Thursday, June 30, 2005

Much fanfare has greeted the announcement that France will get to build the 10 billion Euro International Thermonuclear Experimental Reacter, billed as a cleaner approach to power production than nuclear fission and fossil fuels.

Japan's science minister Nariaki Nakayama gushed; "We believe that the Iter project should start as soon as possible for the sake of mankind's future."

Nuclear fusion, the latest in a series of high tech "saviors" of mankind's energy problems, should be taken with a grain of salt. A quick review of the previous efforts demonstrates the pitfalls.

The original miracle energy source was nuclear power, which was supposed to be so cheap, it wouldn't even need to be metered. But leaks, shutdowns, and the enormous costs of cleanup priced nuclear out of the market. Now uranium production is in decline, effectively eliminating nuclear power as a long term solution.

Beginning in the 1980s, breeder reacters were going to solve the problem of limited fisionable fuel. The first commercial breeder reactor was the Fermi 1, built in the U.S. The plant went into operation in 1963, was shut down in 1966 due to high temperatures and was not ready to resume operation until 1970. It ran until 1972 when its oeprating licence renewal was denied.

The French breeder reactor "Superphoenix" went online in 1985 but only loged 174 days at full power during its first ten years. In 1990 the reacter was shut down because of impurities in the sodium in its core and was not reauthorized until 1994 when it was authorized as a research reactor to determine, among other things, whether it was a "net consumer of plutonium." In 1997, the reauthorization was annulled and the reactor permanently shut down.

The Japanese plant "Monju" came online in 1994, but a massive sodium coolant leak in 1995 shut the plant down. Lawsuits followed and the reacter did not finally gain permission to resart until May of this year.

Last decade the new miracle energy source was going to be fuel cells, but even after billions of dollars of research they continue to be dogged with technical problems, including the scarcity of platinum, the difficulty of storing and transporting hydrogen, and the expense of the fuel cells. The projected date for the commercial use of fuel cells keeps slipping ever farther into the future.

The ultimate solutions may turn out to be the simplest. While wind power is often derided for its unreliability, a study in Britain found that wind generators were able to produce power 97% of the time while the country's nuclear power plants were only generating power 70-77% of the time.

There is no rule that necessarily says that Green equals low tech, but if recent history is any guide, low tech, inexpensive, potentially off grid sources of power may be the way of the future.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Scientists Studying Gulf's 'Dead Zone'

Through mid-July, scientists from NOAA's National Coast Data Development Center and the agency's Fisheries Service at Stennis Space Center will look at data about dissolved oxygen from the ''dead zone'' areas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The scientists believe the zone forms in June and stretches 5,000-square-miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River toward the Texas coast.

The condition, known as hypoxia, occurs when the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is too low to support most marine life. The scientists say the trend has increased dramatically since studies first began in the early 1980s.

Researchers believe the dead zone is caused by an influx of polluted freshwater from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. Freshwater floats over salt water and acts as a barrier to oxygen. Meanwhile, pollution flows from the rivers into the Gulf, creating algae plumes that further choke off the oxygen.

''The science community is determined to find the causes and impacts of hypoxia to marine life in the Gulf,'' said Gregory W. Withee, assistant administrator for NOAA Satellite and Information Service, NCDDC's lead agency.

The scientists, aboard the NOAA vessel, Oregon II, will study the Gulf waters from Brownsville, Texas, to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The team will measure seawater temperatures, salinity, chlorophyll and dissolved oxygen levels at more than 200 locations.

During its four-week study, the scientists will continually generate new maps and provide that data on the Internet. The first map will look at the continental shelf from Brownsville to Corpus Christi, Texas and the final maps will look at the Texas-Louisiana coast.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is switching its 870 cars, trucks, buses, vans, tractors and utility vehicles toalternative fuels

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman on May 20 issued an executive order requiring state vehicles to use alternative fuels. UNL is one of the largest motor vehicle fleets in the state.

"One advantage of converting to E-10 and 2 percent soy biodiesel is that we don't have to modify our vehicles," said Patrick Barrett, director of UNL Transportation Services. "Any gasoline-powered vehicle can burn E-10. The same goes for the 2 percent soy biodiesel, which will work in anything from a 1940s model heavy truck to our most modern diesel vehicle."

Alternative fuels are less polluting, they have become economically viable, and for farm states they are particularly attractive as the source is home grown.

Friday, June 24, 2005

A new generation of electric cars is beginning to make its appearance.

The Renault Kangaroo Electric is a new generation of electric vehicles for urban mobility.

The Peugeot 106 Electric goes from 0 - 40 mph in a few seconds of smooth, uninterrupted acceleration and recharges in just a few hours.

The Peugeot Partner Electric offers something in the minivan range.

Meanwhile, Norway has begin to install fast changing stations that can recharge a car's batteries in only 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Indian company, Reva, has introduced a line of cars that can carry four persons at 65 km/hr at range of 80 kms on full charge, and recharge in six hours. PowerShift of the UK has recognized the REVA as the most energy efficient electric vehicle in the world.

RECC has already established markets in Sri Lanka, Israel, Romania, Ireland, Japan and Cyprus for marketing, sales and service of the REVA cars. In addition, the cars are being test marketed in USA and Switzerland.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Report charts news the expansion of the world's deserts.

The report, titled Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Desertification Synthesis, is the third in a series of seven detailing the findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year, US$22-million stocktake of the world's biological resources. It covers the world's drylands--41% of the planet's land surface, including everything from the 'dry-sub-humid' regions of eastern Mediterranean croplands, to full-blown 'hyper-arid' deserts such as the Sahara.

While much is still unkown about the world's drylands, one thing is clear, according to Zafar Adeel, one of the report's main authors; "Desertification has emerged as an immense global problem that affects a lot of people." Dust storms from the Gobi and Saharan deserts reach as far as North America.

But the biggest problem is the loss of farmland as the land dries up, a problem made worse by the fact that many of the areas most at risk are home to the world's poorest people.

Walter Reid, director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, estimates it might take US$100 billion to invest properly in dryland areas. "That's substantial. But relative to other areas where public money is spent it's not such a big deal," says Reid.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Nuclear power is getting increased attention as a clean alternative to coal and gas powered electric generating plants. A 2001 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that a single 1,000 megawatt nuclear powerplant could displace the equivalent of about 2.1 million tons of carbon from a coal-fired powerplant, 1.6 million tons from an oil-fired plant and 1.0 million tons from a natural-gas plant.

Even some environmentalists are giving nuclear power a grudging second look. Judith Greenwald, director of innovative solutions for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change commented; "Nuclear power can contribute to solving the climate-change problem, if it can solve its own problems."

The problem that they are overlooking is that uranium production has already peaked and is in decline:

The shortfall in production has been covered by several secondary sources including excess inventories held by utilities, producers, other fuel cycle participants, reprocessed uranium and plutonium derived from used reactor fuel, and uranium derived from the dismantling of Russian nuclear weapons. As excess inventories and nuclear weapons are used up, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain supply for existing reactors.

The only way out is renewable sources of energy, but renewable sources are small scale, local, and independent of the net; the energy industry has to make a major adjustment in the way they view energy production in order to make the jump.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Rios Grande is experiencing the same problems of overuse that other major rivers have experienced. In 1997, the Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly was formed as a non-profit, all-volunteer, grass roots organization, formed to develop a regional water plan.

On August 17, 2004, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission unanimously accepted the Middle Rio Grande Regional Water Plan. According to the plan, during the last twenty five years the region has consumed an average of 15% more water than it received. The resulting deficit has been made up by the mining of aquifers in the region, and a lowering of the water table by 160 feet in some places.

Population increase has placed additional stress on the resource, even though much of this has occurred during the wettest quarter century in the past 2000 years. Now, the climate appears to be returning to normal, and the population faces serious challenges in implementing a sustainable water plan.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Economic boom and growing commercialism have been a nightmare forMillions of Indians. Prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy claims that, "Even if you know what is going on, you can't help thinking India is this cool place now, Bollywood is 'in' and all of us have mobile phones. But it is almost as if the light is shining so brightly that you do not notice the darkness. There is no understanding whatsoever of what price is being paid by the rivers and mountains and irrigation and ground water, there is no questioning of that because we are on a roll."

Falling water tables in states such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have forced millions of farmers to the brink of ruin. Buried under unpayable loans, thousands have committed suicide.

Roy said the poor were being sold a dream of consumerism which was impossible to deliver economically or environmentally.

"The idea of turning one billion people into consumers is terrifying," she said.

Recent court decisions in favour of dams and slum clearances had tipped the playing field further against the poor. "It is so easy for people who are on this side of the line to climb the ladder. The middle class has expanded and is having a good time, but for people who are on the other side it is becoming impossible to survive," Roy said. "There are no jobs, there is just nowhere to go, no way out of it at all."

India is becoming a charicature of everything that is wrong about development. Along with many other countries, it is headed toward a crisis of almost unimaginable proportion.

Friday, June 10, 2005

A new Yale poll of 1,000 adults nationwide reveals that Americans overwhelmingly believe that the United States is too dependent on imported oil, and that the government should take action to develop new “clean” energy sources.

92% of Americans say that they are worried about dependence on foreign oil.

68% say this dependence is a “very serious” problem.

90% support building more solar power facilities.

87% support expanded wind farms.

86% want increased funding for renewable energy research.

93% of Americans say requiring the auto industry to make cars that get better gas mileage is a good idea, with 96% of Democrats and Independents and 86% of Republicans supporting the call for more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, commented;

"This poll suggests that Washington is out of touch with the American people - Republicans, Democrats and Independents, young and old, men and women-even S.U.V. drivers-embrace investments in new energy technologies, including better gas mileage in vehicles.”

Thursday, June 09, 2005

China, which suffers from enormous pollution problems, and which is belatedly trying to solve them, is finding it's efforts undermined by the development of an illegal market in coal.

Although the coal industry is mostly controlled by large state-owned companies, hundreds of illegal mines run by fly-by-night operators seeking to cash in on the ''coal rush" have sprung up in the area, according to local officials and residents. They say that the quick- and dirty-mining tactics in these illegal mines have exacted a heavy human and environmental toll.

The results have been deadly in areas where the illegal coal is burned. Shanxi Province, in north central China, in one area that is being especially hard hit.

'We're dying early here," said Ma Jun Sheng, 43, the only doctor for miles around. ''There's coal dust everywhere, which causes lots of disease -- lung cancer, tuberculosis, asthma. And then there are the accidents. I've been here 16 or 17 years, and there is one every month."

For miles around the village, the soil, plants, and trees are gray with soot. The air is heavy with eye-stinging fumes, and around Ma's clinic the land lies rutted like a prune.

Over the past 10 years, intensive mining by both state-owned and illegal companies has laden the air with particulates and dissipated the local water table, according to residents. As the companies have dug into the earth, they have struck underground water supplies that have drained away.

Since Shanxi is one of the driest places in China, and the Fen River, a local tributary of the mighty Yellow River, ran dry years ago, farming here is almost impossible, Guo said. So many people have done the only thing they could to survive -- they've begun mining illegally for coal themselves.

The ecological crisis feeds on itself. Farmers can no longer make a living on the ruined land so they mine illegal coal which, like all energy sources, is in high demand in China, providing them with much more income than they could earn otherwise.

China may have the most unsustainable economy in the world. Its growth rate is too fast, its power needs so desparate that any effort to clean up power generation is doomed to failure, and its land is being ruined by overuse and dwindling water supplies.

China is a disaster waiting to happen.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Alberta Research Council has released the results of an experiment that combined the use of structural insulating panel systems with solar thermal panels embedded in the exterior walls. The combination reduced energy consumption for space heating by 48%, a significant reduction for the average Canadian home which uses 65% of its energy consumption for space heating.