Friday, December 31, 2010

"It's a nice big Thermos"

Utility scale solar thermal plants have the advantage of being to store collected solar energy in water and use it to drive turbines even when the sun is not shining. One concern that has been raised is the amount of water needed for cooling and storage. Designs employed closed looped systems are one way to address this, although they may be more expensive to build. (GW)

Solar Plant to Generate Power After Sundown

Abengoa Solar Inc. expects to start construction in mid-2011 on a plant in Arizona that will store sun-generated heat to provide six extra hours a day of electric-generating capacity. The heat creates steam that is used to turn power turbines.

Rebecca Smith looks at solar power plants that can make electricity whether or not the sun is shining, including one scheduled to be built in Arizona in mid-2011.

Abengoa's $2 billion Solana plant is expected to be the first major stored-heat plant in the U.S. when it enters service in 2013. Some already exist in Spain and a few more are on the drawing board for Nevada and California.

On Dec. 21, Abengoa, a unit of Spanish utility company Abengoa SA, cleared a major hurdle when it announced it received a $1.45 billion U.S. loan guarantee for the 250-megawatt Arizona project, planned for a site 70 miles southwest of Phoenix near Gila Bend.

The Solana plant will be able to meet winter heating and lighting needs by putting electricity on the grid early in the morning—before the sun is shining—and help satisfy summer cooling demand by producing power after sundown. The plant, which can power up to 70,000 houses, has signed a 30-year agreement to sell electricity to utility company Arizona Public Service.

Such utility-scale solar plants use mirrors to focus the sun's rays on a liquid, contained in tubes, which can be heated to very hot temperatures. The liquid is used to boil water and create steam. By using a conventional steam-turbine generator, electricity is produced.

But the twist is that the Arizona facility will have two giant salt tanks, each 122 feet in diameter and 34 feet deep, that together can hold and store 40% of the heat created by the plant.

Such storage technologies are expected to become more commonplace in the U.S. at solar plants as officials try to limit the release of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel power plants and make renewable power production more dependable.

Mark Mehos, a solar program manager for the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., said such molten salt storage systems add about 20% to the construction cost of solar plants but more than make up for it by boosting a plant's flexibility and productivity.

Electricity from solar plants is expensive, especially at a time when natural-gas prices have plunged, making gas-generated electricity cheap by comparison. Utilities, which are under state mandates to buy more clean power, say solar power may look more economical in the future if fossil fuel prices rise or if a tax is imposed on carbon emissions by power plants.

When it comes to renewable energy, solar competes most heavily against wind power. A study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., in February 2010 found that utility-scale solar plants with storage capacity were three times as costly to build as wind farms without energy storage.

The study found that solar electricity was more valuable, though, because its output was more correlated to peak electricity demand. Still, experts say that unless costs come down, the number of solar projects that get built will be limited.

SolarReserve LLC, a power development company in Santa Monica, Calif., is working on two solar projects in Nevada and California that will have even more heat-storage capacity, relative to their size, than Abengoa's project. These plants will put out 110 megawatts and 150 megawatts in electricity, respectively, and will be able to store enough heat to run eight to 12 hours without additional sunlight.

SolarReserve has power sales agreements with NV Energy Inc. and PG&E Corp., and expects to have the two plants in service by 2014. Each will cost $650 million to $750 million.

Don Brandt, chairman and chief executive of Pinnacle West Capital Corp., parent of Arizona Public Service, said heat storage at the Abengoa project makes it "an extremely attractive project for us." By 2015, Arizona Public Service wants to get 10% of its electricity from renewable sources, and Abengoa's plant is expected to contribute a third of that. Arizona's statewide goal is 15% renewable energy by 2025.

Mr. Brandt said peak electricity demand for his utility typically hits about 4 p.m. in the summer but "we remain at elevated levels until around 10 o'clock at night" so getting renewable power later in the evening is valuable.

The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the Department of Energy, says molten salt storage is "proven technology."

"When you put heat into one of these tanks, you get 95% or 96% of the heat back out again," said Mr. Mehos, at the federal energy lab. "It's a nice big Thermos."

Another plus of all three plants is they will produce power that can be tailored to a utility's specific needs, said Santiago Seage, president of Abengoa Solar. That's an asset to electrical grid operators that like to know they can rely on certain amounts of power flowing onto lines.

Write to Rebecca Smith at

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Don't mess with Hoppin’ John

I ring in each New Year with a whopping plateful of Hoppin' John for good luck.

A bit of advice: A while back I tried substituting soy veggie bacon. It turned out to be a less than stellar year for me. Stick with the real thing - at least for the one day. You can't fool Mom, Mother Nature or Hoppin' John. (GW)

Prosperity Starts With a Pea

By Jessica B. Harris
New York Times
December 29, 2010

AT year’s end, people around the world indulge in food rituals to ensure good luck in the days ahead. In Spain, grapes eaten as the clock turns midnight — one for each chime — foretell whether the year will be sweet or sour. In Austria, the New Year’s table is decorated with marzipan pigs to celebrate wealth, progress and prosperity. Germans savor carp and place a few fish scales in their wallets for luck. And for African-Americans and in the Southern United States, it’s all about black-eyed peas.

Not surprisingly, this American tradition originated elsewhere, in this case in the forests and savannahs of West Africa. After being domesticated there 5,000 years ago, black-eyed peas made their way into the diets of people in virtually all parts of that continent. They then traveled to the Americas in the holds of slave ships as food for the enslaved. “Everywhere African slaves arrived in substantial numbers, cowpeas followed,” wrote one historian, using one of several names the legume acquired. Today the peas are also eaten in Brazil, Central America and the Caribbean.

In the United States, few foods are more connected with African-Americans and with the South. Before the early 1700s, black-eyed peas were observed growing in the Carolina colonies. As in Africa, they were often planted at the borders of the fields to help keep down weeds and enrich the soil; cattle grazed on the stems and vines. These practices are at the origin of two of the peas’ alternative names: cowpeas and field peas. The peas, which were eaten by enslaved Africans and poorer whites, became one of the Carolinas’ cash crops, exported to the Caribbean colonies before the Revolutionary War.

Like many other dishes of African inspiration, black-eyed peas made their way from the slave cabin to the master’s table; the 1824 edition of “The Virginia Housewife” by Mary Randolph includes a recipe for field peas. Randolph suggests shelling, boiling and draining the “young and newly gathered” peas, then mashing them into a cake and frying until lightly browned. The black-eyed pea cakes are served with a garnish of “thin bits of fried bacon.”

Of course, black-eyed peas find their most prominent expression around New Year’s in the holiday’s signature dish: Hoppin’ John, a Carolina specialty made with black-eyed peas and rice and seasoned with smoked pork. Again, though, the peas and rice combination reaches back beyond the Lowcountry to West Africa, where variants are eaten to this day. Senegal alone has three variations: thiebou kethiah, a black-eyed pea and rice stew with eggplant, pumpkin, okra and smoked fish; sinan kussak, a stew with smoked fish and prepared with red palm oil; and thiebou niebe, a stew seasoned with fish sauce that is closest to America’s Hoppin’ John.

Just as nobody is sure of the origin of the name Hoppin’ John, no one seems quite certain why the dish has become associated with luck, or New Year’s. Some white Southerners claim that black-eyed peas saved families from starvation during the Union Army’s siege of Vicksburg in the Civil War. “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” suggests that it may come from Sephardic Jews, who included the peas in their Rosh Hashana menu as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

For African-Americans, the connection between beans and fortune is surely complex. Perhaps, because dried black-eyed peas can be germinated, having some extra on hand at the New Year guaranteed sustenance provided by a new crop of the fast-growing vines. The black-eyed pea and rice combination also forms a complete protein, offering all of the essential amino acids. During slavery, one ensured of such nourishment was lucky indeed.

Whatever the exact reason, black-eyed peas with rice form one corner of the African-American New Year’s culinary trinity: greens, beans and pig. The greens symbolize greenbacks (or “folding money”) and may be collards, mustards or even cabbage. The pork is a remembrance of our enslaved forebears, who were given the less noble parts of the pig as food. But without the black-eyed pea, which journeyed from Africa to the New World, it just isn’t New Year’s — at least not a lucky one.

Jessica B. Harris is an English professor at Queens College and the author of the forthcoming “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America.”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"A knowledge accelerator, to collide different branches of knowledge"

In 1978 James Grier Miller published a 1,000+ page tome titled "Living Systems". It is described as "an integrated, multidisciplinary analysis of the nature of all biological and social systems. It also presents a master theory that creates order from a chaotic array of scientific findings and "mini-theories" -- within the unifying concepts of laws and testable hypotheses. Miller wanted to show that a general theory of living systems can be constructed. It's an amazing book (I must admit I do own a copy) that I think succeeds in presenting an approach to comparing and understanding critical functions in various sorts of living systems.

It was a very ambitious and noble effort. A far cry from attempting to create a 'Living Systems Supercollider' which strikes me as wrong-headed for all sorts of reasons. Collisions do not necessarily result in synthesis. (GW)

Earth project aims to 'simulate everything' Technology reporter
BBC News
December 27, 2010

The Living Earth Simulator will collect data from billions of sources

It could be one of the most ambitious computer projects ever conceived.

An international group of scientists are aiming to create a simulator that can replicate everything happening on Earth - from global weather patterns and the spread of diseases to international financial transactions or congestion on Milton Keynes' roads.

Nicknamed the Living Earth Simulator (LES), the project aims to advance the scientific understanding of what is taking place on the planet, encapsulating the human actions that shape societies and the environmental forces that define the physical world.

"Many problems we have today - including social and economic instabilities, wars, disease spreading - are related to human behaviour, but there is apparently a serious lack of understanding regarding how society and the economy work," says Dr Helbing, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, who chairs the FuturICT project which aims to create the simulator.

Knowledge collider

Thanks to projects such as the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator built by Cern, scientists know more about the early universe than they do about our own planet, claims Dr Helbing.

What is needed is a knowledge accelerator, to collide different branches of knowledge, he says.

"Revealing the hidden laws and processes underlying societies constitutes the most pressing scientific grand challenge of our century."

The result would be the LES. It would be able to predict the spread of infectious diseases, such as Swine Flu, identify methods for tackling climate change or even spot the inklings of an impending financial crisis, he says.

Large Hadron Collider
Is it possible to build a social science equivalent to the Large Hadron Collider?

But how would such colossal system work?

For a start it would need to be populated by data - lots of it - covering the entire gamut of activity on the planet, says Dr Helbing.

It would also be powered by an assembly of yet-to-be-built supercomputers capable of carrying out number-crunching on a mammoth scale.

Although the hardware has not yet been built, much of the data is already being generated, he says.

For example, the Planetary Skin project, led by US space agency Nasa, will see the creation of a vast sensor network collecting climate data from air, land, sea and space.

In addition, Dr Helbing and his team have already identified more than 70 online data sources they believe can be used including Wikipedia, Google Maps and the UK government's data repository

Drowning in data

Integrating such real-time data feeds with millions of other sources of data - from financial markets and medical records to social media - would ultimately power the simulator, says Dr Helbing.

The next step is create a framework to turn that morass of data in to models that accurately replicate what is taken place on Earth today.

That will only be possible by bringing together social scientists and computer scientists and engineers to establish the rules that will define how the LES operates.

Such work cannot be left to traditional social science researchers, where typically years of work produces limited volumes of data, argues Dr Helbing.

Nor is it something that could have been achieved before - the technology needed to run the LES will only become available in the coming decade, he adds.

Human behaviour

For example, while the LES will need to be able to assimilate vast oceans of data it will simultaneously have to understand what that data means.

That becomes possible as so-called semantic web technologies mature, says Dr Helbing.

Today, a database chock-full of air pollution data would look much the same to a computer as a database of global banking transactions - essentially just a lot of numbers.

But semantic web technology will encode a description of data alongside the data itself, enabling computers to understand the data in context.

What's more, our approach to aggregating data stresses the need to strip out any of that information that relates directly to an individual, says Dr Helbing.

Crowd wearing face masks
The Living Earth Simulator aims to predict how diseases spread

That will enable the LES to incorporate vast amounts of data relating to human activity, without compromising people's privacy, he argues.

Once an approach to carrying out large-scale social and economic data is agreed upon, it will be necessary to build supercomputer centres needed to crunch that data and produce the simulation of the Earth, says Dr Helbing.

Generating the computational power to deal with the amount of data needed to populate the LES represents a significant challenge, but it's far from being a showstopper.

If you look at the data-processing capacity of Google, it's clear that the LES won't be held back by processing capacity, says Pete Warden, founder of the OpenHeatMap project and a specialist on data analysis.

While Google is somewhat secretive about the amount of data it can process, in May 2010 it was believed to use in the region of 39,000 servers to process an exabyte of data per month - that's enough data to fill 2 billion CDs every month.

Reality mining

If you accept that only a fraction of the "several hundred exabytes of data being produced worldwide every year… would be useful for a world simulation, the bottleneck won't be the processing capacity," says Mr Warden.

"Getting access to the data will be much more of a challenge, as will figuring out something useful to do with it," he adds.

Simply having lots of data isn't enough to build a credible simulation of the planet, argues Warden. "Economics and sociology have consistently failed to produce theories with strong predictive powers over the last century, despite lots of data gathering. I'm sceptical that larger data sets will mark a big change," he says.

"It's not that we don't know enough about a lot of the problems the world faces, from climate change to extreme poverty, it's that we don't take any action on the information we do have," he argues.

Regardless of the challenges the project faces, the greater danger is not attempting to use the computer tools we have now - and will have in future - to improve our understanding of global socio-economic trends, says Dr Helbing.

"Over the past years, it has for example become obvious that we need better indicators than the gross national product to judge societal development and well-being," he argues.

At it's heart, the LES is about working towards better methods to measure the state of society, he says, which would account for health, education and environmental issues. "And last but not least, happiness."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In search of 'rare earths'

Many of the costs associated with technologically-driven progress (yes, even those being made in the spirit of sustainable development) remain hidden from public view. There really are no free lunches. (GW)

Undermining China's Monopoly on Rare Earth Elements

Full operations will start at a U.S. mine by the end of next year.

By Katherine Bourzac
Technology Review
December 22, 2010

Molycorp has secured the permits and funding needed to restart production at a mine in Mountain Pass, California, that would become the first U.S. source of rare earth elements in more than a decade. The mine is one of the world's richest deposits of these elements, which are critical for making components found in a wide range of technologies. On Tuesday, the company announced that it will partner with Hitachi Metals of Japan to turn materials from the mine into high-strength magnets, which are vital in electric vehicles, wind turbines, and many other products.

China currently has a lock on the market for rare earth materials: in 2009 it provided 95 percent of the world's supply, or 120,000 tons. This concentration of supply has become a major issue in recent months, particularly after China temporarily blocked exports of these materials to Japan in September. A Critical Materials Strategy document issued by the U.S. Department of Energy last week points to the "risk of supply disruption" in the short term. Worldwide demand for rare earth elements was 125,000 tons in 2010 and is expected to rise to 225,000 tons by 2015.

The mine is a 50-acre open pit about 50 miles outside Las Vegas, surrounded by a stark landscape of red-brown mountains, Joshua trees, and the occasional cactus. Molycorp has begun draining groundwater that seeps into the bottom of the pit and removing areas of rock called "overburden" to expose a layer of bastnäsite, a mineral rich in rare earth elements. Expansion of operations will push the mine from a depth of 500 feet to 1,000 feet in the coming years.

By 2012, the revamped U.S. mine is expected to produce around 20,000 tons of rare earth materials per year. Molycorp plans to use new processing techniques that it claims are more environmentally friendly and less expensive than conventional methods.

The Mountain Pass mine used to be the world's biggest supplier of rare earth elements, but it closed in 2004, after a 1998 wastewater leak and the arrival of Chinese suppliers that offered lower prices. (One reason for the lower prices is that nearly half the rare earths produced in China are made as a by-product of iron mining.)

Molycorp expects to sell about 3,000 tons of rare earths this year, produced from ore stockpiled before the mine was closed. It is also gearing up for active mining, with financial support from an initial public offering this summer and recent investment from Japanese firm Sumimoto.

The company's total projected production could meet the current demand for rare earths in the United States. Molycorp has not disclosed who its customers will be, but CEO Mark Smith said on a tour of the mine last week that it has inked contracts to sell 25 percent of the 20,000 tons of material it expects to produce during the first year of full-scale operations, in 2012, and has letters of intent to sell the rest. "We're focused on the U.S., Japanese, and European markets," he said.

Under current permits, the company could potentially double production, to 40,000 tons a year, beyond 2012. Smith says demand is likely to exceed supply for some years to come, even if Lynas Corporation's Mount Weld mine outside Perth, Australia, begins production as expected in summer 2011. That company expects to produce 15,000 tons of rare earth elements a year by 2015.

Even with raw materials in place, U.S. manufacturers can't produce many important technologies based on rare earth elements. Bastnäsite from the Mountain Pass mine can be processed on site to make didymium oxide, a powder that contains the element neodymium, which is critical for making lightweight permanent magnets. But didymium oxide requires further processing to make the neodymium-iron-boron alloy from which the magnets are made. The magnets found in a wind turbine require several hundred kilograms of neodymium.

No company in the United States currently has the technological capacity, or the necessary intellectual-property licenses, to make neodymium magnets. Yesterday, Molycorp and Hitachi metals announced an agreement to produce these magnets in the United States; the two companies plan to sign a definite agreement by April 2011. According to the DOE, only 10 companies, which are located in Germany, Japan, and China, are currently licensed to make such magnets. The intellectual property is owned by Hitachi Metals and by Magnequench, which is now part of AMR Technologies, a company based in Canada that was bought by a Chinese consortium in 1995. Molycorp's Smith says that producing alloys for magnets could increase the company's profit margins by 125 percent.

A recent report published by the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the total rare earth reserves in the United States at 1.5 million tons. But the report says it's unclear how much of these reserves can be mined economically. The DOE report outlines a strategy of diversifying the international supply of rare earths, identifying substitute materials, and finding ways to use the materials more efficiently and recycle them. Researchers at Hitachi, GE, and the University of Delaware are collaborating on the development of an alternative magnet material that requires smaller amounts of rare earth materials, or none at all. But this and similar projects are still in the early stages.

Copyright Technology Review 2010.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Seeking a cure for poor public schools.

I've never been a fan of standardized tests. The fact that I generally scored poorly on them may have something to do with that. Must have something to do with having to stay between the lines. (GW)

Learning From Finland

By Pasi Sahlberg
Boston Globe
December 27, 2010

IF AMERICANS harbored any doubts about their eroded global edge, the recent release of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s fourth international comparison of educational performance should rattle the nation from its “We’re No. 1’’ complacency. The latest Program for International Student Assessment study revealed that, although the United States made some modest gains, it is lagging behind many other developed nations in the ability of its 15-year-olds. The country isn’t flunking: like France, England, and Sweden, learning here has stagnated at below-average levels. That “gentleman’s C’’ should be a call to change course.

Take heart. Finland, one of the world’s top educational performers according to the last PISA study and a recent McKinsey report, was once in a similar slump and can offer lessons for the United States and others seeking a cure for poor public schools.

As recently as 25 years ago, Finnish students were below the international average in mathematics and science. There also were large learning differences between schools, with urban or affluent students typically outperforming their rural or low-income peers. Today, as the most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have accomplished both a high quality of learning and equity in learning at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable — students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Finally, Finland should interest US educators because Finns have employed very distinct ideas and policies in reforming education, many the exact opposite of what’s being tried in the United States.

Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. Politicians and administrators are informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work. Parents and politicians think that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.

Another difference is that Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge. Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers.

Educational leadership is also different in Finland. School principals, district education leaders, and superintendents are, without exception, former teachers. Leadership is therefore built on a strong sense of professional skills and community.

Many Americans may doubt that Finland, with its homogeneous population, has much relevance to the United States. However, due to growing immigration, ethnic and cultural diversity is increasing in Finland.

The secret of Finnish educational success is that in the 20th century Finns studied and emulated such advanced nations as Sweden, Germany, and the United States. Finns adopted some education policies from elsewhere but also avoided mistakes made by these leading education performers.

What could the United States learn from the Finns? First, reconsider those policies that advocate choice and competition as the key drivers of educational improvement. None of the best-performing education systems relies primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation — not choice and competition — can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.

Second, provide teachers with government-paid university education and more professional support in their work, and make teaching a respected profession. As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent in the United States is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career.

Finally, with the fourth PISA study again showing that the US education system is lagging those in many other countries, Americans should admit that there is much to learn from these systems. Relying on one’s past reputation is probably not the best approach for transforming an educational system to meet tomorrow’s needs and challenges. With America’s “can do’’ mentality and superior knowledge base in educational improvement, you could shift course before it’s too late.

Pasi Sahlberg is director general of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture and is a former Washington-based World Bank education specialist.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The glorious nerdiness of statistics

This is a wonderful, Fulleresque approach to interweaving statistics, history, demographics, global health and political economics using a technology called Holographic Infographics.

Despite the troubling trend that wherein progress has resulted in widening the gap between rich and poor, Professor Rosling is convinced that we can create a world that works for everyone. (GW

The Joy Of Stats
BBC Four

Documentary which takes viewers on a rollercoaster ride through the wonderful world of statistics to explore the remarkable power thay have to change our understanding of the world, presented by superstar boffin Professor Hans Rosling, whose eye-opening, mind-expanding and funny online lectures have made him an international internet legend.

Rosling is a man who revels in the glorious nerdiness of statistics, and here he entertainingly explores their history, how they work mathematically and how they can be used in today's computer age to see the world as it really is, not just as we imagine it to be.

Rosling's lectures use huge quantities of public data to reveal the story of the world's past, present and future development. Now he tells the story of the world in 200 countries over 200 years using 120,000 numbers - in just four minutes.

The film also explores cutting-edge examples of statistics in action today. In San Francisco, a new app mashes up police department data with the city's street map to show what crime is being reported street by street, house by house, in near real-time. Every citizen can use it and the hidden patterns of their city are starkly revealed. Meanwhile, at Google HQ the machine translation project tries to translate between 57 languages, using lots of statistics and no linguists.

Despite its light and witty touch, the film nonetheless has a serious message - without statistics we are cast adrift on an ocean of confusion, but armed with stats we can take control of our lives, hold our rulers to account and see the world as it really is. What's more, Hans concludes, we can now collect and analyse such huge quantities of data and at such speeds that scientific method itself seems to be changing.

Who else could it be?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Behold the political power of the simple onion.

Remember the great PBS series called "Connections" that aired decades ago? In each episode, host James Burke would often take some simple, seemingly isolated action and show how it led to events with significant historical impacts. (GW)

Onion Price Surge Roils India

NEW DELHI—Behold the political power of the simple onion.

The root vegetable is the staple cooking ingredient for hundreds of millions of Indians, chiefly across a wide belt of the subcontinent's populous north. It has acquired legendary status for being not just the savory base of curries but also a slayer of governments, after a dramatic price rise in 1998 was credited with determining the outcome of elections in Delhi and one other state.

Today, its power as a political hot potato has re-emerged with a sharp price rise in the past few weeks. The crop has been severely affected by unseasonal rains in western states, the onion-growing heartland, with one key area's production down about 16%, according to government estimates. The price for a kilo (2.2 pounds) of onions at the vegetable market has jumped to about 70 rupees ($1.55), almost five times the usual price and roughly the same price as the more upmarket mango.

The onion's price surge also has come to symbolize a broader problem: Rising prices of all staples, including tomatoes, lentils and garlic, are taking a heavy financial toll on India's impoverished masses.

On paper, that toll would appear smaller than the popular uproar suggests. Onions represent just 0.18% of the wholesale price index, India's benchmark inflation rate. According to that index, food prices haven't been rising as fast recently as they did earlier this year—jumping 6.1% in November, compared with a 10% rise in October.

Some experts even contend there is little reason for alarm. Subir Gokarn, a deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India, the nation's central bank, said Wednesday that the onion price increase will be "very quickly rectified either through a new cycle of harvest coming in or the immediate import."

But the onion's potency as a political symbol trumps pure economics. Its recent price rise has dominated the news for the past two days. "Ever Had Biryani Without Onions?" screamed the headline on Wednesday's front page of the Mumbai-based tabloid Midday.

The government has responded as if this were a national emergency. Earlier this week, it banned exports for a month. On Wednesday, it extended that ban indefinitely and scrapped customs duties on imports of onions, asking state-run trading agencies to import them.

Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of the ruling Congress party, sought to reassure the nation. "We are going to make sure prices are lowered; leave it to the prime minister," he said, according to news channel NDTV.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for his part, has asked the agriculture minister to take the necessary steps to bring onion prices down, according to a letter from the prime minister's office released late Tuesday.

India is even looking to its regional rival Pakistan for relief. Pakistani traders plan to export 2,000 to 3,000 metric tons of onions to India to meet the shortage and already have exported around 1,000 tons in the past few days, said Abdul Wahid, a member of Pakistan's fruit and vegetable exporters association.


The government's concern isn't without reason. "If the government were to face elections anytime soon, it would surely get hurt," said S. Chandrasekharan, director of the New Delhi-based think tank South Asia Analysis Group, though he added that the government might not be damaged long-term because "the public memory is short."

The next major state elections are expected to take place mid-2011.

Mr. Singh's government already is facing severe criticism over recent revelations by a public auditing agency that an allotment of wireless-telephone spectrum in 2008 favored a few companies and caused a loss of as much as $40 billion in potential revenue for the government. The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and others managed to disrupt the entire winter session of Parliament, which ended last week, and have vowed to stay on the attack in coming months.

The onion's price rise has added another powerful weapon to the BJP's arsenal. Prakash Javadekar, a BJP spokesman, Wednesday blamed the onion price rise on government mismanagement and hoarding by traders.

Manish Tiwari, a spokesman for the Congress party, said the government is doing everything in its power to bring the price down.

That reduction can't happen soon enough for many households and onion sellers. At the Okhla vegetable market in Delhi on Wednesday, onion vendor Mohammed Chahvan lamented that until last week he used to sell daily about 30 bags, each containing 65 kilograms of onions. In the past two days, he has sold a total of about 10 bags, he said.

K. Bannerjee, a 71-year-old customer, said he was furious at the government's inability to control the onion price. "While onion and garlic are key items in Indian households, I can't believe that the country is short of stock," he said. "Since March, we have been hearing that the prices will fall but nothing has been done."

Others are finding cheaper alternatives. Dayal Singh, manager at Code, a Delhi restaurant, said his kitchen has switched to radishes in dishes, to try to replicate the onion's pungent effect. "We have to wait until prices come off by at least 40% from the current level to get back to our usual offering," he said.

Write to Romit Guha at and Abhrajit Gangopadhyay at

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

African land grab

The news from Africa just seems to get worse. Now there's an widespread effort to scoop up the continent's farm land by foreign governments as a hedge against their own declining agricultural resource base.

Is there no shame?(GW)

African Farmers Displaced as Investors Move In

By Neil MacFarquhar
New York Times
December 21, 2010

SOUMOUNI, Mali — The half-dozen strangers who descended on this remote West African village brought its hand-to-mouth farmers alarming news: their humble fields, tilled from one generation to the next, were now controlled by Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and the farmers would all have to leave.

“They told us this would be the last rainy season for us to cultivate our fields; after that, they will level all the houses and take the land,” said Mama Keita, 73, the leader of this village veiled behind dense, thorny scrubland. “We were told that Qaddafi owns this land.”

Across Africa and the developing world, a new global land rush is gobbling up large expanses of arable land. Despite their ageless traditions, stunned villagers are discovering that African governments typically own their land and have been leasing it, often at bargain prices, to private investors and foreign governments for decades to come.

Organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank say the practice, if done equitably, could help feed the growing global population by introducing large-scale commercial farming to places without it.

But others condemn the deals as neocolonial land grabs that destroy villages, uproot tens of thousands of farmers and create a volatile mass of landless poor. Making matters worse, they contend, much of the food is bound for wealthier nations.

“The food security of the country concerned must be first and foremost in everybody’s mind,” said Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, now working on the issue of African agriculture. “Otherwise it is straightforward exploitation and it won’t work. We have seen a scramble for Africa before. I don’t think we want to see a second scramble of that kind.”

A World Bank study released in September tallied farmland deals covering at least 110 million acres — the size of California and West Virginia combined — announced during the first 11 months of 2009 alone. More than 70 percent of those deals were for land in Africa, with Sudan, Mozambique and Ethiopia among those nations transferring millions of acres to investors.

Before 2008, the global average for such deals was less than 10 million acres per year, the report said. But the food crisis that spring, which set off riots in at least a dozen countries, prompted the spree. The prospect of future scarcity attracted both wealthy governments lacking the arable land needed to feed their own people and hedge funds drawn to a dwindling commodity.

“You see interest in land acquisition continuing at a very high level,” said Klaus Deininger, the World Bank economist who wrote the report, taking many figures from a Web site run by Grain, an advocacy organization, because governments would not reveal the agreements. “Clearly, this is not over.”

The report, while generally supportive of the investments, detailed mixed results. Foreign aid for agriculture has dwindled from about 20 percent of all aid in 1980 to about 5 percent now, creating a need for other investment to bolster production.

But many investments appear to be pure speculation that leaves land fallow, the report found. Farmers have been displaced without compensation, land has been leased well below value, those evicted end up encroaching on parkland and the new ventures have created far fewer jobs than promised, it said.

The breathtaking scope of some deals galvanizes opponents. In Madagascar, a deal that would have handed over almost half the country’s arable land to a South Korean conglomerate helped crystallize opposition to an already unpopular president and contributed to his overthrow in 2009.

People have been pushed off land in countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Zambia. It is not even uncommon for investors to arrive on land that was supposedly empty. In Mozambique, one investment company discovered an entire village with its own post office on what had been described as vacant land, said Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations food rapporteur.

In Mali, about three million acres along the Niger River and its inland delta are controlled by a state-run trust called the Office du Niger. In nearly 80 years, only 200,000 acres of the land have been irrigated, so the government considers new investors a boon.

“Even if you gave the population there the land, they do not have the means to develop it, nor does the state,” said Abou Sow, the executive director of Office du Niger.

He listed countries whose governments or private sectors have already made investments or expressed interest: China and South Africa in sugar cane; Libya and Saudi Arabia in rice; and Canada, Belgium, France, South Korea, India, the Netherlands and multinational organizations like the West African Development Bank.

In all, Mr. Sow said about 60 deals covered at least 600,000 acres in Mali, although some organizations said more than 1.5 million acres had been committed. He argued that the bulk of the investors were Malians growing food for the domestic market. But he acknowledged that outside investors like the Libyans, who are leasing 250,000 acres here, are expected to ship their rice, beef and other agricultural products home.

“What advantage would they gain by investing in Mali if they could not even take their own production?” Mr. Sow said.

As with many of the deals, the money Mali might earn from the leases remains murky. The agreement signed with the Libyans grants them the land for at least 50 years simply in exchange for developing it.

“The Libyans want to produce rice for Libyans, not for Malians,” said Mamadou Goita, the director of a nonprofit research organization in Mali. He and other opponents contend that the government is privatizing a scarce national resource without improving the domestic food supply, and that politics, not economics, are driving events because Mali wants to improve ties with Libya and others.

The huge tracts granted to private investors are many years from production. But officials noted that Libya already spent more than $50 million building a 24-mile canal and road, constructed by a Chinese company, benefiting local villages.

Every farmer affected, Mr. Sow added, including as many as 20,000 affected by the Libyan project, will receive compensation. “If they lose a single tree, we will pay them the value of that tree,” he said.

But anger and distrust run high. In a rally last month, hundreds of farmers demanded that the government halt such deals until they get a voice. Several said that they had been beaten and jailed by soldiers, but that they were ready to die to keep their land.

“The famine will start very soon,” shouted Ibrahima Coulibaly, the head of the coordinating committee for farmer organizations in Mali. “If people do not stand up for their rights, they will lose everything!”

“Ante!” members of the crowd shouted in Bamanankan, the local language. “We refuse!”

Kassoum Denon, the regional head for the Office du Niger, accused the Malian opponents of being paid by Western groups that are ideologically opposed to large-scale farming.

“We are responsible for developing Mali,” he said. “If the civil society does not agree with the way we are doing it, they can go jump in a lake.”

The looming problem, experts noted, is that Mali remains an agrarian society. Kicking farmers off the land with no alternative livelihood risks flooding the capital, Bamako, with unemployed, rootless people who could become a political problem.

“The land is a natural resource that 70 percent of the population uses to survive,” said Kalfo Sanogo, an economist at the United Nations Development Fund in Mali. “You cannot just push 70 percent of the population off the land, nor can you say they can just become agriculture workers.” In a different approach, a $224 million American project will help about 800 Malian farmers each acquire title to 12 acres of newly cleared land, protecting them against being kicked off.

Jon C. Anderson, the project director, argued that no country has developed economically with a large percentage of its population on farms. Small farmers with titles will either succeed or have to sell the land to finance another life, he said, though critics have said villagers will still be displaced.

“We want a revolutionized relationship between the farmer and the state, one where the farmer is more in charge,” Mr. Anderson said.

Soumouni sits about 20 miles from the nearest road, with wandering cattle herders in their distinctive pointed straw hats offering directions like, “Bear right at the termite mound with the hole in it.”

Sekou Traoré, 69, a village elder, was dumbfounded when government officials said last year that Libya now controlled his land and began measuring the fields. He had always considered it his own, passed down from grandfather to father to son.

“All we want before they break our houses and take our fields is for them to show us the new houses where we will live, and the new fields where we will work,” he said at the rally last month.

“We are all so afraid,” he said of the village’s 2,229 residents. “We will be the victims of this situation, we are sure of that.”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Divine or human intervention?

I have this ongoing debate with one of my friends about whether or not many people who attend church believe in a literal translation of the Bible. The Gallup poll confirms my suspicion. One has to wonder if this fact has anything to do with the general public's growing disbelief (at least in the U.S.) in human-induced climate change. Wouldn't that put human and divine intervention in conflict? (GW)

Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism

Belief in evolutionary origins of humans slowly rising, however

by Frank Newport
December 17, 2010

PRINCETON, NJ -- Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, while 16%, up slightly from years past, believe humans developed over millions of years, without God's involvement.

1982-2010 Trend: Views of Human Origins (Humans Evolved, With God Guiding; Humans Evolved Without God's Involvment; God Created Humans in Present Form)

A small minority of Americans hold the "secular evolution" view that humans evolved with no influence from God -- but the number has risen from 9% in 1982 to 16% today. At the same time, the 40% of Americans who hold the "creationist" view that God created humans as is 10,000 years ago is the lowest in Gallup's history of asking this question, and down from a high point of 47% in 1993 and 1999. There has been little change over the years in the percentage holding the "theistic evolution" view that humans evolved under God's guidance.

Americans' views on human origins vary significantly by level of education and religiosity. Those who are less educated are more likely to hold a creationist view. Those with college degrees and postgraduate education are more likely to hold one of the two viewpoints involving evolution.

December 2010 Views of Human Origins (Humans Evolved, With God Guiding; Humans Evolved Without God's Involvment; God Created Humans in Present Form) -- by Education

Americans who attend church frequently are most likely to accept explanations for the origin of humans that involve God, not a surprising finding. Still, the creationist viewpoint, held by 60% of weekly churchgoers, is not universal even among the most highly religious group. Also, about a fourth of those who seldom or never attend church choose the creationist view

December 2010 Views of Human Origins (Humans Evolved, With God Guiding; Humans Evolved Without God's Involvment; God Created Humans in Present Form) -- by Frequency of Church Attendance

The significantly higher percentage of Republicans who choose a creationist view of human origins reflects in part the strong relationship between religion and politics in contemporary America. Republicans are significantly more likely to attend church weekly than are others, and, as noted, Americans who attend church weekly are most likely to select the creationist alternative for the origin of humans.

December 2010 Views of Human Origins (Humans Evolved, With God Guiding; Humans Evolved Without God's Involvment; God Created Humans in Present Form) -- by Party


Most Americans believe in God, and about 85% have a religious identity. It is not surprising as a result to find that about 8 in 10 Americans hold a view of human origins that involves actions by God -- that he either created humans as depicted in the book of Genesis, or guided a process of evolution. What no doubt continues to surprise many scientists is that 4 out of 10 Americans believe in the first of these explanations.

These views have been generally stable over the last 28 years. Acceptance of the creationist viewpoint has decreased slightly over time, with a concomitant rise in acceptance of a secular evolution perspective. But these shifts have not been large, and the basic structure of beliefs about human beings' origins is generally the same as it was in the early 1980s.

Americans' attitudes about almost anything can and often do have political consequences. Views on the origins of humans are no exception. Debates and clashes over which explanations for human origins should be included in school textbooks have persisted for decades. With 40% of Americans continuing to hold to an anti-evolutionary belief about the origin of humans, it is highly likely that these types of debates will continue.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Dec. 10-12, 2010, with a random sample of 1,019 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

View methodology, full question results, and trend data.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

Monday, December 20, 2010

"CSI: Gulf of Mexico"

Back in the early 80's futurists Herman Kahn and Julian Simon co-wrote a book entitled "The Resourceful Earth". In it they argued that Mother Nature is incredibly resilient - she has, in fact, survived many naturally occurring events whose scale and magnitude make man-made assaults pale in comparison. Their basic theme was that we cannot destroy Nature.

Seems like the folks who run the oil industry and prosper handsomely from it would like us to believe that as well. Not so fast say researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. (GW)

Woods Hole scientists probe seafloor

WOODS HOLE — Consider it "CSI: Gulf of Mexico."

A team of scientists, including researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, spent 10 days this month exploring dead and dying coral on the seafloor near BP's ruptured Deepwater Horizon oil well, which leaked millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf.

The expedition was a collaborative effort that included personnel from Temple University and Pennsylvania State University and was funded by the National Science Foundation. The mission was to record the effects of the oil spill on plant and animal life in the deep sea and determine if the oil from BP's well — known as Macondo 252 — is to blame for the degradation of plants and animals living in the deep ocean.

"We're treating it like we effectively have a crime scene here," said Timothy Shank, a WHOI biologist and co-investigator on the expedition.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred on April 20 and is one of the worst in history. According to the WHOI expedition website, the well spewed 152 million gallons of oil into the Gulf over three months before it was capped.

Laying the groundwork

Chris Reddy, a WHOI marine chemist who has studied the Gulf oil spill at length, did not participate in the trip but said the work his colleagues are doing is "unprecedented," because an oil spill of this magnitude has never occurred in the deep ocean.

Reddy, who served as a national spokesman for WHOI in the months following the Gulf spill, said identifying where the oil went and the potential impacts on deep-sea ecosystems is a crucial component to the area's eventual recovery.

It also provides scientists a "living laboratory" in which they can view how sea life responds if it has been exposed to oil, Reddy said.

"This investigation will help lay the groundwork regarding the damage and how this might affect the rest of the Gulf and on what scale," Reddy said. "It's hard to find a silver lining in this awful cloud, but at the end of the day, we have an opportunity to expand science and help decision-makers make new policy."

The team found dead and dying coral covered in a "brown substance" roughly seven miles southwest of the spill site, at a depth of approximately 4,500 feet, Shank said.

They used the famed submersible Alvin to view the corals firsthand and collect evidence. The samples retrieved from the site show "a mixture of characters that suggest impact," such as "tissue sloughing off and exposed skeleton," Shank said.

Although tests have not officially determined what the substance is or why the coral is dying, Shank said it is a curious sight.

"Coral secretes mucous, so we thought maybe it's just stressed out from predators," he said. "But the reality is we've never seen the brown stuff before."

Robots down under

But before scientists could determine what, if any, damage was caused by the spill, Shank said they first had to know where to look.

The most effective way to accomplish that was a two-pronged approach using a pair of WHOI's most valuable submersibles — Alvin and Sentry.

Alvin — famous for being used to explore RMS Titanic in 1986 — is a manned submersible that allows scientists to explore at depths of up to 2.8 miles.

But before Alvin goes in the water, the autonomous Sentry paves the way.

Operating at depths of 3 miles, Sentry can travel on its own for nearly an entire day. Using sonar and an array of sensors, it laboriously maps the sea floor and lets the Alvin researchers know where they should dive.

This is important, Shank said, because 90 percent of the Gulf's seafloor is mud. But the coral communities sought by researchers are on the "hard bottom," Shank said.

Even though Alvin gathered samples, those samples are essentially useless without an understanding of the underwater community's biological processes.

Prolonged observations of the way these animals colonize, grow, reproduce and die is critical when attempting to understand how they may recover from an oil spill, or not.

Researchers were hoping to gather that knowledge by picking up a sediment trap placed at the site in June. As any potential oil or dispersants drifted down to the seafloor, the trap was supposed to collect it to give scientists insight into how material accumulates on the ocean bottom.

But when the trap was retrieved, Shank said, water seeped into the pressure housing that protects the control unit. As a result, none of the bottles rotated into position, and no samples were collected.

Seeing eye

Although the result was disappointing, a time-lapse camera was set up at the site that will take a picture every hour for the next two months, Shank said. Researchers will then be able to see either the stages of death or how the coral colonies recover step by step.

With all the attention the BP spill received, Shank admitted his crew felt "the eyes of the nation upon us."

Strict protocols and chains of custody were developed for all samples hauled up from the deep, and everything was documented and imaged several times over, Shank said.

Pictures and videos could not be altered in any way and had to be turned over to the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration program, Shank said. Researchers were told to be mindful of documenting everything so that it would stand up in a court of law if necessary.

Crew members had no communication with BP officials during the expedition, Shank said, and will report their findings without bias.

"Things were much more complex and difficult than we're used to, but no one was complaining," Shank said. "We're all here to do the right thing."

Tests on the coral are expected to released in the next few weeks, Shank said, and he is already trying to plan a trip back to the Gulf in February to retrieve the time-lapse camera.

mission at a glance


  • 23 feet long, 12 feet tall, 8.5 feet wide
  • Weight: 37,000 pounds
  • Dives up to 2.8 miles deep
  • Travels at speed of 2 knots
  • Allows scientists up to 11 hours under water


  • 10 feet long, 6 feet tall, 7 feet wide
  • Weight: 2,750 pounds
  • Dives up to 3.1 miles deep
  • Travels at speed of 2.3 knots
  • Operates for 24 hours at a time

For more information and a day-by-day description of the mission, go to

Copyright © Cape Cod Media Group, a division of Ottaway Newspapers, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Double booking without conflict?

Truth continues to be stranger (well, at least as strange) as fiction. (GW)

Einstein was right, you can be in two places at once

By Steve Connor
The Independent
December 17, 2010

A device that exists in two different states at the same time, and coincidentally proves that Albert Einstein was right when he thought he was wrong, has been named as the scientific breakthrough of the year.

The machine, consisting of a sliver of wafer-thin metal, is the first man-made device to be governed by the mysterious quantum forces that operate at the level of atoms and sub-atomic particles.

Normal, everyday objects obey the laws of conventional Newtonian physics, named after Sir Isaac Newton, but these rules break down on the sub-atomic scale and a whole new branch of theoretical physics had to be invented to explain what happens on this sub-microscopic level.

Einstein was the first to embrace quantum physics but later rejected it on the grounds that it made everything unpredictable – "God does not play dice with the universe," he famously stated.

However, a range of effects has been recorded over the past few years that can only be explained by quantum mechanics and in March scientists were able to build the first device that seemed to follow the quantum rules that Einstein was the first to realise applied to light waves.

The breakthrough, recognised by the journal Science as the most significant this year, opens the way to a range of practical developments such as quantum computers that are far faster than conventional processors and which could never be hacked into because they handle and transmit data using an unbreakable form of encryption.

"Quantum theory dictates that a very tiny thing can absorb energy only in discrete amounts, can never sit perfectly still, and can literally be in two places at once," said Adrian Cho, a writer for Science. "This represents the first time that scientists have demonstrated quantum effects in the motion of a human-made object. It opens up a variety of possibilities ranging from new experiments that meld quantum control over light, electrical currents and motion to, perhaps someday, tests of the bounds of quantum mechanics and our sense of reality."

The breakthrough was achieved by physicists Andrew Cleland and John Martinis from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Their machine consisted of a tiny metal paddle made of semiconductor material just visible to the naked eye. By supercooling the device to just above absolute zero (minus 273C), then raising its energy by a "single quantum", they made it vibrate by getting thicker and thinner at a frequency of some 6 billion times a second, producing a detectable electric current. They even managed to get it to vibrate in two energy states at once, both a lot and a little – a phenomenon allowed only by the rules of quantum mechanics.

"Physicists still haven't achieved a two-places-at-once state with a tiny object like this one," Mr Cho said. "But now that they have reached this simplest state of quantum motion, it seems a whole lot more obtainable."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"...these are certainly the largest construction projects ever undertaken in the world"

Round 3 of the U.K.'s ambitious offshore wind initiative is indicative of the scale of renewable energy projects that will be necessary to meet the European Union's aggressive goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within time frames that can effectively mitigate the worst-case climate change scenarios.

This appears to be at odds with the "Small as Beautiful" philosophy that guided the creation of the appropriate technology movement in the U.S. back in the 1970's.

Perhaps the two can be reconciled if we can craft a truly sustainable industrial revolution that revitalizes manufacturing leading to the creation of community-saving jobs as part of a network of green supply chains. (GW)

Giant windfarms are lifting hopes – but could the east coast miss the boat?

Ports such as Grimsby hope to cash in on the turbines boom but fear others may profit

By David Conn
17 December 2010

In an airless Westminster committee room this week a shirtsleeved energy secretary came close to promising the earth. Laying out government plans to make renewable electricity more profitable to produce than smokestack, greenhouse gas-producing power, Chris Huhne said the market reforms would mark "a seismic shift" towards cleaner energy, underlining David Cameron's vow to be "the greenest government ever".

Up on the windy north-east coast, recession-lashed ports such as Grimsby and Hull have been eyeing the prospect of building huge windfarms for the North Sea for many years now.

But here at the sharp end they remain to be convinced that Huhne's long-term changes to the market are quite the kick-start that is needed to revolutionise the UK's industrial future.

Throughout the UK it is striking how unaware most people are of the enormous scale and ambition of Britain's planned "round 3" offshore windfarms.

Thanet, a "round 2" site with 100 turbines so far, located about seven miles off Foreness Point, Kent, opened two months ago and is now the largest offshore windfarm in the world. Yet it is a mere drop in the North Sea compared to the nine "round 3" sites set out on the coastal map produced by Crown Estates, which owns the rights to British waters.

The three sites to the east of Britain are on a staggering scale. Dogger Bank, off the Yorkshire coast, will fill close to 3,475 square miles, with 1,700 wind turbines. The Norfolk windfarm will cover an area larger than the county itself, while Hornsea, off Grimsby and the Humber, will be nearly as wide as England is from Hull to Liverpool.

"Looked at in their entirety," said the energy specialist Andrew Reid, of consultants Douglas Westwood, "these are certainly the largest construction projects ever undertaken in the world."

The mammoth windfarms are designed to generate sufficient electricity to meet the EU target for 30% of the UK's energy to come from renewables by 2020. More than that, for a country still figuring out how to rebuild a working economy from the wreckage of the banking crisis, renewables promise industrial reinvention.

Grimsby has held on to chemical manufacturing, steel production and food processing, but is still reeling from the collapse of fishing. The town views work on the windfarms as a natural extension of its marine tradition, and down on the docks, you find weathered industrial companies, former fishermen and the local council all hungry for it to start in earnest.

Kurt Christensen, who was born in Denmark and moved to Grimsby in 1955 with his fisherman father, left school at 15 and spent his life in the fishing industry, before the 1970s cod wars and, later, overfishing and quotas, meant the Grimsby boats dwindling from 450 to almost none. "In its heyday, Grimsby was a profitable town," he said. "Fishing was flourishing and people made a lot of money. The industry died by a thousand cuts, people lost their jobs, boats were decommissioned, and there was a lot of heartbreak."

Still involved in selling fish, he watched the "round 1" windfarms, Lynn and Inner Dowsing, take shape off Skegness, and dived in. He bought two boats, and secured a contract with the industrial company Siemens, supporting operation and maintenance work on the turbines as well as servicing the "floating hotel" ship for workers at sea.

"Fishermen are resilient, incredibly hard-working. People always looked for new work. We never became a call-centre town," Christensen said, an assertion you hear everywhere in Grimsby. "Offshore wind offers a great opportunity for people to work again in a real industry, and we feel the town deserves it."

Green shoots are visible. Lincs, a large "round 2" site, is under construction, the energy company Centrica is planning an operation and maintenance plant on Grimsby docks, and at the Catch industrial college, three apprenticeships have been created to train electrical engineers for the turbines.

The area of vast opportunity, though, is "round 3". In the Grimsby and Humber area 25,000 precious jobs could be generated, according to North East Lincolnshire council.

Scratch a little, however, and you find impatience with the government. Many people feel the government should lead solidly, not just reshape the market. There is, too, fury with the banks, for withholding finance from small firms. Christensen, despite his years of marine experience and contract with Siemens, could not get a loan from any bank. So, at the age of 56, he remortgaged his house. "Don't count on anything from the banks," he said. "Companies from overseas, particularly Denmark and Germany, are queuing to get involved in our waters, and it would be tragic if we don't make the most of this."

The government has already promised £60m in grants to upgrade whichever port Siemens selects as the site for a huge turbine manufacturing plant. Both banks of the Humber are vying for it: Able UK has earmarked a site on the south bank near Immingham, while Associated British Ports plans a "green port" on Hull's Alexandra dock.

In his smart new offices on a Grimsby business park, Winston Phillips assessed the situation. He is managing director of renewables for Cosalt, the only plc based in Grimsby. It began life in 1873 as The Great Grimsby Coal, Salt and Tanning Company, and between the wars was the world's largest fishing equipment supplier. Now it specialises in marine again, employing 45 technicians to service windfarms for Siemens. Phillips says the government should be more active and co-ordinate the emerging industry; otherwise British firms, and towns like Grimsby, will not secure enough of the work generating electricity off the UK coast.

"I went to a renewables conference recently attended by manufacturers and consultants," he said. "All the manufacturers were overseas companies – German, Danish, where the governments have invested heavily in industry. But all the consultants were British."

One of those consultants, Reid, calculates that just one 10th of all the investment made in UK offshore windfarms has so far gone to British firms. "Continental companies have typically won around 90% of contracts," he said. Alongside Siemens, big manufacturers committing to the east coast include GE, a US company, and Gamesa, based in Spain. There are concerns that unless "round 3" moves more quickly, smaller British companies will find it difficult to be involved even in the supply chain. "The government here is leaving everything to private companies and the market. But we need certainty. There is too little vision or leadership," said Phillips.

Sam Pick, a consultant with the Renewables Network, which represents smaller firms in the Grimsby area, agrees. He is sceptical about the government's planned "green investment bank", which Huhne admitted this week would not open any time soon. "Companies need to gear up now. We have heard constantly about the green investment bank, but it does not exist, and mainstream banks are not lending, even to people doing everything they can to be part of this revolution."

The view from the steel yard

The cold, muddy yard of the steel fabricating company SC4, in the shadow of the old Corus plant at Scunthorpe - now owned by Indian company Tata – seems another world from the air of satisfaction in Huhne's Westminster.

Shay Eddie's father, Edwin, started the business in 1983; it has survived the decimation of the steel industry, but this recession, Eddie grimaces, is "the worst we've ever seen," because the banks, hit themselves, have withdrawn finance.

"Three of our customers went bust last week," says Eddie, plain and factual. "It's like being in a forest fire, and it has accelerated since the government's cuts were announced in October."

Pointing with pride to men working on heavy equipment secured before the credit lines were cut, fabricating steel for customers including London's 2012 Olympic Stadium and Crossrail, Eddie reflects on the dilemma for companies like his. They can see great projects planned, at sea, but cannot do anything to touch them.

"There is work out there for generations," he says. "I'm banging the drum; we've been to every meeting and exhibition going. But the banks have cut off the lifeblood, and companies are going to the wall. The government talks about our industry, this area, being able to benefit, but it needs action fast. We're surviving by the skin of our teeth. It could be last man standing gets the work."

Wind rush gathers momentum

The sheer scale of the oil and gas industry shocked people when it arrived in Britain in the 1970s. Whole regions were transformed; remote places became sites of frantic industrial activity. In the rush, fortunes, and mistakes, were made.

The offshore wind energy revolution may be just as shocking.

The giant wind farms expected to be built in the second and third rounds of commissioning from 2014 onwards will need a new generation of ports. Thousands of miles of cable will have to be laid. The industry expects to spend £2.4bn just on new service craft.

So far, 25 British ports have registered to become "windports". Some are already beginning to feel the wind rush.

"In the next 10 years Britain will have to build around 50 times more offshore than it has so far to meet its 2020 target," said Nick Medic of the British Wind Energy Association. "People have no idea how big this project is. It will be colossal ... as transformative as the building of the rail systems."

But he admits it comes at an environmental price. The long road from fossil fuels to a greener Britain will be rancorous and full of surprises. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gimme Shelter

I'm old enough to remember going through "Duck and Hide" exercises in elementary school. I could never reconcile how crouching underneath my desk and placing my hands over my head would protect me from the impacts of those huge destructive mushroom clouds whose images I'd seen on TV.

I also remember asking myself "would I want to survive?" (GW)

U.S. Rethinks Strategy for the Unthinkable

By William J. Broad
New York Times
December 15, 2010

Suppose the unthinkable happened, and terrorists struck New York or another big city with an atom bomb. What should people there do? The government has a surprising new message: Do not flee. Get inside any stable building and don’t come out till officials say it’s safe.

The advice is based on recent scientific analyses showing that a nuclear attack is much more survivable if you immediately shield yourself from the lethal radiation that follows a blast, a simple tactic seen as saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Even staying in a car, the studies show, would reduce casualties by more than 50 percent; hunkering down in a basement would be better by far.

But a problem for the Obama administration is how to spread the word without seeming alarmist about a subject that few politicians care to consider, let alone discuss. So officials are proceeding gingerly in a campaign to educate the public.

“We have to get past the mental block that says it’s too terrible to think about,” W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview. “We have to be ready to deal with it” and help people learn how to “best protect themselves.”

Officials say they are moving aggressively to conduct drills, prepare communication guides and raise awareness among emergency planners of how to educate the public.

Over the years, Washington has sought to prevent nuclear terrorism and limit its harm, mainly by governmental means. It has spent tens of billions of dollars on everything from intelligence and securing nuclear materials to equipping local authorities with radiation detectors.

The new wave is citizen preparedness. For people who survive the initial blast, the main advice is to fight the impulse to run and instead seek shelter from lethal radioactivity. Even a few hours of protection, officials say, can greatly increase survival rates.

Administration officials argue that the cold war created an unrealistic sense of fatalism about a terrorist nuclear attack. “It’s more survivable than most people think,” said an official deeply involved in the planning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The key is avoiding nuclear fallout.”

The administration is making that argument with state and local authorities and has started to do so with the general public as well. Its Citizen Corps Web site says a nuclear detonation is “potentially survivable for thousands, especially with adequate shelter and education.” A color illustration shows which kinds of buildings and rooms offer the best protection from radiation.

In June, the administration released to emergency officials around the nation an unclassified planning guide 130 pages long on how to respond to a nuclear attack. It stressed citizen education, before any attack.

Without that knowledge, the guide added, “people will be more likely to follow the natural instinct to run from danger, potentially exposing themselves to fatal doses of radiation.”

Specialists outside of Washington are divided on the initiative. One group says the administration is overreacting to an atomic threat that is all but nonexistent.

Peter Bergen, a fellow at the New America Foundation and New York University’s Center on Law and Security, recently argued that the odds of any terrorist group obtaining a nuclear weapon are “near zero for the foreseeable future.”

But another school says that the potential consequences are so high that the administration is, if anything, being too timid.

“There’s no penetration of the message coming out of the federal government,” said Irwin Redlener, a doctor and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “It’s deeply frustrating that we seem unable to bridge the gap between the new insights and using them to inform public policy.”

White House officials say they are aware of the issue’s political delicacy but are nonetheless moving ahead briskly.

The administration has sought “to enhance national resilience — to withstand disruption, adapt to change and rapidly recover,” said Brian Kamoie, senior director for preparedness policy at the National Security Council. He added, “We’re working hard to involve individuals in the effort so they become part of the team in terms of emergency management.”

A nuclear blast produces a blinding flash, burning heat and crushing wind. The fireball and mushroom cloud carry radioactive particles upward, and the wind sends them near and far.

The government initially knew little about radioactive fallout. But in the 1950s, as the cold war intensified, scientists monitoring test explosions learned that the tiny particles throbbed with fission products — fragments of split atoms, many highly radioactive and potentially lethal.

But after a burst of interest in fallout shelters, the public and even the government grew increasingly skeptical about civil defense as nuclear arsenals grew to hold thousands of warheads.

In late 2001, a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, the director of central intelligence told President George W. Bush of a secret warning that Al Qaeda had hidden an atom bomb in New York City. The report turned out to be false. But atomic jitters soared.

“History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act,” Mr. Bush said in late 2002.

In dozens of programs, his administration focused on prevention but also dealt with disaster response and the acquisition of items like radiation detectors.

“Public education is key,” Daniel J. Kaniewski, a security expert at George Washington University, said in an interview. “But it’s easier for communities to buy equipment — and look for tech solutions — because there’s Homeland Security money and no shortage of contractors to supply the silver bullet.”

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 revealed the poor state of disaster planning, public and private officials began to question national preparedness for atomic strikes. Some noted conflicting federal advice on whether survivors should seek shelter or try to evacuate.

In 2007, Congress appropriated $5.5 million for studies on atomic disaster planning, noting that “cities have little guidance available to them.”

The Department of Homeland Security financed a multiagency modeling effort led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The scientists looked at Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other big cities, using computers to simulate details of the urban landscape and terrorist bombs.

The results were revealing. For instance, the scientists found that a bomb’s flash would blind many drivers, causing accidents and complicating evacuation.

The big surprise was how taking shelter for as little as several hours made a huge difference in survival rates.

“This has been a game changer,” Brooke Buddemeier, a Livermore health physicist, told a Los Angeles conference. He showed a slide labeled “How Many Lives Can Sheltering Save?”

If people in Los Angeles a mile or more from ground zero of an attack took no shelter, Mr. Buddemeier said, there would be 285,000 casualties from fallout in that region.

Taking shelter in a place with minimal protection, like a car, would cut that figure to 125,000 deaths or injuries, he said. A shallow basement would further reduce it to 45,000 casualties. And the core of a big office building or an underground garage would provide the best shelter of all.

“We’d have no significant exposures,” Mr. Buddemeier told the conference, and thus virtually no casualties from fallout.

On Jan. 16, 2009 — four days before Mr. Bush left office — the White House issued a 92-page handbook lauding “pre-event preparedness.” But it was silent on the delicate issue of how to inform the public.

Soon after Mr. Obama arrived at the White House, he embarked a global campaign to fight atomic terrorism and sped up domestic planning for disaster response. A senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the new administration began a revision of the Bush administration’s handbook to address the issue of public communication.

“We started working on it immediately,” the official said. “It was recognized as a key part of our response.”

The agenda hit a speed bump. Las Vegas was to star in the nation’s first live exercise meant to simulate a terrorist attack with an atom bomb, the test involving about 10,000 emergency responders. But casinos and businesses protested, as did Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. He told the federal authorities that it would scare away tourists.

Late last year, the administration backed down.

“Politics overtook preparedness,” said Mr. Kaniewski of George Washington University.

When the administration came out with its revised planning guide in June, it noted that “no significant federal response” after an attack would be likely for one to three days.

The document said that planners had an obligation to help the public “make effective decisions” and that messages for predisaster campaigns might be tailored for schools, businesses and even water bills.

“The most lives,” the handbook said, “will be saved in the first 60 minutes through sheltering in place.”