Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Little bits at a time, the world is going green. Almost surely it's not enough to avoid some very hard times, but perhaps it is enough to rebuild a future on.

Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, N.C. became the first hospital in the nation to install its own biodiesel pumping station. A growing number of health care providers and emergency service operators across the country that are powering their diesel vehicles with biodiesel, but Pitt County was the first hospital to do so.

“The American Lung Association of North Carolina is delighted to be part of this event heralding the conversion of emergency vehicles at Pitt Memorial to biodiesel,” said American Lung Association of North Carolina President and Chief Executive Officer Deborah C. Bryan. “In that vehicles are still the single biggest source of air pollution, which accounts for about 60,000 premature deaths each year, this conversion from a major health provider sets a tremendous precedent in our state and the country for using alternative fuels and reducing emissions. It also reduces the need to import oil, creates jobs for Americans, and gives our farmers a viable crop for the future. We encourage other hospitals to follow their lead.’

“Because of its air quality and human health benefits, biodiesel fuel is a perfect fit with Pitt County Memorial Hospital’s public health mission,” said Joe Jobe, NBB executive director. “By choosing a homegrown fuel made from U.S. soybeans, the hospital is also supporting the local farm economy and helping to reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil.”

San Francisco could become the first city in the nation to favor "green" products in purchases from window cleaner to electricity to playground equipment. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering implmenting the philosophy known as the "precautionary principle," which shifts thinking about environmental impacts from how much harm products can cause to how little damage is possible. The Board of Supervisors and former Mayor Willie Brown enshrined the principle in San Francisco's environmental code in 2003, but the most recent purchasing plan is the first practical application of the idea. It coincides with The City celebrating World Environment Day from June 1 to 5.

We are seeing alarming increases in asthma, in cancer and chronic illness, but we don't why. We do know that many of the products we buy contain hazardous ingredients that are perfectly legal," said Debbie Raphael, toxics reduction program manager for The City. The precautionary principle has been guiding environmental policy in a number of European countries, but is just gaining attention in the United States, where cities in Oregon, New Mexico and a handful of other states are looking at creating similar plans.

Through the use of its purchasing power, San Francisco could influence the market toward environmentally preferable technologies and products.

Even on Wall Street, the idea of "socially responsible" investing has become a growing field where money managers buy and sell stocks based on a company's environmental record, labor relations and other issues, and lobby as major shareholders to promote a cause.

Such investment styles, also called "ethical" investing, have their roots in religion. Quakers and Methodists have for centuries refused to buy into businesses selling arms. Islamic Shari'a law frowns upon owning companies that earn interest on loans or that sell pork products.

Since ministers created the first modern social fund, the Pax World Fund, to avoid companies that profited from the Vietnam War, the funds have amassed $36.6 billion in assets. In just the past decade, assets increased eightfold, or nearly three times the rate of growth in all mutual funds, according to Morningstar Inc., a Chicago firm that tracks funds.

The movement has gained recognition and to some extent gone mainstream. Domini was named this year to Time magazine's list of the world's most influential people with corporate titans Rupert Murdoch and Martha Stewart. Firms such as Charles Schwab & Co., the biggest discount brokerage in the United States, are offering more funds with a societal purpose.

And influential executives such as General Electric Co.'s Jeffrey R. Immelt, CEO at one of the largest companies in the world, have been talking lately about "corporate responsibility." In a letter to shareholders this month, Immelt said "opportunities to do business and do good are not mutually exclusive." Also this month, he unveiled plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Straws in the wind, maybe, but perhaps a harbinger of a sea change in thought that will be fertile ground for growth when the human economy reaches the limits of its growth.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Just when you're ready to write hydrogen off completely, a small company announces a new breakthrough. ZAP Cars and Apollo Energy have just announced the successful demonstration of a patented "Ammonia Cracker" technology for use as a method to power zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell cars.

"Apollo's fuel cell technology can jump start the hydrogen economy," said Mr. Aronsson. "The easiest and least expensive way to move Hydrogen from Point A to Point B is to use ammonia. Seventy-five percent of ammonia (NH3) is hydrogen. Ammonia can be added inexpensively as a component of today's gas stations, without costly hydrogen extractors, allowing the refueling of fuel cell cars today, years ahead of other hydrogen solutions."

Mr. Aronsson said ammonia-based fuel cell present important benefits over existing hydrogen fuel cell designs. "Ammonia is the second most common chemical produced in the world and can be made from natural gas or renewable energy," he said. "It is shipped by truck, rail, pipeline, ship and barge and is commonly used as fertilizer or in household refrigerators and can be competitive in price to gasoline. Ammonia fueling stations could be set up at very little cost, as the infrastructure already exists throughout the country. By making weekly deliveries of ammonia to gas stations in the 100 largest metropolitan areas of the U.S., ammonia distributors could reach 70 percent of the population. Former plans, proposed by others, of equipping gas stations with mini-factories for producing hydrogen by electrolysis at a cost of $1 million per gas station, could be replaced by this new, low-cost system. The new fueling system would make it possible for thousands of ZAP Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars to operate throughout the country, silently, and with zero emissions."

If this pans out, one big hurdle to the hydrogen economy has been cleared.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The "Hydrogen Economy" fades ever farther into the future.

Two years ago, Bush launched a five-year, $1.2 billion program to develop a commercially viable hydrogen fuel-cell car.

Congress has been even more generous. The House energy bill authorizes $4 billion over five years for hydrogen research and another $1.3 billion for a new-generation nuclear reactor that would produce hydrogen for cars as well as electricity. The Senate, which is at work on its version of the measure, allocates $3.8 billion to hydrogen.

However, a growing number of scientists and energy experts believe that it will take decades to overcome the technological and infrastructure hurdles facing commercialization of hydrogen cars - if they can be overcome at all.

Not the least of these hurdles is that fact that present fuel cell designs require platinum, which is an extremely rare element. If all the cars on the road were outfitted with fuel cells it would exhaust all known supplies of platinum. And present versions of the fuel cell only last for a couple of years.

Studies last year by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society concluded that commercially viable hydrogen cars would take considerably longer - about 20 to 30 years - and cost more to develop than had been anticipated.

Similarly, researchers are about 20 years away from producing the kind of high-temperature nuclear reactors envisioned by the Department of Energy for the large-scale production of hydrogen - again assuming technical hurdles can be overcome.

Critics of the spending on fuel cell research say that raising fuel-economy standards for today's cars, increasing incentives for hybrid-gas-electric cars, funding research to allow "plug in" hybrid cars powered primarily by electricity and promoting alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel would reduce foreign oil dependence faster.

"We don't object to using R&D to do either basic research or research into something that may be in the distance," said Dan Becker of the Sierra Club. "What we object to is failing to do something now and using the R&D as a shield against doing something responsible today."

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The City Hippy blog has an ineresting article on the air powered cars that are to debut in France in late 2006 or early 2007. The Minicat version will cost about US $9,000, can reach 110km/h, has a range of 200 - 300 km, and can recharge in 3 minutes at an air station or 4 hours with its own recharger.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Pop quiz:

Who said this?
A. Greenpeace activist?
B. M. King Hubbert?
C. Club of Rome member?

The world has not prepared for the future. During the 1950s, people used twice as much oil as during the 1940s. During the 1960s, we used twice as much as during the 1950s. And in each of those decades, more oil was consumed than in all of mankind's previous history. ...

Ours is the most wasteful nation on earth. We waste more energy than we import. With about the same standard of living, we use twice as much energy per person as do other countries like Germany, Japan and Sweden.

One choice is to continue doing what we have been doing before. We can drift along for a few more years.

Our consumption of oil would keep going up every year. Our cars would continue to be too large and inefficient. Three-quarters of them would continue to carry only one person -- the driver -- while our public transportation system continues to decline. We can delay insulating our houses, and they will continue to lose about 50 percent of their heat in waste.

We can continue using scarce oil and natural gas to generate electricity, and continue wasting two-thirds of their fuel value in the process.

Answer: Jimmy Carter, in his prescient, but failed effort to chart a new energy policy. We will, in retrospect, look back on the Carter administration as one of the greatest lost opportunities in human history.

Now, who said this?

This is a problem that's been a long time in coming. We haven't had an energy policy in this country. That's exactly what I've been saying to the American people -- 10 years ago if we'd had an energy strategy, we would be able to diversify away from foreign dependence. And -- but we haven't done that. And now we find ourselves in the fix we're in.

Of course, that one was easy. It was a recent statement by George W Bush, who seems to be gradually and dimly waking up to the fact that a serious problem is brewing and that it may break down upon us during his watch. Of course, Bush's reaction is to look for someone to blame for the mess.

The Bush administration is beginning to make some grudging moves toward conservation. After years of resistance from automakers, NHTSA raised the the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard of 20.7 miles per gallon in 2004 to 21 mpg for the model year 2005, 21.6 mpg for 2006, and 22.2 mpg for 2007. The NHTSA estimated the increase would save 3.6 billion gallons of gasoline over the 25-year life of the affected vehicles from the three model years--about 9,400 barrels per day during the 25-year period.

The White House claims its new standards will save 340,000 bpd when applied to the 2008 through 2016 model years. However, the Transportation Department has yet to issue new fuel standards past the 2007 model year. But the futility of this measure is clear when you consider that last year alone, U.S. crude oil production dropped by over 100,000 bpd.

Meanwhile the House voted to approve some $8.1 billion in tax breaks for the energy industry, in spite of record profits--during the first quarter of this year, Exxon Mobil's profits jumped 44 percent. Royal Dutch/Shell'sprofits were up 42 percent while Marathon Oil's profits were up 26 percent.

The administration has moved from its early distain for conservation, but now that it seems to have realized that there is a problem, it is stuck--a deer in the headlights--with no idea how to face something of this magnitude.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Some of the most popular renewable energy sources are based on technology that requires scarce resources, which makes their widespread use problematic. New technologies are on the horizon, but the feasibility of fuel cells and solar panels remains very much up in the air at this point.

Today's photovoltaics are made primarily from silicon, which in the 1990's was derived only from the silicon waste that came from the silicon chip industry. In April, media reports surfaced from the biggest PV companies that solar-grade silicon leapt from $9 per kilo in 2000 to $25 last year, and $60 in 2005. These higher prices are a result of the fast growth rate of the global photovoltaics industry, which produced more than 1.2 Gigawatts in 2004, and the efficiencies in the traditional silicon chip industry, which leave less wastes from their process for solar-grade silicon.

Recent advances in nanotechnology may overcome this bottleneck, but that will take time to development and peak oil is looming ever closer.

Most modern fuel cells require expensive metals, such as platinum, in order to create electricity. Back of the envelope math demonstrates that if all cars on the road today were fitted with fuel cells (forget the other technological difficulties), it would require the entire known reserves of platinum in the world.

Recently, researchers are reporting that iron-sulphur compounds can be effective. This can significantly reduce the cost of the materials necessary for the construction of fuel cells and, through that, reduce the cost of the fuel cells themselves. But again, time is short and we are only now exploring more feasible alternatives,

We are in a race against time, a race in which we allowed thrity years to pass before we decided to start running.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

New developments in wave power

A Norway based company has developed a new approach to producing energy from wave power. This energy concept is based on storing potential energy of the incoming waves in several reservoirs placed one above the other. The incoming wave will run up a slope, and on its return it will flow into the reservoirs. After the wave is captured inside the reservoirs, the water will run through the multi stage turbine.

The multi-stage turbine has the advantage of using different heights of waterfall on a common turbine wheel. This technology will prevent any start/stop sequence on the turbine even if only one reservoir is supplying water to the turbine. From tests carried out by this company, a 500m long full scale SSG construction along a coastline with a 15kW/m wave climate will be able to produce 18 GWh/year. And this without any plume of smoke in sight.

The European Commission has just granted €1 million to WAVEenergy AS, a Stavanger Norway-based company set up a year ago to develop the Seawave Slot Cone Generator (SSG) concept. This company is using this grant for a pilot project on the island of Kvitsoy, Norway, where it is developing a full-scale technical prototype of the SSG breakwater structure and install this on the west coast of this island in an estimated 15 kW/m wave climate.

Norway's minister for the environment Knut Arild Hareide, recently claimed that Norway wants to contribute to the stimulation of environmental technologies in the European Union's new member states - particularly, he states, through the new European Economic Area financing instruments.