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[1THING] Blog: Archive for August, 2012

[ GM Again Temporarily Halts Volt Production Over Low Sales ]

In the same week that the Obama administration announced its new fuel economy standard, U.S. automaker General Motors announced it would halt production of the Chevrolet Volt electric car for four weeks, citing the car’s failure to meet targeted sales projections, according to Bloomberg news.

(Related Photos: Rare Look Inside Automakers’ Drive for 55 MPG)

GM sold 10,666 Volts in the U.S. in July. Global sales were targeted at 60,000 units, with 45,000 on the U.S. market. Sales for 2011 were also under target, and even though an investigation into vehicle safety concluded that the Volt did not pose a fire risk, the congressional hearings on the issue led to a slow-down in sales.

According to Bloomberg, citing Automotive News, GM will halt production at the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant between 17 September and 15 October, though GM did not independently confirm those dates.

“In the past couple of months, the production of the Volt was running ahead of sales, but I thought that might be for this particular process because they’re bringing in the new vehicle, so they were intentionally trying to get ahead,” Alan Baum, principal of Baum & Associates, told Bloomberg.

This is not the first time GM has stopped Volt production because of weak sales: The automaker also did so earlier this year, just before the model was named European Car of the Year.

Charles Kennedy

This post is based on one from OilPrice.com and was republished with permission.


[ Savings and Costs of the New U.S. Fuel Economy Standards ]

A new fuel economy rule that will nearly double the efficiency of the nation’s cars and trucks to a fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon over the next 13 years was finalized by the Obama administration this week. The requirements of the rule will be phased in gradually between now and then, and automakers could face fines for non-compliance.

(Related Photos: Rare Look Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55 MPG)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate the rule will increase the average price of a vehicle by $1,800 in 2025. Consumers could save an estimated $5,700 to $7,400 in gasoline over the life of the vehicle. Additionally, the rule is expected to save 4 billion barrels of oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2 billion metric tons.

The rule, some argued, doesn’t come without consequences. Higher-efficiency vehicles that consume less fuel could reduce revenues from the gasoline tax 21 percent by 2040. As a result, spending on road repairs could decline.

Forbes says regardless of the high 54.5 mpg requirement, your average will likely be closer to 40 mpg.


[ Isaac Drives Spike in U.S. Gas Prices Ahead of Labor Day Weekend ]

U.S. gasoline prices are getting worse before they get better, spurred by domestic refinery woes and Hurricane Isaac.


[ The Romney-Ryan Energy Plan by the Numbers ]

Oil, gas, coal, nuclear, wind, solar, efficiency. Which are the Republican hopefuls’ priorities?

This week, it’s convention time for the Republican presidential and vice presidential nominees. Last week, the Romney-Ryan team rolled out its energy policy [pdf] for the nation. Entitled “The Romney Plan For A Stronger Middle Class: ENERGY INDEPENDENCE,” the new plan, running 21 pages, replaces Romney’s energy policy paper from September 2011.

The new blueprint is a mix of policy points and criticisms of the Obama administration along with “Did You Know?” sections comprised of quotations from sources ranging from the Manhattan Institute to the New York Times. It turns out that the white paper devotes more space to the quotations than to Team Romney’s own statements.

In the Clouds with Romney-Ryan

The plan’s goal of achieving energy independence, writ large in the report’s title, is a bold vision. Bolder still when it is understood that the goal is for North America by 2020. But of course the devil is in the details.

So what are the details? One objective way to get a sense of the plan is through a word count. After all, the prominence of a topic or term, such as oil, wind or energy efficiency, is a reasonable proxy of its import.

The word cloud shown below provides some interesting insights: “U.S.” and “energy” are front and center and “Obama” is pretty prominent — although it’s a safe bet that he’s not being mentioned or discussed in a positive light. In terms of energy sources, “oil” is by far the dominant player and “gas” is no slouch.

After that, slim pickings. “Coal,” “wind” and “solar” do show up, but finding them is a bit like the old needle-in-a-haystack challenge. And I never did find “nuclear.” Ditto “conservation,” “efficiency,” and “biofuels.”

Romney-Ryan energy plan word cloudA pictorial word count for the Romney-Ryan energy plan.

Big on Crude, Short on Green and a Little Nasty

Want to be a little more quantitative? Then take a look at the table below. Of the words we counted, “oil” is the winner, appearing 154 times. Averaged over the length of the document, that’s more than seven times per page.

You green types may be relieved to know that “environment” gets a fair showing with 24 appearances. For example, here’s one item that suggests that the Romney team would seek a balance between environmental protection and economic development:

“Implement measured reforms of environmental statutes and regulations to strengthen environmental protection without destroying jobs, paralyzing industry, or barring the use of resources like coal.”

But contrast that with this direct frontal attack on enviros:

“But statutes and regulations that were designed to protect public health and the environment have instead been seized on by environmentalists as tools to stop development altogether.”

Word or term (and its derivatives) Number of times used
Oil 154
Energy 148
Environment 24
Energy Independence
Solar 23
Clean energy
Alternative energy
Green energy

Alternative Energy Not Much of an Alternative

Making brief appearances, cropping up once or twice in the plan, are “clean energy,” “alternative
energy,” “conservation,” efficiency,” “green energy,” and “biofuels.”

Climate. What Climate?

And get this. The number of times the word climate appears in the Romney-Ryan plan: 0.

So the Romney team’s energy plan is huge on oil, big on gas, and everything else is pretty much an also ran. Drilling down (sorry, couldn’t resist), it’s pretty clear that the plan’s path to North America’s energy independence is to … drill — to exploit domestic sources of oil and gas as quickly and as comprehensively as we can.

A number of analysts (see here and here) have pointed out that even if such an approach for North American crude allowed the United States and its would-be Mexican and Canadian partners to meet their domestic needs for oil, it would still not free us from international price instability or dependence on politically unstable nations. Why? Because oil is fundamentally a global commodity and even countries that are net exporters of oil (think Canada) still suffer price swings due to unrest and other volatility elsewhere. And so in that sense, the whole notion of energy independence when it comes to petroleum is illusory, and the real issue should be energy security.
(See here and here.)

And when it comes to energy security, many — including George W. Bush — have argued that that is achieved by reducing our consumption of oil, a move that would begin to decouple our economy from unstable, oil-rich parts of the world. And how would we do that? By growing our use of renewable energy and becoming more efficient. (See here and here.) Clearly these goals are not central to Team Romney’s plans, at least at this point in the campaign.

And then there’s the whole problem of energy and climate. How do Romney and Ryan plan to solve that conundrum? Apparently, for now at least, by ignoring it.



An interesting bit of trivia related to the energy plan can be found in the PDF of the plan under the “properties” menu. There, Anna Gatlin, the Romney campaign’s domestic policy advisor who has a master’s degree in education policy and management from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, is listed as the author.


[ Our Energy Inheritance: Living With Our Grandparents’ Decisions ]

Most news coverage of energy and the environment is in love with the new: cool new technologies, new research, and all the impressive creative energy that’s being poured into these fields. Yet one of the most significant factors shaping the energy field is the power of old decisions.

Take, for example, the power plants that supply our electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration released a report on the age of the nation’s generating stations this month, and one of the most striking things is how old they are. Half of our generating capacity (51 percent) is at least 30 years old.

But the other interesting point is the age of different kinds of plants. For example:

  • Of the 25 oldest power plants in the country, 24 of them are hydroelectric dams, built more than 60 years ago.
  • Three-quarters of our coal plants were built before 1980.
  • Most of our nuclear plants were built in a two-decade period between 1970 and 1990.
  • Almost all of the new capacity – the plants brought on line in the last 10 years – comes either from natural gas plants or wind farms.

If you look at the history, these trends make sense. In the first half of the 20th Century, Americans believed in big public works, like Hoover Dam. But views have changed, and there aren’t many more major rivers that could be dammed even if we wanted to. The trend toward nuclear power picked up speed in the 1970s until the Three Mile Island accident occurred, and even after the accident a number of nuclear plants already in the pipeline were completed. Coal has been the world’s go-to power source since the Industrial Revolution.

And the current trend toward natural gas and wind? That’s been driven by the improving economics of natural gas, as well as concern over climate change and the other environmental downsides of coal.

To a remarkable extent, we’re living with the energy choices of our grandparents. Power plants can easily last for generations. And while our grandparents undoubtedly made the choices that made sense for them at the time, they couldn’t possibly anticipate all the consequences of their decisions.

The real lesson here is that, just as our grandparents made choices for us, we’re making choices for our grandchildren. The natural gas plants and wind farms we’re building now will be serving our needs for decades to come. Domestically, that will leave us with a cleaner and more diversified energy system than we have now, although at the current pace it’s going to take a long, long time.

But the United States is only one player in the energy world, and arguably not the most important one anymore. China, India and the developing world are the ones adding power capacity at a feverish pace to keep with growth, and they’re the ones who are going to really shape the global energy future. It’s also no coincidence that the International Energy Agency warned last year that the world is coming uncomfortably close to locking itself into an “insecure, inefficient, and high-carbon energy system.”

There’s an old saying that “nothing lasts so long as the provisional.” In the energy world, there are remarkably few purely short-term decisions – and yet we make so many  of our choices based on short-term thinking. Maybe it’s time to remind ourselves that it’s our children who will live in the energy environment we create for them. Are we bequeathing them an energy system that considers their interests in the long term, or will we just continue doing what’s easier for now?


[ Montana Wind Turbines Give Way to Raptors ]

The breezy ridges that are so attractive to wind-power developers are also, quite often, prime raptor nesting territory. That’s the case on Kevin Rim, sandstone cliffs in north central Montana where NaturEner is building a 189-megawatt wind farm that will generate power for San Diego Gas and Electric.

If this sounds like a situation that could lead to a classic pitched developer-environmentalist battle, well, it did have that appearance – but in a surprising turn, the developer of the Rim Rock Wind Farm has agreed to relocate more than two dozen turbines, pushing them away from raptor nesting sites.

“At the urging of Montana Audubon, NaturEner voluntarily agreed to relocate each of 25 wind turbines to provide a buffer of approximately ½ mile from historic and active raptor nests,” the company and organization said in a joint statement [PDF]. “This commitment was made after the project design was finalized, financing completed, and actual construction had begun.”

A memorandum of understanding [PDF] reached by the parties added that the relocation came “at great expense to Rim Rock,” and included acknowledgement from Montana Audubon that NaturEner’s actions in the matter were “unprecedented and extraordinary.”

According to Audubon, 10 species of raptors are documented to breed at Kevin Rim, including four species that are of global (ferruginous hawk), continental (Swainson’s hawk, prairie falcon), or state (golden eagle) “conservation concern.”

Ferruginous hawk, Montana (Photograph by Bob Danley, Flickr)

But with the project on private land and no Montana wind development regulations lax, Audubon’s leverage was limited. Projects on federal land at the very least give interest groups a chance to comment on the potential impact of a development.

On the other hand, some raptors – including golden eagles, which are found in the Kevin Rim area – are protected by federal law, regardless of whether they’re on public or private land.

The Obama administration recently finalized new voluntary siting guidelines that were endorsed by the wind industry and many major environmental groups, including Audubon. While the voluntary guidelines don’t carry the big stick of mandatory regulation, they do come with a carrot: They state that developers found to be in violation of laws and regulations – whose turbines, for instance, kill a protected species – could potentially escape trouble if they can show “documented efforts to communicate with the (Fish and Wildlife) Service and adhere to the Guidelines.”

Earlier this year, when NaturEner got financing to build the project and the raptor issue began to bubble up, the company told the Great Falls Tribune [PDF] it was consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service, but maintained that quarter-mile setbacks were adequate around Kevin Rim. The area is a designated Important Bird Area by Audubon, and is also an Area of Critical Environmental Concern and a Key Raptor Area according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Further discussions, however, apparently swayed NaturEner.

“Although the land-based wind energy guidelines developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) did not specify a setback distance, NaturEner was aware of the concerns and consulted with both the USFWS and Montana Audubon in an effort to find common ground regarding the planned turbine placement,” the joint statement said. “After numerous meetings and the desire of both NaturEner and Montana Audubon to find an acceptable solution to minimize potential impact to these sensitive bird species, the final design plan was changed.”

As of the end of July, 33 of the 126 turbines planned for the site were installed. With 305 workers on the site, NaturEner is motoring ahead to get the project completed, and an opening ceremony is set for Sept. 12.

Rim Rock is merely one project out of more than 1 gigawatt (GW) of wind power capacity that NaturEner has planned for the windy corridor surrounding the Montana-Alberta Tie Line (MATL) transmission line. The 300-MW, 214-mile long MATL will stretch from a substation nine miles northeast of Lethbridge, Alberta, to Great Falls, Mont., according to a company announcement from January.

Rim Rock is NaturEner’s third wind farm in Montana. The company also owns and operates the 210-MW Glacier 1 and Glacier 2 projects, near Ethridge. The company’s Canadian affiliate is developing more than 500 MW of wind power capacity in Alberta. Both companies are subsidiaries of Spain-based Grupo NaturEner.

Pete Danko

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission.


[ In Brazil, A Sustainable City Sector Under Development ]

As the London Olympics have concluded, the world’s attention turns to Rio. The XXXI Games in 2016 will mark the first Olympics for the South American continent; the Olympic flag was officially handed off at this summer’s closing ceremony. And as the world follows the day-by-day progress as Rio moves toward the next installment in 2016, all that green scrutiny directed at this summer’s competition naturally turns toward green building and sustainable development in Brazil.

(Related Photos: London Leaps Hurdles in Green Olympic Games Bid)

The city of Brasília offers a compelling glimpse of what a green Brazilian metropolis might look like. Developed to fulfill a promise in the country’s constitution to have a federal capital built in the country’s hinterlands, President Juscelino Kubitschek ordered its construction back in the 1950s. Brasília has acted as a locus for eye-catching Brazilian modernist architecture, and not always in a good way — the UK’s Guardian reports that the city has garnered both admiration and scorn for its architecture (particularly its massive super quadra condo developments). But Brasília’s most interesting development is relatively recent, and is currently taking place in the city’s new northwest sector, or Setor Noroeste.

(Related Story: Brazil Works to Wipe “Blackout” From the Lexicon)

Call it a laboratory for sustainable development. Noroeste features more pedestrian walkways that the rest of the city and and 44 kilometers (27 miles) of bicycle paths. And unlike those block-long shopping districts that are part and parcel of the super quadra design — which serve to discourage foot traffic – this sector features smaller shopping districts spaced two blocks apart.

Homes here are built to run on solar power and natural gas. Only solar thermal is allowed for domestic hot water needs, and residences feature integrated rainwater harvesting systems that are expected to help Noroeste capture and reuse much of the rain that hits its roofs. (In a city that faces the threat of a freshwater shortage by 2025, this is a key component in establishing sustainable infrastructure.)

All of which runs fairly standard for green developments anywhere in the world. But garbage and recycling bins connected to giant vacuum tubes? Now that’s some futuristic green. These tubes transfer recyclables and waste directly to city treatment plants, avoiding the need for garbage trucks.

The focus on sustainable development extends to the commercial sector in Brasília in projects currently under development, such as Green Towers Brasília. This LEED-certified, three-phase office development totals 85,000 square meters of leasable area in a 16-floor building. The project is strategically located in Brasília’s North Government Sector, between the Noroeste residential neighborhood to the north and a banking sector to the south. The Green Towers development is anticipated to be complete this year.

But no development in Brazil, it seems, is all that cut and dried. In order to develop its “sustainable laboratory,” the city of Brasília had to evict a number of indigenous people who were, according to a 2011 court ruling, squatting on the land. As the northwest sector is aimed at wealthier residents, this is a fact that might draw some unfavorable world attention to this otherwise exemplary green development.

 Susan DeFreitas

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission


[ Does NREL Have the Plan for Clean Energy Scaling? ]

I’ve begun thinking that one of the defining questions for clean energy is, “What’s the plan?” Not a company plan, but a country plan — one that realistically maps us to an economy that gets the vast majority of its energy from wind, solar, geothermal, and that has us drastically minimizing waste.

Amory Lovins has taken a shot at it in “Reinventing Fire,” which I’m working my way through at five pages a night (a comment on my lifestyle, not his writing). Other examples? Google has its “2030 plan,” Al Gore has his Energy Challenge, and two California university professors laid out their suggested “Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030.”

The most recent version of a plan for transitioning to a clean energy economy is the detailed “Renewable Electricity Futures Study” by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). This study finds that “[r]enewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today…is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the country.”

This study reinforces to me that the question isn’t whether clean technologies can meet most or all our electricity needs in the future (They can.) The bigger question is how we get there.

I’m looking for the plans that try answering that question (readers, tell us if you’ve heard of one).

We recently had New York Times national energy reporter Matt Wald in for a Scaling Green Communicating Energy Lecture Series appearance. After 5,557 stories for The New York Times (an undercount — you can only search back to year seven of his career with the paper!), I asked Wald if he’s seen or been pitched on the transition plan that gets us to a vast majority of the nation’s energy needs (electricity and transportation) coming from solar, wind, geothermal and energy efficiency.

His answer: “No.”

In Wald’s view, the challenge to a clean economy transition isn’t just cheap natural gas, it’s renewables’ relationship with the power grid – really the absence of an integrated, updated continental-scale power grid to move electrons from where they’re produced to wherever they’re needed, whenever they’re needed. The NREL report addresses that point, saying 80% renewables reliance using today’s technologies would require “a more flexible electric system.”

But is the challenge of the grid really a deal breaker, as Wald seems to believe? NREL says it isn’t, that in fact “a variety of technical and institutional solutions exist to help proactively meet these [grid] challenges.” NREL even maps the clean energy generation here. We’re already seeing these solutions starting to materialize through the work of companies such as Trans-Elect, which is building a transmission line off the East Coast to service wind farms from New York to Virginia.

But for all the debate among politicos about which source of energy is the right investment for the U.S., progress continues for renewables — and their fate ultimately may be settled on the grid, not on the political airwaves.

This post originally appeared at Scaling Green and was republished with permission.


[ Battery-Swapping Aussie EV Sets 24-Hour Record: 1,170 Miles ]

It didn’t go 1,170 miles (1,886 kilometers) in 24 hours without stopping, but for an electric car, it’s still a mighty impressive distance — the equivalent of a mad dash from Seattle to Orange County, Calif. The Aussie consortium that pulled it off saw this unofficial EV world record as confirmation of their homegrown vehicle’s capabilities. You might also call it a pretty interesting argument for battery swapping as the answer to the EV charging challenge.

(Related Photos: Rare Look Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55 MPG)

The driving in question was 15 and a half times around a 75.6-mile loop on public roads between Port Melbourne and Geelong, in Victoria, in a Holden Commodore EV developed by EV Engineering, which calls itself a “a consortium of Australian automotive suppliers and industry participants that has designed and built seven proof-of-concept electric Holden Commodores.” Holden is the GM subsidiary in Australia. The Commodore had a run of 15 consecutive years as Australia’s best-selling automobile model broken just last year.

The key to the success, the group said, was the use of battery swapping, where an EV designed for the procedure can in a matter of a couple of minutes have its depleted battery replaced by a charged one. Even the fastest charging stations, those that can deliver virtually a full charge in 30 minutes, can’t come close to that.

On the flip side, a swapping station is a much more expensive investment, costing around $500,000 while a fast-charging station is in the range of $25,000 to $40,000.

“When we began the project to develop a proof-of-concept electric Commodore, it was critical that we incorporate ground-breaking battery switch technology,” Ian McLeave, CEO of EV Engineering, said in a statement. “That’s what got us across the line. We were able to quickly switch our depleted battery for a fully charged one, so we didn’t have to park and plug in in order to recharge. We were able to just drive, switch, and keep going.”

(Related Photos: Students Design Super-Efficient Cars for Eco-marathon)

In the U.S., the auto industry and EV charging infrastructure development are almost exclusively focused on plug-in charging. But Australia is set to become the third market – after Israel and Denmark — for the battery switching company Better Place. According to EV Engineering, the Holden Commodore EV used “a scaled-down version” of the switch stations that will come to Australia. When the car got a fresh battery at the end of each loop, there was usually 20 to 25 percent battery charge remaining, indicating the vehicle could have gone at least 90 miles before running out of juice.

Members of the EV Engineering project include Better Place and automotive component suppliers Bosch, Continental, Air International and Futuris, with support from the government-backed research agency CSIRO.

If you haven’t seen the Better Place battery switching technology in operation, be sure to check out this demo from the company. It’s pretty smooth:


Pete Danko

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission.


[ Fueling Agricultural Change in Western Kenya ]

In recent years, the people of western Kenya have been feeling the painful effects of climate change and deforestation. As the practice of chopping down trees for fuel wood continued, “deforestation was getting worse,” says resident Salim Shaban. Removing trees compromises nutrient and water retention in soils, and nutrients lost in the runoff can pollute valuable freshwater lakes and rivers.

To make matters worse, the rainy seasons have been coming later in the year, shortening the growing season. Most farmers in Kenya live hand to mouth, and were having trouble feeding their families.

Frustrated by increasingly meager harvests, Salim vowed to take action. Convinced that environmental problems were compromising soil integrity, “I decided to figure out what was needed to improve the environment,” he says.

Salim had founded the African Christians Organization Network (ACON)* 12 years ago, and in 2008, he reached out to the International Biochar Initiative for guidance on improving soil fertility. This developed into a meaningful relationship and the creation of a biochar stove.

That relationship led to the pioneering of Africa’s first biochar initiative, building a network of 6,000 farmers in 50 communities who are learning to use biochar stoves to boost organic farming, reduce indoor air pollution and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

The biochar stove is principally sold as an improved cooking device: It uses less fuel wood, cooks food faster and creates less smoke than a traditional three-stone stove. Although calculations vary, Salim estimates that families save enough on fuel wood to pay for the stove in three to six months.

When the cooking process is complete, the charred fuel wood becomes a valuable soil enhancer. A women’s group based in Ikolomani reported that the stove’s biochar has greatly increased their yields of maize, beans, and tea. During my recent visit to the village, eleven women farmers were eager to show off their crops. One woman boasted, “Before using biochar, I did not have enough food to feed my family. Now, I have enough for everyone and can sell extra food to pay school fees (for my son) and buy a cow.”

ACON recently started making biomass fuel briquettes as an alternative to fuel wood. The production of fuel briquettes is very popular, and fewer briquettes than fuel wood are needed to cook food. The briquettes are made of biological waste such as maize stalks or water hyacinth.

man holds water hyacinth in Kenya

Water hyacinth is a menace in Lake Victoria. ACON uses it to make fuel briquettes, helping to reduce deforestation. (Photograph by Chad Lipton)

“Unfortunately, there is an endless supply (of hyacinth),” Salim laments. Several years ago, water hyacinth was accidentally introduced into Lake Victoria, where it immediately began multiplying and greatly disrupted the local economy, which depends upon fishing. ACON responded to this environmental problem by removing the hyacinth from Lake Victoria to make fuel briquettes. Even so, the water hyacinth still multiplies much more quickly than ACON can remove it.

For each biochar stove sold, ACON gives 20 tree seedlings to farmers to plant. “We need to reduce climate change. That is why we provide tree seedlings,” says Salim.

Climate change is global, but solutions are local. Salim’s investment in his local community is paying off and he is eager to spread the word. Next week, more than a dozen Ugandan farmers are traveling to Western Kenya to meet Salim and learn about his biochar project with ACON.

When asked if there were any complaints with the biochar program, one farmer responded, “Actually, I do have one complaint. I have more than one wife, but only one stove. They fight over it.”

* African Christians Organization Network is a grant recipient of the National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative.