to the maximum."

Speaking for the trade and professional body RenewableUK, Chief Executive Maria McCaffery said, "Renewable energy generally and wind energy in particular is not alternative energy any longer - it is absolutely mainstream."

The UK currently has nearly 18 GW of wind capacity either consented, in construction or in the planning system, according to RenewableUK. When this is added to today's five GW of built capacity, it represents more than a third of the country's current annual energy consumption.

"I know that there is still more to do to bring forward the large sums of investment we want to see in low-carbon energy in the UK, and we as government are committed to playing our part," said Huhne.

The five gigawatt threshold was reached as another wind farm came online today - the expansion of Fred.Olsen Renewables' Crystal Rig wind farm in the Scottish borders with a total generating capacity of 200 megawatts.

Crystal Rig wind farm is located on the Lammermuir Hills 40 km east of Edinburgh and 10 km south of Dunbar in the Scottish Borders, adjacent to the boundary with East Lothian.

The area around the wind farm is sparsely populated and the turbines are hidden among the hills.

Crystal Rig began operating in October 2003 and the 60 turbine expansion to the west of the original wind farm was commissioned today.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The future of food production ain't what it used to be

In the print copy of today's Boston Globe the following story is accompanied by another whose headline reads: "Foods in their purest forms mostly gone, scientists say". One of those scientists elaborates: "All of the animals, plants and microbes we use in our food system, our agricultural system, are genetically modified in one way or another. That or they're wild". Which would you prefer: a turkies that has been selective bred to have breasts twice as big as normal or those that have been genetically engineered to grow twice as fast?

All the more reason to seek out locally and organically grown produce if you're concerned. Not an absolute guarantee, but the odds are better that you're getting something closer to "natural".(GW)

Tipping the scales genetically

To its critics, fast-growing modified salmon is a threat; to its Mass. creators, it is a fix to shortages and overfishing

By Devra First
Boston Globe
September 23, 2010

At the center of a controversy over whether genetically modified salmon should be sold for consumption is a tiny Waltham company that has spent 15 years and $60 million working on the project.

AquaBounty Technologies, using a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon, has created an Atlantic salmon that grows twice as fast as the conventional fish. It reaches full size in about 18 months, rather than the standard three years.

The company calls it AquAdvantage salmon. Concerned groups declared it “Frankenfish.’’

Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration proclaimed the fish safe to eat, and public hearings took place this week. Opposition was swift and vocal. Critics say it poses risks to consumer health and the environment. They rallied in front of the White House, and a coalition has gathered more than 170,000 signatures in protest.

AquaBounty’s cofounder, Elliot Entis, tells another story, one of a product that could help address future food shortages and reduce the pressure on wild fish stocks.

It is a product that might not exist if he had not happened to read the newspaper one day. He grew up in Dorchester, attended Harvard, spent time in Washington, D.C., and returned to the Boston area to help run his father’s seafood business. One day, he stumbled upon a New York Times story about antifreeze proteins. He became interested in the topic and started a company in 1991 to explore their potential for freezing and storing organs for transplantation. It was only later that their application in fish became clear. In AquAdvantage salmon, the growth hormone is spliced with part of the antifreeze protein gene of another fish, the ocean pout.

“I wasn’t looking for it,’’ Entis says. “I thought it was great, fish grown in half the time.’’

He led the first rounds of financing himself. Shareholders now include private equity fund Linnaeus Capital Partners; Alejandro Weinstein of the Chilean pharmaceutical company, Recalcine; and the Fairchild Corp. The company employs 24 people. Headquarters are in Waltham, and eggs are grown in Prince Edward Island and Panama.

“You don’t get people to risk cash on what’s inherently an edge-of-the-envelope venture with no hope of return any time soon, [unless they] think it’s really a good idea and want to be part of it,’’ Entis says. “It’s a way to help feed people and decrease the footprint of aquaculture on oceans. I know some people when they hear or read that are going to be cynical, but it’s really quite the truth.’’

The world population is expected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, according to United Nations estimates. A fast-growing source of protein could help ameliorate future food crises, says AquaBounty’s chief executive, Ronald L. Stotish.

The genetically engineered salmon are grown inland, rather than in the ocean pens often used in salmon farming.

Stotish says this means farms could be built closer to population centers, creating industry and reducing the environmental impact of transporting the fish great distances. And, he adds, a faster-growing supply of farmed salmon will help take pressure off wild fish.

As for the benefits of AquAdvantage salmon for fish farmers, they are clear: The faster the growth rate, the sooner the fish can be sold, and the lower the feed costs.

Critics vehemently dispute many of AquaBounty’s arguments. There are other ways to provide food for future generations without genetic engineering, they say.

Paul Greenberg, author of “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food,’’ suggests that rather than using genetic engineering to boost supply, people should instead work to preserve existing wild salmon stocks by halting the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Doing so, he said, would save roughly as much salmon as AquaBounty’s genetic engineering would add to the food supply.

Another strategy might involve promoting species such as Arctic char that may be more naturally suited to aquaculture.

Critics’ health concerns include potential allergic reactions, a risk deemed statistically insignificant by the panel at the FDA hearings. Consumer advocates want the fish to be labeled genetically modified, a step that AquaBounty says is unnecessary.

Environmental groups also say there is too great a risk that the fish will escape, endangering the health of wild species by breeding with them and potentially spreading disease. Although the fish are meant to be contained inland, critics wonder what will happen if the technology reaches less scrupulous producers. Although the fish are bred to be sterile, critics say, a percentage are not.

Some take issue with the research and the evaluation process. The salmon is being treated as a drug rather than food, with the FDA’s Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee overseeing the public hearings. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, says that is an inappropriate way to deal with a new product and a new technology.

“We’re very concerned that the Food and Drug Administration is using a process for veterinary drugs,’’ she says. “They need to develop a process that keeps up with science and actually looks at genetically engineered foods. We’re also very concerned about the science they based the food safety assessment on. In their risk assessment, they used only four studies, and three were not peer-reviewed. They were submitted by the company. The fourth was from a peer-reviewed journal, but was 18 years old.’’

Entis, in response, says the research is sound and that the salmon is being thoroughly vetted. He is currently scouting locations for a potential facility.

“The highest gold standard is the drug approval,’’ he says. “That’s why this process was used. I don’t believe this is a drug. It’s a food. But this makes you jump through hoops. It gives more security to people who are somewhat fearful of the technology.’’

This week’s hearings in Rockville, Md., were designed to gather public opinion before the FDA decides whether the fast-growing salmon wins official approval. “There is no timeline on a decision,’’ says Siobhan DeLancey of the FDA Office of Public Affairs.

If the salmon is approved, some restaurants could refuse to serve it. In 2002, several hundred chefs, restaurants, grocers, and wholesalers — among them Ming Tsai of Wellesley’s Blue Ginger — pledged not to buy the product.

If it does one day wind up on the table, though, the taste may be one thing you don’t have to worry about.

“I’ve had it smoked, broiled, poached,’’ Entis says. “It’s a fish. It’s a salmon. You would never be able to tell it apart from any other Atlantic salmon.’’

Devra First can be reached at

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fast forward for EU renewables

The European Union continues to reaffirm its commitment to creating a clean energy future with actions - not just words. (GW)

64% of new power to be renewable over next decade

21 September 2010

Renewable energy is set to make up nearly two-thirds of new electricity generation capacity installed in the EU over the next decade, according to new estimates by the European Commission.


The EU executive's update on its energy trends to 2030 report, published without any public announcement, projects that renewable electricity will account for 64% of new electricity generation capacity installed over the next decade up to 2020. Gas will make up 7%, coal 12%, nuclear 4% and oil 3%.

The new figures take into account the dramatic change in the economic context since the last 2007 scenario, as energy-intensive industries have had to deal with production drops while new legislation has been passed to encourage the deployment of renewable energies and energy-efficient technologies, it said.

As a result, the EU's more ambitious scenario, which also reflects the agreed legally-binding targets on greenhouse gas emissions reduction and renewables, predicts that renewables will make up 36.1% of total electricity generation in 2030.

The Commission expects wind, including both onshore and offshore, to dominate the renewables market both in 2020 and 2030, followed by hydro power and biomass.

As renewables conquer ground, fossil fuel generation contracts significantly. The market share for gas decreases to 17.8%, while coal and other solid fuels decrease to 21.1% of total electricity generation in 2030, the Commission says.

While the share of nuclear power falls considerably, its production volumes are set to remain at current levels as some member states build new plants while others decommission them, either due to ageing or a phase-out, the report states.

The wind industry dismissed the estimates for new wind power in 2030 as unrealistic. Despite nearly doubling its expectations to 280 GW compared to its 2008 scenario, they were still far below the 400 GW that the industry itself expects to reach.

The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) took issue with the Commission's assumption that new wind power investments would slow from an annual average of 13.6 GW in the decade up to 2020 to 5.8 GW in the following decade.

"I find it unrealistic that after 20 years there would suddenly be a dramatic decline in wind power investments, especially given the new scenario's high expectations for offshore wind energy up to 2020," said Christian Kjaer, EWEA's chief executive officer.


European Commission: Energy Trends to 2030

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Unlocking the genetic code of the "food of the gods"

In an ususual move, Mars candy, IBM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have made the genetic code of the cocoa tree that they jointly discovered, free to breeders seeking to develop a more productive, pest-resistant tree. (GW)

First rice, then wheat - now cocoa genome unravelled

By Martin Hickman
The Independent
September 17, 2010

Yield may triple and transform the lives of poor African farmers

Scientists have sequenced the genetic code of the cocoa tree, which they say could triple the yield of the disease-prone crop and transform the lives of millions of poor farmers in Africa and around the developing world who rely on it for their livelihood.

The US chocolate firm Mars, working with the computer firm IBM and the US Department of Agriculture, took two years and two months to unlock the genetic code of the tree, Theobroma cacao ("food of the gods").

Instead of patenting the genome, they have placed it online for anyone to use for free. They say that its discovery will allow breeders who use traditional methods to grow hardier, more productive and disease-resistant trees.

In West Africa, the centre of global cocoa production, yields are low, at about 400kg a hectare. The crop is highly susceptible to pests and disease, losing about $700m (£450m) to $800m of its global value annually.

In an outbreak in 1989, a fungal disease called witches' broom wiped out the cocoa crop in Brazil, which was then the world's second biggest producer. Since then Brazil has produced only a fraction of its former levels. Chocolate companies worry about the disease striking the Ivory Coast and Ghana, which grow about 70 per cent of the world's cocoa beans.

About 6.5 million mostly subsistence-farmers grow cocoa, which is then processed into a luxury food for Western markets in a business predicted to be worth $13bn next year. Although the price has rocketed in recent years, low prices have historically led to trees becoming neglected by farmers, meaning that cocoa production has struggled to keep pace with demand, which is rising by 3 per cent a year.

Professor Howard-Yana Shapiro of the University of California Davis, who led the research team, said he sequenced the genome because cocoa was little researched - an "orphan crop" left in the cold by agronomists and bioscientists. Scientists elsewhere have sequenced the code of life of wheat, corn and rice. "This was a Third World neo-tropical tree nobody was interested in," said Professor Shapiro, who is also Global Head of Plant Science at Mars. "This was not a formal farmed crop."

Mars, a $30bn-a-year worldwide manufacturer of chocolate, pet food and other products, gave $10m to the project, while IBM and the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service contributed their expertise for free.

While the Mars team sought to unravel the genome, a consortium of French government laboratories and the Pennsylvania State University was doing likewise with backing from Mars' rival Hershey, the US chocolate-maker. That group says it, too, has cracked the code but cannot comment until it is published in a scientific journal.

Mars, which denied rushing an announcement yesterday to trump the other team, worked with 10 partners, including the Subtropical Horticulture Research Station in Miami, Mississippi's Jamie Whitten Research Center and the National Center for Genome Resources. The team decoded the genes of a strain of Theobroma cacao, which had 420 million DNA units, relatively small for a plant. The human genome has three billion units.

They put the completed work online, allowing multinational chocolate companies, research scientists and plant breeders to view the "golden traits" - the genes vital for disease resistance, drought resistance and flavour.

Teams at research laboratories in producer countries, initially the Ivory Coast and Ghana, will use the information from the Cacao Genome Database - online at - to breed hardier plants within 12 to 14 months.

Professor Shapiro, a molecular biologist, said: "We thought: 'Let's put this in the public domain so everyone has free access to it for eternity'. It could be patented and it can't be now. We have full open access.

"In West Africa where the average yield is 400 kilos a hectare my goal is that over 10 years we will be able to triple that. The best farmers will probably be able to quadruple that and the worst farmers will probably only double that."

A higher yield would allow farmers to remove unproductive trees (at present 30 per cent of trees produce 70 per cent of the beans) and diversify, planting fruit trees or other edible or saleable plants.

Mars, a family-owned firm which makes Milky Way and Snickers, denied the increase in production would reduce global prices. Mars said that because of the growing annual demand, prices would probably remain "stable".

Although farmers in West Africa remain poor with only basic access to healthcare and education, cocoa prices have soared due to the volatile and relatively low supply. Speculators are partly blamed for the rise, which has increased the price of a chocolate bar in Britain to about 60p. According to the International Cocoa Organisation, the cocoa price has doubled in five years, from $1,504 a ton in 2005 to $3,071 a ton last month.

Three million tons of cocoa are produced every year, and an estimated 40 to 50 million farmers, their families and workers depend on it for their livelihood. If Professor Shapiro is correct, global production could rise to 9 million tons by 2020.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A green city on a blue lake

I grew up along the banks of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. I can remember when city officials and TV commentators proudly referred to my hometown as "The Best Location in the Nation". That became our slogan. At some point -- it probably was shortly after the Cuyahoga River made headlines by catching on fire -- that Cleveland became the perennial butt of jokes and a new slogan emerged. We became "The Mistake On The Lake".

Cleveland has slowly been turning itself around. Now it has a plan to become "A green city on a blue lake."

Cleveland rocks!! (GW)

Region's largest companies embrace green economy as Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit begins this week

By John Funk
September 18, 2010

Executive summary of the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Action and Resources Guide (PDF, 2MB)

The full guide (PDF, 15MB)

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Despite the recession and mixed signals from Congress about greening American industry, some of Cleveland's largest companies are embracing a revolutionary concept called sustainability.

And when Sustainable Cleveland 2019 holds its second annual summit in the coming week, corporate executives are expected to play some the leading roles.

That's a good sign, organizers say, because only business has the combined muscle it will take to transform the economy into one that considers economic development's effect on the environment and the welfare of people.

The sustainability movement's mantra, "people, planet, profit," combines social reform, environmental commitment with long-term economic development -- that is, sustainable development.

It asserts that only companies that take care of this "triple bottom line" will survive in the coming global shortages of materials and energy as global populations expand and nations such as China and India industrialize and modernize.

Sustainability has been embraced by some of the largest global corporations such as Wal-Mart, IBM and Coca Cola. And it's the foundation for Sustainable Cleveland 2019.

"Major companies want to speak this year," said David Cooperrider, a management professor at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University and a global expert on sustainability.

Cooperrider will help shape the debate at this year's two-day summit, as he did during the first summit.

"These companies are escalating their investments in going green during a time when everybody thought they would take a back seat," he said.

"The biggest transformation I have ever seen has occurred in business even at a time when politics don't support it. Sustainability is becoming embedded in the very core of these companies."

Margie Flynn, co-founder of BrownFlynn, a local corporate consulting company that teaches sustainability, said there has "clearly been an increased movement and support for sustainability" among corporations.

"Corporations recognize that sustainability is critical to their future viability and to maintain competitiveness," said Flynn, who serves on Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's sustainability advisory council.

Chuck Fowler, the chief executive officer of Fairmount Minerals in Chardon, a global supplier of purified sands, said the summit this year will include "quite a few businesspeople."

Fowler, a long-time advocate and practitioner of sustainability, said the city and its advisory council has done a fine job explaining Sustainable Cleveland 2019 to local companies.

"They've come to the trough. Now let's see if we can get them to drink the water," he said.

Corporations are helping fund this year's event, a change from last year when the city had to raise the approximate $100,000 it spent on the first summit from foundations.

Eaton Corp, Forest City, Dominion East Ohio, Consolidated Graphics, NPI Audio Visual Solutions and Fairmount Minerals are among the companies that each contributed $10,000 to sponsor this year's summit.

Ideas for creating
a sustainable economy

There is no blueprint for creating a sustainable economy in Northeast Ohio.

But there are a lot of ideas, a tremendous reservoir of enthusiasm, an army of volunteers ready to make a go of it and increasing support from the region's corporations.

And now there is an encyclopedia of what has been proposed in the year since Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson hosted a sustainability summit and a decade-long drive he called Sustainable Cleveland 2019.

The Action and Resource Guide, though encyclopedic in detail, is really just a framework to organize and develop the initiatives that grew out of the 2009 summit.

The guide will be a key part of this year's summit, on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

The guide's massive compilation and analysis assumes that economic, environmental and societal problems are interrelated -- and can't be solved alone. It assumes that they have converged into one problem.

That convergence point is where sustainable development begins.

Where it ends is a change in the cultural values that underlie everything, from every day life to the decisions corporations make to the policies governments develop.

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast," the guide asserts.

"Culture is a key challenge in accelerating change. Without a culture change that embraces sustainability, inertia will trump the best laid strategies and business will continue as usual, which is not good for Cleveland's economy."

The guide argues that for that cultural change to happen:

• People have to think about changing their lives along sustainable principles -- for example, by adopting conservation at home and by working to create a sense of "neighborliness" in the neighborhood and volunteering on community projects

• Governments on all levels have to look at how brownfields and waste can become fuel or feed stocks in order to clean up the environmental problems created by past generations by prioritizing green projects and buying from companies that have adopted sustainability.

• Cities have to consider whether proposed developments can be sustainable in the long run and promote sustainable development at all levels.

• Business has to adopt cleaner and more efficient technologies and "green" their supply chains -- for example, by looking for raw materials in the waste produced by another industry and by supporting Sustainable Cleveland 2019.

The guide also proposes to shine a spotlight, or "celebrate," specific initiatives for an entire year through 2019 as a way to promote sustainability as a value.

Energy efficiency and the myriad programs associated with achieving efficiency in the home, office and factory, will be the focus next year, for example.

In 2012, the guide advises that local food production be the focus to converge with the 100th anniversary of the West Side Market. Northeast Ohio spends $10 billion per year on food. Increasing purchases of locally grown food would keep part of that money in the region.

In 2013, when the new company developing wind in Lake Erie hopes to have five turbines operating, the emphasis will be renewable resources and advanced energy.

Jackson called the first summit in August 2009 and unveiled its ambitious goal to change the course of Cleveland's history in the next decade.

Using sustainability concepts as the organizing foundation, Jackson proposed changing the city and region's direction from one of decline to vibrant growth that would reshape not only the local economy but where Clevelanders live, what they eat, what they pay for energy, where they work and how they get there.

The city invited about 600 people to the first summit. More than 700 showed up to talk about what sustainability means, how it would work and what it would do for the region.

The summit was the first of its kind in the nation. That's because it threw together people of all ages with a broad range of interests, from avowed environmentalists to suited-up CEOs.

The response was electric as the crowds coalesced into working groups based on their interests and brainstormed under Cooperrider's careful direction.

The whole process is called "appreciative inquiry" because it looks for and focuses on the strengths a company's employees - or in this case a region's citizens - possess rather than their weaknesses. Cooperrider has conducted more than 500 such events around the globe for corporations, governments, the Navy and even the Dalai Lama.

The city has invited 500 to the second summit, planned for Wednesday and Thursday at Public Hall. And there is still room for a few more participants, said Andrew Watterson, the city's sustainability chief.

The working groups in the 2009 summit came up with literally thousands of ideas. At least 15 of the 20 working groups have continued to meet over the entire year.

In fact, one group, the Green Building Retrofit Group, will give its latest report at the monthly meeting of E4S -- Entrepreneurs for Sustainability -- on Tuesday.

The mayor appointed some last year's participants and summit organizers to a volunteer advisory council to help compile and collate the avalanche of ideas.

Then, with about $200,000 in grants from foundations, the city hired a consulting company to develop the beginnings of a strategy.

Working with summit participants and organizers, the Economic Transformations Group Inc. of New York City produced what it calls an "Action and Resource Guide."

That guide, nearly 300 pages long, will play a big role at this year's summit - and probably for the rest of the decade, with additions as needed.

Holly Harlan, president of E4S and a member of the advisory council, said the document is the foundation for a 10-year plan.

"We will be learning from it and adding to it, as opposed to 'this is what you are going to do,' " she said.

David Nash, a Cleveland environmental attorney and co-convener of the Corporate Sustainability Network and also a member of the advisory council, said the huge guide is more like a tool kit than a blueprint.

"It's not a top down action plan. It's a beginning, not an end," he said. "It links the ideas that came out of the '09 summit."

"It's like a cook book, but without exact recipes. But it will give you an idea, for example, of how you will make a pie in the future."

Nash thinks the summit and those that follow represent a rare opportunity.

"We will be linking the entrepreneurs and innovators, the grass roots community, with the players in business for real wealth creation," he said.

Those new collaborations that will drive economic growth, he said, and change not only the economy but the way people think -- the culture.

It's the change in culture that is imperative, Nash said.

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast," he said, quoting a line in the guide.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Climate change and the emergence of the "New North"

Unfreezing Arctic Assets
Part 2

A bloc of countries above the 45th parallel is poised to dominate the next century. Welcome to the New North.

By Laurence C. Smith
Wall Street Journal
September 18, 2010

At first blush all eight New North countries fulfill these requirements to some degree. Save Russia, they rank among the most trade-friendly, economically globalized, law-abiding countries in the world. They control a valuable array of coveted natural resources. Already, they enjoy more petitions from prospective migrants than they can or will absorb. They are friendly neighbors. Their winters will always be frigid, but less bitterly so than today. Biomass will press north, including some increased agricultural production in contrast to the more uncertain futures facing much larger agricultural areas to the south.

Already the New North possesses a sprinkle of sizable settlements from which to grow. Their biggest hubs—like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Ottawa, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Moscow— are growing fast and attract many foreign immigrants today. Smaller destination cities include Anchorage, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Quebec City, Hamilton, Goteborg, Trondheim, Oulu, Novosibirsk and Vladivostok. Some truly northern towns that might grow in a New North include Fairbanks, Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Iqaluit, Tromso, Rovaniemi, Murmansk and Surgut.

Cities are key to the New North because, like everywhere else, it is rapidly urbanizing. Even in the remote Arctic and sub-Arctic, people are abandoning small villages or a life in the bush to flock to places like Fairbanks, Alaska; Fort McMurray, Canada; and Yakutsk, Russia. Tiny Barrow, Alaska—a metropolis by Arctic standards—is absorbing an influx of people from remote hamlets across the North Slope. Paired with reduced winter road access and ground disruptions from thawing permafrost, this urbanization trend suggests abandonment of all but the most lucrative of remote interiors.

Outside the cities and towns it's hard to attract new settlers, especially in the Arctic hinterlands. With four million people and a gross domestic product slightly larger than Hong Kong's, the circumpolar Arctic holds a bigger population and economy than most people realize, but both are still fleetingly small. For example, with just 57,000 people and $2 billion gross domestic product per year, Greenland's population and economy are 1% of Denmark's. Furthermore, the mainstay of the Arctic economy is simply exporting raw commodities like metals, fossil fuel, diamonds, fish and timber. Public services comprise the second-largest sector, followed by transportation. Tourism and retail are significant only in a few places. Universities are rare, and manufacturing extremely limited except for a robust electronics industry in northern Finland around the city of Oulu (Nokia is one of the better-known companies operating there).

Thus, the Arctic economy is a restrictive blend of resource-extraction industries and government dollars, with an underskilled and undereducated work force. Most of these natural resource profits leave the far North, creating an apparent "welfare state" situation in which central governments prefer to deeply subsidize public services rather than surrender profits to local taxation.

Career choices are limited and although salaries are high, so is the cost of living. One can expect to pay $250 per night for a cheap hotel room and $15 for a cheeseburger in an Arctic town. Gas pipelines and diamond mines generate enormous wealth, but most of this revenue flows south (or west, in Russia), controlled by an array of private, multinational, and state-owned actors and central governments. In North America, much of what's left is controlled by indigenous-owned business corporations and/or regulated through a wave of comprehensive land claims agreements, now nearly complete, that return substantial political power to the region's original occupants.

Put simply, the Arctic is not an easy place for fresh arrivals and business start-ups outside of a narrow range of activities. Add to all this the infernal cold and darkness of the polar winter, followed by the steaming heat and billions of mosquitoes of the polar summer, and we see the Arctic will never be a big draw for southern settlers. Even the sub-Arctic hydrocarbon boom cities of Fort McMurray; Noyabr'sk, Russia; and Novy Urengoy, Russia, must recruit heavily to attract enough foreign workers. While Arctic settlements will grow with the region's rising energy, mining and shipping base, its fast-growing indigenous population (in North America), and the ongoing urbanization trend, it's hard to imagine big new cities spreading across it by 2050 or even 2100.

Instead, a better envisioning of the New North today might be something like America in 1803, just after the Louisiana Purchase from France. It, too, possessed major cities fueled by foreign immigration, with a vast, inhospitable frontier distant from the major urban cores. Its deserts, like Arctic tundra, were harsh, dangerous and ecologically fragile. It, too, had rich resource endowments of metals and hydrocarbons. It, too, was not really an empty frontier but already occupied by indigenous peoples who had been living there for millennia.

Flying over the American West today, one still sees landscapes that are barren and sparsely populated. Its towns and cities are relatively few, scattered across miles of empty desert. Yet its population is growing, its cities like Phoenix and Salt Lake and Las Vegas humming economic forces with cultural and political significance. This is how I imagine the coming human expansion in the New North. We're not all about to move there, but it will integrate with the rest of the world in some very important ways.

I imagine the high Arctic, in particular, will be rather like Nevada—a landscape nearly empty but with fast-growing towns. Its prime socioeconomic role in the 21st century will not be homestead haven but economic engine, shoveling gas, oil, minerals and fish into the gaping global maw.

—From "The World in 2050" by Laurence C. Smith, to be published by Dutton, a member of the Penguin Group, on Sept. 23. Copyright © 2010 by Laurence C. Smith.