Saturday, April 30, 2005

The New York Times > Science > Environment > The Oceans, He Says Firmly, Attention Must Be Paid

Dr. Jeremy Jackson has devoted his career to getting people to pay attention to the oceans. In scientific journals, in talks at places as diverse as Unesco headquarters and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Dr. Jackson tells everyone around about a world slipping into ecological degradation.

From the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, where he directs the Geosciences Research Division, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, or STRI, where he has a part-time appointment, Dr. Jackson has deplored declines in coral reefs, the virtual disappearance of large marine fish and losses of coastal and marine ecosystems. He helped create a Web site,, to point out that the changes people saw in their 20th-century lifetimes were just small snapshots in a larger picture of environmental decline that has been accelerating for 200 years.

In March, he and colleagues published a call to arms in the journal Science on behalf of the world's corals. In many areas, they say, "degraded reefs are little more than rubble, seaweed and slime."

They called on scientists to stop arguing about the relative importance of overfishing, pollution, climate change and other causes of coral death and instead to work together to turn things around. And they told them how to do it, in an accompanying list of recommended actions.

"He is a rock star," said Daniel P. Schrag, director of the Harvard Center for the Environment, who said he stopped eating farm-raised salmon after hearing Dr. Jackson thoroughly denounce aquaculture.

"This is someone who has deep insight into food webs and physical and biological ocean processes and marine ecology, and a deep understanding of geological time," Dr. Schrag said. "He looks at the modern record and the last few centuries of spectacular and terrifying decline with deep understanding."

Hearing Dr. Jackson describe the problems of the oceans made Dr. Schrag think about ways to tell people about climate, his own area of specialty. "His ability to communicate what's going on inspired me," Dr. Schrag said. "He's my hero."

It was Jackson's own his daughter who turned him into a public crusadeer. His scholarly papers had been met with wide acclaim, but he was brought up short when his daughter told him, "You know, Papa, no one at my school has ever heard of the problem of overfishing. "

That was what inspired him to help organize Its aim, he said, is to convey important information with humor - because "people have only so much tolerance for dead fish." The site includes short films, a blog, links to studies and news articles, information on events relating to marine ecology and even a photo, produced by the site's co-founder Randy Olsen, showing what Mount Rushmore would look like if it represented the Jackson Five - Jesse, Michael, Andrew, Shoeless Joe and Jeremy.

Progress is slow, Jackson says, but "the fact that more attention is being paid to the oceans is good."

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

There was an interesting juxtaposition of articles today, one about the consequences of farming the wrong way, and one about an example of farming the right way.

A team of scientists from Texas A&M University, Texas A&M at Galveston, Louisiana State University and NASA recently surveyed the the northern Gulf of Mexico where low oxygen "dead zones" have been appearing in recent years and their findings show that the area's water contains lower oxygen levels than expected this time of year.

"During January and February of this year, the flow of the Mississippi River was larger than at any time in 2004," DiMarco explains. "That means the stratification levels between the fresh river water and heavier salt water could results in increased hypoxia, which creates the dead zone."

Hypoxia is a term for extremely low levels of oxygen concentrations in water. Hypoxia can result in fish kills and can severely impact other forms of marine life where it is present.

The dead zone area covers about 6,000 square miles in the Gulf.

The dead zone is located along the Louisiana coast where the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers empty into the gulf. The dead zone area typically develops in late spring and early summer following the spring flood stage of the rivers, which bring large amounts of nutrients – often in the form of fertilizer – into the Gulf of Mexico.

The dead zones are the result of the growth of corporate mono-crop farming. Planting the same crop year after year depletes the soil of nutrients which have to be replaced by using large amounts of nitrogen rich fertilizer. When the excess fertilizer washes off the lands, down the rivers to the sea, the nitrogen reacts with oxygen in the water creating low oxygen areas where marine life can no longer live.

Corporate farming follows the same linear path that any other corporate enterprise follows--extraction, production, consumption, waste. In this case, the waste is killing the oceans.

A more circular farming model, one that follows the regernerative, circular path that nature itself follows, comes--in all places--from a n urban farm in a West Berkeley backyard. Run by Jim Montgomery and Mateo Rutherford, the 6,000 square foot yard holds everything from apple trees to tomato vines, rabbits to goats, and chickens to domesticated pigeons.

"What we take from the garden and animals goes into the kitchen, and garden waste goes to the animals," Montgomery said. Without pause, Rutherford added, "And the animal waste goes into the garden." ...

"The value we have as a household is attempting to live sustainably in the world today," Montgomery said. Pointing out that the mere transportation of food from where it is grown and raised on industrial farms to urban centers necessitates the burning of great amounts of petroleum, he said, "We're growing a victory garden against having to use so much oil."

Rutherford has also started the Network of Backyard Urban Gardeners, a newsgroup to facilitate produce exchange between like-minded growers. In the meantime, the eggs, milk, cheese and startlingly fresh salads will just keep coming.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Kenya looks underground for power

In frica's Rift Valley, a giant fissure in the Earth's crust running 9,500km from Lebanon to Mozambique. The plumes of escaping steam, and bubbling lakes, hint of volcanic turmoil beneath the surface. Experts from the United Nations say if this geothermal energy were harnessed, it could provide power to some of the world's poorest nations. Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda, and even Zambia have the potential to tap in. But so far, Kenya is the only nation which has made headway.

Kenya's Ol Karia station is the continent's biggest geothermal power-generating plant. It takes its name from a nearby volcano, which erupted 150 years ago and is still active. Here there are 22 wells across the site, piercing the Earth's crust, and tapping into rock as hot as 345C deep below the surface. Water pumped into the well produces steam, which powers the turbines.

But even Kenya has been slow to exploit this resource. Potential sites could be identified and millions of dollars spent drilling wells, but the result could be zero. The consistency of heat or the rock type may not be suitable for geothermal electricity. This unpredictability makes African governments nervous. Unep, through its Global Environment Facility, is trying to help with the costs and to encourage private investors.

Geothermal energy should be a potential source of power in other parts of the word. The Pacific Rim, circled with volcanoes, seems like one obvious spot for exploitation. Even the U.S. should have the potential to exploit this resource.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

EU Lawmakers Want Higher Energy Use Cut in 2006-15

While the U.S. continues to consume ever more amounts of energy, as though racing China to see which nation can consume the last bits of cheap hydrocarbons, Europe has been working on building its renewable energy sources. Now it is increasing its goals for cutting energy consumption as well.

Europe should cut energy use by 11.5 percent over the period 2006-2015 to save supplies and reduce global warming, an EU lawmaker said on Thursday, increasing the burden on EU states to be energy efficient.

EU lawmakers sitting in the European Parliament's industry committee voted late on Wednesday to raise the energy saving requirements in a draft proposal from the earlier target of a 10 percent cut in energy use until 2015.

Unlike leaders in the U.S., the Europeans have a clue.

Monday, April 18, 2005

New research by the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (Odac) claims that after 2007, not enough major new fields will come on stream to offset declines.

“Our latest research confirms solidly our view that we cannot see any reasonable circumstances under which new supplies from expected mega oil projects could possibly meet world demand by 2008,” said a spokesman for London-based Odac.

Chris Skrebowski, a board member of Odac, has analysed all planned oil field projects worldwide with reserves of more than 500 million barrels and concluded that, on current timetables, output from new fields will be insufficient to offset more major oil producers moving into net production decline.

Already there are 18 major producers and 32 smaller ones in decline, adding up to 29% of world production. The Odac report calculated future scenarios based on a range of forecasts of annual world demand growth, ranging from modest expectations of 1% per
annum up to 3%. Last year, global oil demand grew by 3.3%, fuelled largely by China. If demand continues to rise at this rate then, by 2008, the world will face a shortfall of one million barrels per day.

Adding to the problem, shortage of skilled workers is thrreatening to throw new developments behind schedule. Sir Ian Wood, chairman and chief executive of Aberdeen-based energy services business Wood Group, said the people shortage has forced some contracting companies to stop bidding for work.

Skrebowski said if projects fall significantly behind schedule, he cannot guarantee that supply and demand will be in balance in 2007 and that, in any case, “by 2008 it all starts to go pear-shaped”. He will detail his findings at a conference in Edinburgh on April 25.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

This one is worth sitting up and taking notice of--

IEA warns against possible acute oil shortage

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has come to the conclusion that the world economy is facing a serious threat of acute oil shortage. IEA experts have prepared a special report, due to be published within a few weeks, in which they warn the key oil consuming countries about the need for immediately taking tough energy-saving measures, if the daily oil supply to the world market is reduced by one to two million barrels.

The measures, suggested by IEA, include the reduction of a working week, a ban on using privately owned vehicles, the introduction of a 90-kilometre speed limit, the reduction of public transport fare and the encouragement of staff members to work at home, using Internet.

The conclusions drawn by the IEA experts reflect their growing concern over the macroeconomic dynamics taking shape on the world oil market. According to the information of Itar-Tass, the latest studies show that oil shortage will become more and more acute within the coming few months.

As a result of it, IEA insists now on the changing of one of its basic principles. Its founding documents say that tough energy-saving measures should be taken by oil consuming countries, if oil deliveries to the world market are reduced by 7 per cent, which is now equal to six million barrels a day. IEA is going to reduce the amount to one or two million barrels.

The report, prepared by IEA, will be submitted for discussion at a meeting of ministers of energy of the IEA member countries, which will be held next month.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Next year, the administration will phase out the $2,000 tax credit for buying a hybrid vehicle, which gets over 50 miles per gallon, but will leave in place the $25,000 tax write-off for a Hummer, which gets 10-12 mpg.

There's really nothing more you can say about that news item. It speaks for itself.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Disappearing Lakes, Shrinking Seas

West Africa’s Lake Chad has shrunk to a mere 5 percent of its former size. Central Asia’s Aral Sea is shrinking, gradually turning into desert. In Israel, the receding shores of Lake Tiberias—also known as the Sea of Galilee—sometimes allow mere mortals to walk where the water once was. Thousands of lakes in China have disappeared entirely. The diversion of river water in India and Pakistan that allowed for a doubling of irrigated area over the last four decades has depleted many lakes. All told, more than half of the world’s 5 million lakes are endangered.

The world's water problem is even more frightening than the immanent peaking of oil production--but somehow the water crisis has not gotten the attention that oil has. There is no Association for the Study of Water Depletion.

Over the last half-century world water use has tripled, growing even faster than the population. Irrigation accounts for two thirds of all global water use. Over the last half century the "green revolution" has expanded farming lands into marginal areas, some of which are now using as much as 120 percent of yearly water supply.

The result is plainly visible for anyone who cares to look. Tha Aral Seas has lost four fifths of its volume, receding as much as 250 kilometers, leaving behind a salty desert. The U.N. estimates that every day 200,000 tons of salt and sand are blown from the uncovered seabed and dumped on nearby farmland, destroying the land's ability to support agriculture.

In Africa, Lake Chad has shrunk by 95 percent over the last 35 years. China's Hebei province has lost 969 of 1,052 lates. China's Qinhai province once had 4,077 lakes, but over the last 20 years more than half have disappeared. Mono Lake, North America's oldest, has lost 40 percent of its volume as more and more water has been diverted to Los Angeles. Mexico’s largest lake, Chapala, is the primary source of water for Guadalajara’s growing population of 5 million. This lake’s long-term decline began in the 1970s, corresponding with increased agricultural development in the Río Lerma watershed. Since then, the lake has lost more than 80 percent of its water.

Peak Oil people talk of a "die off" once oil production goes into permanent decline. How much more dangerous it the disappearance of so many sources of fresh water?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

News on the supply side and the demand side.

Canadian auto manufacturers have reached a voluntary agreement with the government on a plan that would reduce annual gas emissions for Canadian vehicles by 5.3 million tons by 2010. To achieve the regulations, the Canadian automobile industry will promote a variety of fuel-saving and emerging technologies, Natural Resources Canada said in a statement. The industry will also encourage the use of alternative fuels such as ethanol, clean diesel and biodiesel.

The pact was possibly stimulated by California's adoption last year of the world's toughest vehicle-emissions standards, designed to cut exhaust emissions in cars and light trucks by 25 percent by 2016. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, however, has filed a federal lawsuit, claiming the regulations are too rigid. Seven other states are adopting similar measures.

It may be that, in Canada, the auto industry is looking for the best deal it can get in the face of a growing tide of state regulation.

"The automakers will find it financially impossible to make one clean set of cars for eight states and Canada and a dirty set for the rest," said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program. "Eight plus one equals 50."

On the supply side scientists from Australia and Oregon may have figured out an efficient way not only to recover that lost energy, but to at long last capture the power-producing potential of geothermal heat.

Thermoelectric materials try to recover this energy by converting it to electricity, but they don't work very well if the flow of heat is uncontrolled. The breakthrough presented by Humphrey and Linke involves controlling the motion of electrons using materials that are structured on the nanoscale.

"The idea is to play one type of non-equilibrium (the temperature difference) against another one," Linke explains.

Humphrey and Linke have shown that if an electrical voltage is applied to an electrical system in addition to a temperature difference, it is possible to harness electrons having a specific energy. This means that if a nanostructured material is designed to only allow electrons with this particular energy to flow, a novel type of equilibrium is achieved in which electrons do not spontaneously ferry heat from hot to cold.

"This delicate balance may have huge practical importance because it means that thermoelectric devices, which use electrical contact between hot and cold regions in a semiconductor to transform heat into useful electrical energy, can be operated near equilibrium," says Humphrey. "This is a key requirement for cranking up their efficiency toward the Carnot limit, the maximum efficiency possible for any heat engine."

Because the system is in a state of equilibrium, the flow of electrons is reversible, Humphrey explains, noting that reversibility allows the device to reach maximum possible efficiency.

Until now, the efficiency of such devices, which have no moving parts and can be small enough to fit on a microchip, has been too low (less than 15 percent of the Carnot limit for power generation) for use in all but a few specialized applications.

However, Linke and Humphrey say implementation of their design principle is possible by tailoring the electronic bandstructure in state-of-the-art thermoelectric materials made up of a huge number of nanowires. If all goes well, nanostructured thermoelectric devices with efficiencies close to 50 percent of the Carnot limit may be realized, Linke says.

Such materials could make possible the generation of electricity from geothermal sources -- or from the waste heat of engines in hybrid cars, he explains.

In non technical terms, we lose less to entropy and gain more in electricity.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Environment Put Center Stage at Corporations' Annual Meetings

Shareholders, up until now the largely silent owners of the means of production, are increasingly demanding the companies they own to improve their environmental standards. Shareholders of ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil have asked those companies to increase their efforts to protect natural and cultural sites. Shareholders asked Avon to reformulate its consmetics line to meet new European Union toxic regulations designed to phase out chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects.

This year Friends of the Earth and four other environmental groups have endorsed 49 environmental initiatives that they are urging shareholders to support.

''Friends of the Earth calls on people and institutions to claim their power as shareholders--through retirement plans, mutual funds, or endowments--to demand more environmentally responsible corporate behavior,'' said Michelle Chan-Fishel, coordinator of the organization's green investments program. ''The variety of resolutions that different environmental groups are endorsing shows that we believe challenging and changing corporate behavior is a key to environmental progress.''

Companies also benefit from eco-friendly business practices, environmentalists said. They limit their risk of expensive toxic clean-ups and environmental or consumer litigation, for example. Conversely, consumers often favor firms they regard as being kinder to the planet and its people.

''Many leading companies and their investors are realizing that making safer, greener products is not only better for their customers and the planet, but better for their bottom line,'' said Lisa Archer, coordinator of Friends of the Earth's health and environment program.

Shareholder proposals have seldom passed, but the growing number of resolutions have forced companies to discuss their policies, and sometimes offer concessions on issues they had previously ignored. Some firms have tried to get out in front of their critics by engaging activist investors on environmental issues, labor rights and other issues. Ford agreed to write a report about global warming, including details on emissions from Ford Vehicles and factories in exchange for the shareholders withdrawing a resultion asking the company to spell out its plans to comply with stricter environmental laws enacted by California and other States.

For more infomration on the corporate campaign, see here.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

US Team Unveils Plug-In Hybrid-electric Prius at Monte Carlo Exhibition

The next major step in fuel efficiency may be a marriage of electric cars with hybrid cars to produce a car that can go 20 to 50 miles on battery power alone and then switch to hybrid power. The car is then plugged in to recharge the batteries. Since most trips people make in their cars are less than 50 miles, the gas milage would increase dramaticly.

At the 21st Worldwide International Battery, Hybrid and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Symposium & Exhibition (EVS 21) being held next week, Valence Technology Inc. which produces large-format Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, and EnergyCS, developers of integration control systems, will showcase a new concept plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Powered by the Valence U-Charge(TM) Power System, the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) is a fully functional concept car based on a 2004 Toyota Prius. Because the Valence battery offers much more energy than batteries traditionally used in hybrid vehicles, it allows significant amounts of zero-emission driving with the concept PHEV. With a fuel efficiency that can reach up to 180 miles per gallon for an average commute of 50-60 miles per day, the PHEV has superior gas mileage, which means fewer trips to the gas station. Using the U-Charge system, the PHEV offers the best of both worlds: zero-emission electric mode (up to 33 mi/h, 53 km/h) and an efficient gas motor for long trips. ...

"Valence's phosphate-based Lithium-ion batteries have substantially higher energy density than competing batteries for hybrid electric vehicles. And, unlike other types of Lithium-ion batteries, our Saphion technology offers the longevity and safety needed for both hybrid and pure electric vehicles," said Stephan Godevais, president and CEO of Valence Technology. "The Valence-EnergyCS plug-in hybrid vehicle is a breakthrough in the industry. It allows renewable energy to displace gasoline, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, which is increasingly important given today's environment and economic concerns."

Valence hopes to offer a conversion kit to Prius owners, although it would void the Toyota warrenty.

While we wait for the corporate world to produce the ever receding hydrogen powered car, it seems that small companies are working on the next best thing.