Monday, July 14, 2008

Microsoft Pays Employees For Energy Efficiency Improvements

Microsoft has introduced employee incentives to improve energy efficiency and it’s paying off. From 2004 to 2007, Microsoft saw a 22 percent improvement in the energy efficiency of its data centers, Network World reports.

Microsoft has begun charging business units based on the amount of energy consumed by the servers that host their services instead of basing the charge on the amount of floor space required to stack the servers that their services used - which led to extremely dense, power hungry servers.

This has allowed the company to do away with underutilized equipment resulting in major savings.

The effort has also led to developers writing new code and examining the trade off between extra speed and energy savings.

Data-center facilities managers are in the game plan too - yearly bonuses are based on year-over-year efficiency improvements.

Dupont is also using incentives to cut energy use.

To the source...

Friday, July 11, 2008

Tiny Somerset set for large coal gasification push -The Green Blog - A Boston Globe blog on living Green in Boston

Tiny Somerset set for large coal gasification push -The Green Blog - A Boston Globe blog on living Green in Boston

A $25 million demonstration project that converts coal to clean-burning natural gas is scheduled to be built at the large Brayton Point power station.

But it is a second proposal at a smaller coal-fired power plant in the community that is raising residents’ ire. Last week, that plant moved another step closer to gasification after a state environmental judge moved to dismiss an appeal by 12 Somerset area citizens challenging the state’s decision to allow it.

Secret World Bank Report Blames Biofuels for Food Price Spike | Wired Science from

Secret World Bank Report Blames Biofuels for Food Price Spike | Wired Science from

Thursday, July 3, 2008

State starts a green era

Law encourages renewable sources; Utilities expected to help cut costs - By Beth Daley Globe Staff / July 3, 2008

Governor Deval Patrick signed a landmark energy bill yesterday that does away with long-standing obstacles to building renewable power projects in Massachusetts and making homes and businesses more energy efficient.

The Green Communities Act was hailed by environmentalists as among the most innovative efforts in the nation to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and to encourage use of clean technologies that don't contribute to global warming.

The law will probably result in utilities' designing customized plans for homeowners and businesses to cut energy costs and providing rebates to pay for measures such as installing insulating windows and more efficient boilers. Homeowners and businesses will be able to rent solar panels from utilities to avoid expensive up-front costs, and the law makes it easier for homeowners who have installed wind turbines or solar panels to sell surplus energy.

Supporters said the new law could save hundreds of millions of dollars through energy efficiency, helping to hold down consumers' electric bills as energy prices are skyrocketing.

"I am here today to sign into law the best clean energy bill in America," a jubilant Patrick said during a signing ceremony at the Museum of Science. "Climate change is the challenge of our times, and we in Massachusetts are rising to that challenge."

Massachusetts has long been a leader in energy legislation, and it is taking part in a regional effort to reduce greenhouse gases from power plants. Patrick has set an aggressive goal to increase solar power in the state by 600 percent in four years.

The law "maintains Massachusetts' status as a state leader," said Patrick Hogan of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a Virginia-based environmental policy think tank.

Business leaders praised the legislation, saying it could stabilize electric rates in New England, already among the highest in the nation. Utilities, including NStar and National Grid, said they have long focused on energy efficiency but are eager to ramp up the effort, as well as to provide solar power to customers.

"It pushes us to a new level," said Tom May, NStar's chief executive. "We get to cross the street to our customer side and help them with energy choices . . . such as windmills in a neighborhood or solar panels. It's helping them reduce their carbon footprint."

Among the law's major provisions:

A requirement for utilities to invest in energy efficiency when it is cheaper to do so than it is to buy power. Historically, companies would simply buy more power when demand went up, which over time would lead to construction of very costly and polluting power plants. Now, utilities will have to invest in energy efficiency if to do so is equal to or cheaper than buying power. The law will also use at least 80 percent of the revenue from the regional effort to cap power plant emissions for efficiency programs, such as home energy audits to identify how to save on energy bills.

"The cleanest power plant is the one that never gets built," said Sam Krasnow, attorney for Environment Northeast, a research and advocacy group. "Energy efficiency is the cheapest and cleanest energy resource available."

Several efforts to promote renewable power. Utilities would have to enter into 10- or 15-year contracts with renewable energy developers, an effort to help those developers get financing from banks. The Patrick administration is particularly proud of a provision that lifts a prohibition on utilities owning solar electric panels and allows them to rent the panels to customers. The law is designed to allow utilities to recoup the cost of panels over time from rental fees while the customers reap energy savings.

Utilities will have to purchase a greater amount of their electricity from renewable power sources than under current law. By 2030, utilities would buy 25 percent of their power from renewables.

It is unclear whether that goal, one of the most ambitious in the nation, can be met, however. The current requirement of 3.5 percent has not been met, partly because of the difficulty in siting renewable projects. The utilities instead pay a fee to the state.

The creation of "Green Communities." The state will commit $10 million annually to help communities figure out ways to become more energy efficient or invest in renewables, including giving them no-interest loans. New buildings in the state will have to meet updated building codes with energy-savings provisions.

The energy bill encountered some controversy during the two years it took to become law. Early versions guaranteed a market for coal gasification, a technology that is cleaner than conventional coal-burning power plants but still emits large amounts of carbon dioxide.

The final language would give financial incentives to gasification technologies only in limited cirumstances and only to those that capture and store the carbon dioxide underground.

Environmentalists had nothing but praise for the law yesterday, saying it was a paradigm shift in the way energy will be created, bought and sold.

"This is a tremendous advancement that comes not a moment too soon, given rising energy prices and the climate crisis," said Sue Reid, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation.

Article source:

Beth Daley can be reached at

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

NASA warming scientist: 'This is the last chance'

WASHINGTON (AP) — Exactly 20 years after warning America about global warming, a top NASA scientist said the situation has gotten so bad that the world's only hope is drastic action.

James Hansen told Congress on Monday that the world has long passed the "dangerous level" for greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and needs to get back to 1988 levels. He said Earth's atmosphere can only stay this loaded with man-made carbon dioxide for a couple more decades without changes such as mass extinction, ecosystem collapse and dramatic sea level rises.

"We're toast if we don't get on a very different path," Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute of Space Sciences who is sometimes called the godfather of global warming science, told The Associated Press. "This is the last chance."

Hansen brought global warming home to the public in June 1988 during a Washington heat wave, telling a Senate hearing that global warming was already here. To mark the anniversary, he testified before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming where he was called a prophet, and addressed a luncheon at the National Press Club where he was called a hero by former Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., who headed the 1988 hearing.

To cut emissions, Hansen said coal-fired power plants that don't capture carbon dioxide emissions shouldn't be used in the United States after 2025, and should be eliminated in the rest of the world by 2030. That carbon capture technology is still being developed and not yet cost efficient for power plants.

Burning fossil fuels like coal is the chief cause of man-made greenhouse gases. Hansen said the Earth's atmosphere has got to get back to a level of 350 parts of carbon dioxide per million. Last month, it was 10 percent higher: 386.7 parts per million.

Hansen said he'll testify on behalf of British protesters against new coal-fired power plants. Protesters have chained themselves to gates and equipment at sites of several proposed coal plants in England.

"The thing that I think is most important is to block coal-fired power plants," Hansen told the luncheon. "I'm not yet at the point of chaining myself but we somehow have to draw attention to this."

Frank Maisano, a spokesman for many U.S. utilities, including those trying to build new coal plants, said while Hansen has shown foresight as a scientist, his "stop them all approach is very simplistic" and shows that he is beyond his level of expertise.

The year of Hansen's original testimony was the world's hottest year on record. Since then, 14 years have been hotter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Two decades later, Hansen spent his time on the question of whether it's too late to do anything about it. His answer: There's still time to stop the worst, but not much time.

"We see a tipping point occurring right before our eyes," Hansen told the AP before the luncheon. "The Arctic is the first tipping point and it's occurring exactly the way we said it would."

Hansen, echoing work by other scientists, said that in five to 10 years, the Arctic will be free of sea ice in the summer.

Longtime global warming skeptic Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., citing a recent poll, said in a statement, "Hansen, (former Vice President) Gore and the media have been trumpeting man-made climate doom since the 1980s. But Americans are not buying it."

But Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., committee chairman, said, "Dr. Hansen was right. Twenty years later, we recognize him as a climate prophet."

Justices Take Case on Navy Use of Sonar

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday stepped into a long-running environmental dispute over the impact on whales and other marine mammals of Navy training exercises off Southern California.

The court, warned by the Bush administration that a set of conditions placed on the exercises by the federal appeals court in San Francisco “jeopardizes the Navy’s ability to train sailors and marines for wartime deployment during a time of ongoing hostilities,” agreed to hear the Navy’s appeal during its next term.

The training exercises, which are due to end next January, will continue in the meantime, because the appeals court issued a stay of its own order when it ruled in the case four months ago. That court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, ordered the Navy to suspend or minimize its use of sonar when marine mammals are in the vicinity.

The Navy acknowledges that the sonar can cause “behavioral disruptions” and short-term hearing loss in dolphins and whales, but denies that these effects are serious or lasting. But the Natural Resources Defense Council maintains that the high-intensity sonar causes “mass injury,” including hemorrhaging and stranding. The appeals court said the Navy’s own assessment “clearly indicates that at least some substantial harm will likely occur” without the measures designed to mitigate the sonar’s effects.

The justices themselves will not resolve the debate over the extent of the harm. Rather, as presented to the Supreme Court, the case is a dispute over the limits of executive branch authority and the extent to which the courts should defer to military judgments.

In January, as the case was proceeding in the appeals court, President Bush granted the Navy an exemption from one federal environmental law, the Coastal Zone Management Act. Simultaneously, the Council on Environmental Quality, an executive branch agency, declared that “emergency circumstances” warranted granting an exemption from the full effect of another statute, the National Environmental Policy Act.

These actions did not sway the appeals court, which said that “while we are mindful of the importance of protecting national security, courts have often held, in the face of assertions of potential harm to military readiness, that the armed forces must take precautionary measures to comply with the law.”

In the government’s appeal, Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, No. 07-1239, the administration describes training in the use of sonar to detect submarines as an “essential element” of the exercises, which it says are designed to “train the thousands of military personnel in a strike group to operate as an integrated unit in simultaneous air, surface and undersea warfare.”

The administration’s brief says that by imposing conditions on the use of sonar, “the decision poses substantial harm to national security and improperly overrides the collective judgments of the political branches and the nation’s top naval officers regarding the overriding public interest in a properly trained Navy.”

Under the appeals court’s order, the Navy must suspend the use of sonar or reduce it to specified levels when a marine mammal is seen at certain distances. The appeals courts said this requirement would not compromise the Navy’s ability to conduct the exercises.

Another appeal before the Supreme Court on Monday also presented a clash between executive power and environmental protection, concerning the fence being built on the Mexican border by the Department of Homeland Security.

But in this instance the government had prevailed in the lower court, and the justices, without comment, declined to hear an appeal filed by Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club. The question was the validity of a federal law that allows the secretary of homeland security to waive any federal, state, or local laws that, in the secretary’s “sole discretion,” present obstacles to the fence project.

Michael Chertoff, the department’s secretary, invoked this authority last year in waiving 20 laws, including the Endangered Species Act, to enable the fence project to proceed through a national conservation area in Arizona.

The lawsuit filed by the environmental groups maintained that the statute violated the separation of powers by delegating to the secretary a form of legislative authority. The lawsuit also challenged the law’s unusually truncated judicial review provision, which limits the types of challenges that can be brought in Federal District Court and strips the appeals court of jurisdiction to hear any appeal.

Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the Federal District Court here upheld the law, saying that the breadth of the waiver provision did not make it unconstitutional. The case was Defenders of Wildlife v. Chertoff, No. 07-1180.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Trying to make the blacktop greener

States working to curb pollution from road runoff

Every time it rains, a soup of chemicals washes off roadways: Brake fluid, oil, salt, antifreeze, and heavy metals from tens of thousands of cars pour off the asphalt and, often, into rivers and streams.

Until recently, this form of pollution received little attention from regulators and environmentalists, but a movement is slowly building to create what may seem a contradiction: green highways.

Two weeks ago a federal judge in Boston ruled that the Massachusetts Highway Department was violating the federal Clean Water Act and ordered the agency to better control storm water from roadways in urban areas. Meanwhile, some states are beginning to capture and filter storm water before it reaches waterways, using vegetation and porous median strips among other solutions.

"All the pollution that runs off highways is put very quickly into our waterways," said Christopher M. Kilian, director of the Clean Water Program and the lead lawyer in the Massachusetts case for the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston-based environmental group that sued the Highway Department. "But there are approaches we can use to stop it."

Once, the biggest problems facing waterways such as the Charles River and Boston Harbor were obvious. Raw sewage and toxic chemicals from homes and factories stank and made stepping in the water so foul people would avoid any contact. A decades-long cleanup of these pollution sources, mandated by the Clean Water Act, has gone a long way toward restoring waterways. Boston Harbor now sparkles on many summer days, and the Charles is clean enough that a 1-mile swim is scheduled there tomorrow.

Yet these scrubbing efforts were relatively simple because the pollution could easily be traced back to its sources. Now environmentalists are focusing on a problem that is more dispersed: runoff, carrying everything from dog waste to fertilizer, from lawns, sidewalks, roadways, natural areas, and farms. It is the main reason about 40 percent of rivers, lakes, and estuaries are not clean enough to meet fishing or swimming standards, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

While it's difficult to tease out the highways' share of the problem, federal officials are focusing on them because so many contaminants are washed from roadways, solutions are available and straightforward, and the federal Clean Water Act requires highway departments to deal with the problem.

"Most roads have no controls at all," said Nancy Stoner, director of the Clean Water Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Her group is involved in a long-running lawsuit seeking to force the EPA, which enforces the Clean Water Act, to require anyone building roads, schools, and any private construction to use specific, proven technologies to minimize storm water runoff.

There are many highway contaminants. Chloride, sodium, and calcium can accumulate on the pavement from salt and sanding operations. Ordinary wear and tear causes cars to shed oil, grease, rust, and rubber particles. Once the contaminants are washed into waterways, they can be consumed by fish, frogs, and other aquatic life, or settle in the water, contributing to contaminant levels.

The green highway movement also includes advocacy for the use of recyclable materials for pavement or the creation of wildlife crossings. But environmentalists and scientists say storm water runoff is by far the most pressing problem - and the most expensive to fix.

The solutions are hardly high-tech. The goal is to slow water running off pavement and allow it to percolate through soil, vegetation, and stones, which cleanse it before it reaches waterways. Porous road shoulders and medians allow water to migrate into the ground instead of flowing directly into storm drains and rivers. Man-made ponds and adjacent wetlands hold runoff until it can evaporate or seep through soil. Still, such solutions can be difficult in highly urban areas where space is at a premium.

Headway is being made around the country. In January, California promised to reduce runoff pollution from its freeways in Los Angeles and Ventura counties by 20 percent to settle a lawsuit the Natural Resources Defense Council brought in 1994. Two years ago, the EPA, the Federal Highway Administration, several mid-Atlantic states, and other groups formed the Green Highways Partnership to test small-scale green highway programs that can serve as national models. Maryland has constructed man-made ponds on a pilot basis to hold highway storm water so it can filter through soil more slowly. Universities from Villanova to Louisiana State are working to perfect porous pavement technology.

In Massachusetts, state highway officials say they try to incorporate storm water management when building roads or reconstructing them in urbanized areas. But in its lawsuit, the Conservation Law Foundation said the state wasn't doing anything about runoff from the vast network of roads.

Federal District Court Judge William G. Young agreed, saying highway storm water on Interstate 190 in Lancaster was clearly contributing to pollution in a nearby waterway, as were two Route 495 sites that were polluting the Charles River. He also said the agency needs to do a better job assessing how to keep pollution out of waterways in urbanized areas. He told MassHighway to come back to him with a revised storm water management plan by the end of 2009. He praised the agency for doing a good job given fiscal and other constraints, but said "best efforts, of course, is not the standard."

MassHighway officials said they were pleased with the decision because the judge took pains to compliment them on many of their efforts. They acknowledged that they have not initiated new storm water management technologies on roadways that aren't undergoing any other work because of its prohibitive cost, probably hundreds of millions of dollars if storm water controls were installed on state highways in urban areas. They are now waiting for a US Geological Survey report that will help determine where and how pollution is running off highway segments so they can decide where to focus clean-up efforts.

"I think [the judge] was saying, given the breadth of our responsibility, we are doing a pretty good job," said Highway Commissioner Luisa M. Paiewonsky. "[We are] improving a plan already underway."

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / June 14, 2008

World Poll Finds Global Leadership Vacuum

Bush Widely Mistrusted, But No Other Leader Does Much Better - Only UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Gets Moderately Positive Ratings

A new poll of 20 nations around the world finds that none of the national leaders on the world stage inspire wide confidence. While US President George W. Bush is one of the least trusted leaders, no other leader--including China's Hu Jintao and Russia's Vladimir Putin--has gained a broad international base of support.

Only UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon received largely positive ratings in a worldwide poll that asked respondents whether they trusted international leaders "to do the right thing regarding world affairs." conducted the poll of 19,751 respondents in nations that comprise 60 percent of the world's population. This includes most of the largest nations--China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Russia--as well as Mexico, Argentina, Britain, France, Spain, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, South Korea and Thailand. Fielding was conducted between January 10 and May 6. The margins of error range from +/-2 to 4 percent., a collaborative research project involving research centers from around the world, is managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland.

Sixteen of the 20 publics surveyed say they lack confidence in US President George W. Bush. Only Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf is rated negatively in more nations. Just two countries (Nigeria and India) give Bush positive ratings while a third (Thailand) is divided. Bush also got the highest average percentage of negative ratings (67%).

Although China is a rising world power, most publics do not express confidence in Chinese President Hu Jintao. Thirteen publics give Hu predominantly negative ratings while only five (Nigeria, South Korea, Iran, Azerbaijan and Ukraine) tend to be positive. India is divided. On average 44 percent of those surveyed around the world show little or no confidence in the Chinese leader; only 28 percent express some or a lot of confidence. (In all cases the leader's own public is excluded from the count of countries and the average rating.)

Vladimir Putin remains popular inside Russia as he makes the transition from president to prime minister but he has not emerged as an attractive world leader. Eleven publics have a negative view of Putin while just five are positive and three are divided. On average 32 percent express confidence in Putin--one of the highest positive ratings--but a larger 48 percent do not. No region has predominantly positive views on Putin's global leadership. Putin appears to have become a divisive figure. Although his ratings have improved slightly since a 2007 poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the large positive movement in certain countries--such as China, where Putin's ratings are up 17 points--is balanced by negative movement in others--such as the United States, where his ratings are down 21 points.

"While the worldwide mistrust of George Bush has created a global leadership vacuum, no alternative leader has stepped into the breach," said Steven Kull, director of "Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin are popular among some nations, but more mistrust them than trust them. Also the nations that trust them are not organized into any clusters that have the potential to be a meaningful bloc."

The only world leader to elicit largely positive views is UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. In nine nations a plurality or majority say they have some or a lot of confidence in him to do the right thing. In eight nations a plurality or majority say they have little or no confidence. Three nations are divided.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, though relatively new to the world stage, gets positive ratings in six nations, more than any other chief of state. Nonetheless, even more publics (11) say they do not trust the British leader. Two (France and Thailand) are divided.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has the poorest ratings around the world. Only in China do positive views (37%) outweigh negative ones (30%). Nigeria is divided and the other 18 nations lean negative.

In the Middle East publics are generally the most negative: Egyptians, Jordanians, Iranians and the Palestinians express little or no confidence in nearly all of the leaders rated.

Although France gets positive ratings in other international polls, President Nicolas Sarkozy does not. Fifteen out of 19 nations rate his international leadership unfavorably. On average, 25 percent of those surveyed express confidence in Sarkozy to do right thing while 48 percent express little or no confidence.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gets negative ratings in 13 nations, the most after Bush and Musharraf. Only three nations are slightly positive while one is divided. On average across the 17 nations (excluding Iranians) asked about Ahmadinejad, only 22 percent say they have some or a lot of confidence, while 52 percent say they have little or no confidence.

Although confidence in Ahmadinejad is up slightly from polling conducted by Pew in 2007, he is still far from being a viewed as a credible leader, even in the Muslim world. Majorities in all four Arab nations surveyed (Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories) say they lack confidence in Ahmadinejad. So does a majority in Turkey, including 54 percent who say they have "no confidence at all." Only in Indonesia does a bare plurality view Ahmadinejad favorably as an international leader.


US President George W. Bush has the second largest number of nations expressing negative views of his role in international affairs. Fifteen nations give negative ratings and two give positive ratings. Thailand is divided. On average 67 percent express low confidence.

The one country with a majority expressing a positive view of Bush is Nigeria with 60 percent saying they have some or a lot of confidence. Indians also lean positive (45 to 34%).
Interestingly, this year Chinese views have softened (41% positive, 45% negative)--with the number of those expressing positive views up 10 points since Pew's 2007 poll.

The most negative ratings come from the Middle East region. Despite the Bush administration's renewed efforts to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nearly all Palestinians (95%) express low confidence, with 79 percent expressing "no confidence at all." Nearly as many express a lack of confidence in Egypt (92%, 68% no confidence), Jordan (88%, 84% no confidence) and Turkey (83%, 77% no confidence). Iran, interestingly, gives the mildest negative ratings in the region (80%, 72% no confidence). Nearby Azerbaijan, though, only leans negative (49% negative, 42% positive).

The two Latin American countries polled--Argentina and Mexico--are also intensely negative. In Argentina 84 percent express a lack of confidence (63% no confidence). In Mexico 83 percent express a lack of confidence (54% no confidence). Negative views have risen in Mexico since 2007 by 16 points.

European countries are only slightly less negative on President Bush. Most negative are the French: 85 percent express a lack of confidence (63% no confidence). Among the British, 77 percent give negative ratings (up 7 points from 2007), while 48 percent express no confidence at all.

Interestingly, Russians are relatively moderate with 66 percent saying they lack confidence in Bush to do the right thing and 36 percent saying they have "no confidence at all." Similarly six in ten Ukrainians lack confidence, and 36 percent have none at all.

While Indian views lean positive and Thai views are divided, those of their Asian neighbors are more negative. Majorities in Indonesia and South Korea are negative and China also leans negative, though these publics' negative views are decreasing over time.

Fifty-seven percent of Indonesians express a lack of confidence in Bush, down from 79 percent in 2007. Those expressing "no confidence at all" have dropped from 35 to 19 percent. Among South Koreans, 68 percent give Bush a poor rating, but this too is down from 73 percent in 2007.
The numbers of those saying they have "no confidence at all" have only inched downward from 22 to 18 percent. Among the Chinese, 45 percent lean negative, down from a majority of 51 percent. The number of those giving Bush a positive rating is up 10 points, from 31 to 41 percent.

Chinese President Hu Jintao

Among the eight global leaders assessed, opinion of Hu Jintao rests in the middle range. Thirteen countries give predominantly negative ratings while five give positive ratings and one is divided. On average, 43 percent express a lack of confidence while 28 percent express confidence. Compared to 2007 Pew polling, on average, negative views have increased a bit, but this movement represents a balance between sharp movements both to the positive and the negative among specific countries.

The country most positive about the Chinese President is Nigeria, where 58 percent express a positive view of Hu. Close behind is South Korea where 56 percent say they have confidence in him. This number is up sharply from 2007 when Pew found just 27 percent expressing such confidence.

However, this positive trend in South Korea does not reflect a broader regional trend. Positive views in Indonesia have dropped to 27 percent from 42 percent in 2007, while negative views are now 42 percent. India has held steady with divided views--32 percent express confidence, 30 percent little or none--unchanged from 2007. Thais are mildly negative (29% negative, 25% positive) but 45 percent give no opinion.

The most negative views of Hu, once again, come from the Middle East--and here these views seem to be worsening. Eighty-two percent of Palestinians have little confidence in Hu with 50 percent saying they have "no confidence at all." In Jordan and Turkey, 59 and 58 percent have negative views (52 and 53% say they have no confidence at all, respectively). Egyptians are also mostly negative (53%), but only 18 percent say they have "no confidence at all."

Compared to 2007, Jordanians and Palestinians have grown more negative concerning the Chinese President, with negative ratings rising 21 and 31 points, respectively. A Middle Eastern country that bucks this negative trend is Iran, where a majority of 52 percent has a positive view and just 16 percent a negative view. Also, in Azerbaijan, a plurality of 37 percent has a positive view as compared to 30 percent with a negative view.

One of the most negative publics is in the United States. Seventy-nine percent lack confidence in Hu (33%, no confidence). This is up sharply from 2007 when just 46 percent had a negative view.

European views are moderately negative. Among the French 53 percent do not have confidence in Hu (18% do)--down from 70 percent in 2007. In Britain, 48 percent are negative (up from 39 percent in 2007) while 29 percent are positive.

Russians lean negative (31 to 21%), but 47 percent do not answer. In 2007 Russians leaned slightly positive with similar numbers not answering. In Ukraine an overwhelming two-thirds do not provide an answer; the few that do lean positive (20 to 13%). In 2007, similar numbers did not answer and views were more evenly divided.

Views lean negative in Mexico and Argentina. Argentines are 38 percent negative and 19 percent positive. Mexicans are 44 negative and 34 percent positive, but in Mexico positive views are up 16 points from 2007.

Russian Leader Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin--President at the time of the polling, now Prime Minister--receives ratings comparable to the other European leaders in the poll. Eleven countries have a negative view of Putin, five have a positive view and two are divided. On average, 32 percent express confidence, while 48 percent do not.

Among the sixteen countries also polled by Pew in 2007, Putin's overall ratings are up four points. But this upward trend is the product of a balance between countries that have had large increases in positive views--such as China, where Putin's ratings are up 17 points--and those with large increases in negative views.--such as the United States, where his ratings are down 21 points.

Some of Putin's most positive ratings are found in Asia. The most upbeat country is China, where 75 percent express some or a lot of confidence (up from 58% in 2007). Also notably positive is South Korea, where a majority now expresses confidence in Putin (54%, up from 24%)--due perhaps in part to Russia's role in negotiations with North Korea. India also leans positive (44 to 18 %). However, Indonesians lean negative: just 23 percent express confidence and 46 percent, a lack of confidence. Thais are divided (26% positive, 26% negative, 47% no opinion)

Among Russia's more immediate neighbors, Ukraine has a majority expressing confidence in Putin (59%). The minority with negative views (20%) is down 13 points from 2007. Azerbaijan is divided--45 percent positive to 49 percent negative. Russians themselves are overwhelmingly positive about Putin (80%).

The Western European picture, though, is distinctly more negative. A large majority of French express a lack of confidence (76%), with 55 percent expressing no confidence at all. Spanish views are similar, though less emphatic: 70 percent lack confidence, but only 36 percent have no confidence at all. Fifty-six percent of Britons also express a lack of confidence, up 9 points from 2007.

The Middle East is similarly negative. The Palestinians hold the most negative view of Putin (85%-up from 71% in 2007), with 55 percent expressing no confidence at all. Sixty-eight percent of Jordanians express a lack of confidence (60% no confidence) as do two-thirds of Turks (58% no confidence). Fifty-six percent of Egyptians express a lack of confidence, but this is down from 70 percent in 2007, and just one in four say they have "no confidence at all."

In sharp contrast to its neighbors, a plurality in Iran (48%) expresses "some" or "a lot of" confidence in Putin, and just 27 percent express a lack of confidence.

In the Americas, 71 percent in the United States express a negative view--21 points more than in 2007. In Latin America, a majority of Mexicans (56%) have a negative view, up from 48 percent. Argentines lean negative (47 to 24%).

In Africa, Nigeria is divided, with 40 percent expressing "some" or "a lot of" confidence and 38 percent expressing little or no confidence.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

Ban Ki-moon is the only leader to receive moderately positive ratings. In nine nations a plurality or majority say they have "some" or "a lot of" confidence in him to do the right thing. In eight nations a plurality or majority say they have "little" or "no confidence at all". However, many do not provide an answer.

Those saying that they have confidence include majorities in South Korea (83%) [Ban's country of origin], Nigeria (70%), and China (57%). Pluralities say so in Britain (49 to 27% little or no confidence), France (45 to 21%), India (40 to 22%), Indonesia (39 to 33%), and Azerbaijan (38 to 29%). Interestingly, Iranians also give Ban a positive rating (43 to 18%), despite the sanctions that the United Nations Security Council has imposed on Iran to press it to stop its uranium enrichment program.

Five nations show strongly negative views--all in the Middle East region. Majorities say they have little or no confidence in the Palestinian territories (90%, 59% no confidence), Jordan (70%, 63% no confidence), Turkey (63%, 56% no confidence) and Egypt (78%, 38% no confidence).
Four other countries--the United States, Russia, Argentina and Thailand--predominantly express low levels of confidence in the UN leader, with relatively few saying they have "no confidence at all." In these countries the dominant answer is "not too much" confidence, or a failure to give a response. Those saying they have "not too much" confidence may be expressing a lack of familiarity with the relatively new and low-profile Secretary General, rather than indicating that they hold a negative view of the world leader.

In the United States, 40 percent say they have "not too much confidence," while 20 percent say they have "no confidence at all." Most Russians choose not to answer (46%), though 20 percent say "not too much" and 10 percent say "no confidence at all." Similarly, among Argentines, 36 percent do not answer, 16 percent say "not too much" and 21 percent say they have no confidence. Finally, in Thailand 49 percent do not answer, 23 percent say "not too much" and 7 percent have no confidence.

Views are divided in Mexico, Spain and Ukraine. In Spain, 32 percent express confidence, while 30 percent lack confidence. In Mexico, 44 percent say they have confidence while 41 percent express little or no confidence (16%, no confidence). In Ukraine a remarkably high 67 percent do not answer, while 16 percent express confidence and 18 percent little or no confidence.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown is the national leader that gets the largest number of nations giving him positive ratings. Nonetheless, more nations give him negative ratings (11) than positive ratings (6), while two are divided. On average, just 30 percent say they have confidence in Brown and 43 percent say they have little or no confidence.

The most positive evaluations of Brown can be found among Americans and Nigerians where, in both cases, 59 percent express some or a lot of confidence. Thirty-five and 30 percent, respectively, express little or no confidence.

Views are also fairly positive towards Brown among most Asian publics polled. These especially include South Korea (57% positive) and China (50%). India leans towards positive evaluations (37% positive to 28% negative), though 35 percent do not answer either way. Thais are divided (27% positive, 26% negative, 46% no answer). Only the Indonesians lean negative with 43 percent expressing little or no confidence (28% some or a lot).

Out of all regions polled, the Middle Eastern publics' evaluations of Brown are by far the most negative. Large majorities say they have "little" or "no confidence at all" in his leadership in the Palestinian territories (90%, 67% no confidence), Jordan (72%, 67% no confidence), and Turkey (65%, 60% no confidence). A large majority of Egyptians (66%) also give negative ratings but only 27 percent say they have "no confidence at all." A more modest majority of Iranians (52%) lack confidence in Brown, but most of these (39%) say they have "no confidence at all." Azerbaijanis, however, lean positive (43 to 32% negative).

Britain's European neighbors have more moderate or unformed views of Brown. At this stage the French public is roughly equally divided between those who say they have a positive view (35%), a negative view (33%) and have no view either way (33%). Russians lean negative (40 to 19%) but 40 percent do not answer. Ukrainians also lean negative (26 to 17%), with more than half (57%) declining to offer an opinion. In Spain, 43 percent are negative, 22 percent positive, with no response from 35 percent. Britons themselves are divided on Brown (48% positive, 46% negative).

The Latin Americans polled also lean negative with many not answering. Among Mexicans, 46 percent are negative, 34 percent positive and 21 percent do not answer. Among Argentines, 45 percent are negative, 22 percent positive and 32 percent do not answer.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Among the 19 nations questioned, only four rate Nicolas Sarkozy positively while 15 rate him negatively. On average, 25 percent say they have confidence in Sarkozy to do right thing in world affairs, while 48 percent say they have little or no confidence.

Most of his positive ratings come from Asian countries. South Koreans have the largest number (48%) expressing confidence in Sarkozy's ability to do the right thing regarding world affairs. Chinese lean positive (42 to 22%) though 37 percent do not take a position. Indians also lean positive (35 to 30%)--though less so--and fairly large numbers (35%) also do not express a view. Indonesians, on the other hand, lean negative (46 to 19%) with 35 percent not answering. Thais are similar (30% negative, 23% positive, 48% no view).

Nigerians are the second most positive about Sarkozy. Forty-seven percent have a positive view, 33 percent a negative view and 21 percent do not answer.

Harshly negative views are found in most Middle East publics. Low levels of confidence in Sarkozy's leadership are expressed by very large majorities in the Palestinian territories (91%, 67% no confidence), Turkey (73%, 68% no confidence), and Jordan (72%, 66% no confidence). A large majority of Egyptians (68%) also express negative views, but only 28 percent say they have "no confidence at all."

More moderate views are expressed by Iranians and Azerbaijanis. Iranians lean negative (47 to 10%) with large numbers not taking a position. Azerbaijanis also lean negative (48 to 31%).
Publics in the Americas have little confidence in Sarkozy's leadership. Fifty-five percent of Americans express a lack of confidence (as compared to 38% expressing confidence) as do 52 percent of Argentines (26% expressing confidence). Mexicans also lean negative (48 to 33%).
France's regional neighbors also lean negative toward Sarkozy, with many still withholding judgment. The British lean negative (42 to 32%), with 24 percent undecided. Russians also lean negative (42 to 20%) with more (38%) not answering. Ukrainians tilt negative (28 to 18%), with a remarkable 54 percent withholding judgment. The Spanish are Sarkozy's harshest critics, with 60 percent expressing little or no confidence and just 25 percent expressing some or a lot. French opinion of their own leader, while negative, is milder than that of the Spanish (54% negative, 44% positive).

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

For Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 13 nations give negative ratings, two give mildly positive ratings and two are divided. On average, just 24 percent say they have "some" or "a lot of" confidence, while 52 percent say they have "little" or "no confidence at all" in Ahmadinejad to do the right thing in world affairs. Compared to polling conducted by Pew in 2007, positive views are up just slightly, like in the case of Putin, masking a number of sharp divergent movements in opinion among specific countries.

The most favorable views of Ahmadinejad are found in Asia. Among the Chinese, a plurality now has a positive view (38 to 27% negative)--up 16 points from 2007. Similarly, in India views now lean positive (35 to 26%)--also up 16 points. In both cases this is a reversal from 2007 when both countries had pluralities expressing a lack of confidence. In Indonesia, views are now divided, with 40 percent expressing some or a lot of confidence (down 11 points), and 36 percent expressing little or no confidence.

However, a majority of South Koreans show a lack of confidence (62%). Thais also lean negative, 34 percent to 15 percent (though 50% did not respond).

Views are quite negative among Iran's neighbors in the Middle East. The most negative are Turks with 62 percent expressing a lack of confidence (54% no confidence). Sixty-two percent of Palestinians also hold this view (36% no confidence). Fifty-six percent in Egypt and Jordan also express a lack of confidence (29% and 43%, respectively, have no confidence at all). Likewise, in Iran's immediate neighbor Azerbaijan, 54 percent are negative.

In Europe, negative views of Ahmadinejad prevail. A large majority in France (71%) expresses a lack of confidence (51% no confidence) as do 61 percent of the British. Pluralities in Russia (40 to 11%) and Ukraine (27 to 8%) lack confidence.

The most negative view is in the United States. An overwhelming 87 percent express a negative view with 56 percent saying they have "no confidence at all." The negative majority in the United States has grown 15 points over 2007, apparently due to growing awareness of Ahmadinejad (the number of respondents with no opinion is down 14 points this year).

In Latin America, both Argentina and Mexico have majorities with negative views. In Argentina 52 percent are negative (33% no confidence) and in Mexico 65 percent lack confidence (40% no confidence).

Nigerian opinion is divided, with 42 percent expressing some or a lot of confidence and 39 percent expressing little or no confidence.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf

Only one country leans toward a positive view of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, one is divided and 18 have predominantly negative views. On average across 20 publics, a majority of 54 percent say they have "little" or "no confidence at all" that Musharraf will do the right thing regarding world affairs, while just 18 percent have "a lot" or "some" confidence in him to do the right thing.

The one country that gives Musharraf a mildly positive rating is China, where 37 percent are positive and 30 percent negative. Nigerians are divided--39 percent positive, 42 percent negative.

The most negative views are found in Pakistan's Middle Eastern neighbors. Eighty-one percent of Palestinians say they do not have confidence in Musharraf (55% no confidence at all). Very negative views are also found in Jordan (64%, 56% no confidence at all), Egypt (70%, 36% no confidence at all) and Turkey (61%, 55% no confidence at all). Azerbaijan leans negative (45 to 29%).

With the exception of China, views among Asian countries are quite negative. Majorities have negative views of Musharraf in South Korea (66%) and in Pakistan's neighbor, India (54%). Views lean negative in Indonesia (48 to 22%) and Thailand (38 to 31%).

Among European publics polled, a lack of confidence is most widespread among the French (62%), Spanish (61%) and British (57%), along with a plurality of Russians (42 to 7%). Ukrainians lean negative (28 to 4%), but two-thirds do not provide an answer.

In the Americas an overwhelming majority in the US (79%) have a negative view as do a large majority of Mexicans (65%). A plurality of Argentines (50 to 8%) also has a negative view.


Photos: Charles Ommanney (3); Khue Bui (2); AP (1)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Cheaper, More Efficient Solar Cells

A new type of material could allow solar cells to harvest far more light.

Much more efficient solar cells may soon be possible as a result of technology that more efficiently captures and uses light. StarSolar, a startup based in Cambridge, MA, aims to capture and use photons that ordinarily pass through solar cells without generating electricity. The company, which is licensing technology developed at MIT, claims that its designs could make it possible to cut the cost of solar cells in half while maintaining high efficiency. This would make solar power about as cheap as electricity from the electric grid.

The effort uses a type of material called a photonic crystal that makes it possible to "do things with light that have never been done before," says John Joannopoulos, a professor of physics at MIT who heads the lab where the new designs for solar applications were developed. Photonic crystals, which can be engineered to reflect and diffract all the photons in specific wavelengths of light, have long been attractive for optical communications, in which the materials can be used to direct and sort light-borne data. Now new manufacturing processes could make the photonic crystals practical for much-larger-scale applications such as photovoltaics.

StarSolar's approach addresses a long-standing challenge in photovoltaics. Silicon, the active material that is used in most solar cells today, has to do double duty. It both absorbs incoming light and converts it into electricity. Solar cells could be cheaper if they used less silicon. If the silicon is made thinner than it is now, it may still retain its ability to convert the photons it absorbs into electricity. But fewer photons will be absorbed, decreasing the efficiency of the cell.

MIT researchers developed sophisticated computer simulations to understand how thin layers of photonic crystal could be engineered to capture and recycle the photons that slip through thin layers of silicon. Silicon easily absorbs blue light, but not red and infrared light. The researchers found that by creating a specific pattern of microscopic spheres of glass within a precisely designed photonic crystal, and then applying this pattern in a thin layer at the back of a solar cell, they could redirect unabsorbed photons back into the silicon.

Today's solar cells already reflect some of the light that passes through the silicon. But the photonic crystal has distinct advantages. Conventional solar cells are backed with a sheet of aluminum. The photonic crystal reflects more light than the aluminum does, especially once the aluminum oxidizes. And the photonic crystal diffracts the light so that it reenters the silicon at a low angle. The low angle prevents the light from escaping the silicon. Instead, it bounces around inside; this increases the chances of the light being absorbed and converted into electricity.

As a result, the photonic crystal can increase the efficiency of solar cells by up to 37 percent, says Peter Bermel, CTO and a cofounder of StarSolar. This makes it possible to use many times less silicon, he says, cutting costs enough to compete with electricity from the grid in many markets. The savings would be especially large now, since a current shortage in refined silicon is keeping solar-cell prices high and slowing the growth of solar-cell production.

The company plans to work with existing solar-cell makers, applying its photonic crystals with a machine added to the solar-cell makers' assembly lines, Bermel says. But StarSolar needs to choose a large-scale manufacturing technique that will allow it to produce the photon crystals inexpensively. What's needed is a way to cheaply arrange two materials in an orderly three-dimensional pattern. For example, microscopic spheres of glass would be arranged in rows and columns inside silicon. Currently, techniques such as e-beam lithography can be used, but that's too slow for large-scale manufacturing.

Shawn-Yu Lin, professor of physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has developed a method for manufacturing eight-inch disks of photonic crystal--a measurement considerably larger than what can be done with conventional techniques. The method, which employs optical lithography similar to that used in the semiconductor industry, works best for a type of solar cell that concentrates light onto a small chunk of expensive semiconductor material. Such a device would require a relatively small amount of photonic crystal compared with conventional solar cells. Lin says the technique could be applied for more-conventional solar panels, although it would be expensive.

Another potentially less-expensive method, called interference lithography, creates orderly patterns in the photonic-crystal materials. The method is fast and uses machines that are far less expensive than those used for conventional optical lithography. It also requires fewer steps than Lin's existing process, so he says it could be far cheaper. Such methods have been developed by Henry Smith, professor of electrical engineering at MIT, who was not involved with the StarSolar-related work. Smith says his interference-lithography method could be used to build templates for imprinting photonic-crystal patterns on large areas.

Another promising technique is self-assembly, in which the chemical and physical properties of material building blocks are engineered so that they arrange themselves in orderly patterns on a surface. For example, Chekesha Liddell, professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell University, has engineered building blocks in the shape of peanuts and the caps of mushrooms that line up in rows because of the way they fit together and the tug of short-range forces between them. She says this could be useful for assembling photonic crystals for solar cells.

With such approaches available, Bermel says that StarSolar hopes to have a prototype solar cell within a year and a pilot manufacturing line operating in 2008.

Source MIT Technology Review

Nature's Photonic Crystal

Scientists find an elusive diamond structure in a Brazilian beetle.

Researchers have discovered a species of Brazilian beetle that has the unusual trait of reflecting iridescent green from almost any angle. By examining the structure of the beetle's scales, scientists at the University of Utah found an ideal photonic-crystal structure for visible light--a type of material that optical scientists have been seeking for years.

Three-dimensional periodic structures called photonic crystals are potentially valuable materials for controlling photons; scientists could use photonic crystals operating at visible wavelengths to develop more-efficient solar cells, telecommunications, sensors, and even optical computer chips. A diamond-based structure, in particular, is thought to be the most effective three-dimensional photonic crystal for visible light, because it can reflect a wide band of colors and has high reflectivity. Less light escaping means researchers can better control and manipulate the photons.

Photonic crystals that control visible light have been challenging for scientists to fabricate from appropriate materials, because of how small the periodicity in the structure must be to manipulate wavelengths that short. One- and two-dimensional photonic crystals for visible light have been created, as well as a three-dimensional diamond structure for the longer wavelengths of infrared. A diamond structure that can reflect visible light over all angles for all polarizations has not yet been made. But studying this beetle's scales may provide new insights into how to construct such a three-dimensional photonic crystal for visible light.

Michael Bartl, a professor at the University of Utah, graduate student Jeremy Galusha, and their colleagues used a very thin slicing technique to discover and model the scales of the Lamprocyphus augustus. Inside each scale, which is about 100 micrometers across and 15 to 20 micrometers thick, is a three-dimensional photonic structure. The structure resembles how carbon atoms arrange in a diamond, and it consists of a crystal lattice with a repeating periodic unit structure of about 300 nanometers, says Bartl. Within a scale, the diamond lattice is positioned at different orientations, giving the beetle its green sheen from almost any angle.

The diamond-structured photonic crystals are among the most difficult to fabricate, says Georgia Tech professor Zhong Lin Wang. "Using biology as a template, this paper shows the possibility of fabricating man-made diamond photonic crystals with well-designed optical performance," he says.

The beetle's scales themselves can't be used for any practical application, because the chitin material is too fragile and not conductive. The group is in the process of molding the beetle scales out of a semiconductor. "We're making good progress," says Bartl. Besides using the beetle structure as a mold, he and his colleagues are also studying how the beetle fabricates the structure, in hopes of mimicking the process to create artificial diamond photonic structures.

Applications using photonic crystals "have been more or less restricted to the near infrared spectrum," says Ayman Abouraddy, a research scientist at MIT. "We already know [that the diamond structure] will be useful; we just don't know how to make it efficiently. The fact that a beetle--with a down-and-dirty chemical synthesis approach--is able to create quite a clean structure like this is surprising."
Source - Technology Review by MIT

Friday, June 6, 2008


Scores of countries are overpumping aquifers as they struggle to satisfy their growing water needs.

The drilling of millions of irrigation wells has pushed water withdrawals beyond recharge rates, in effect leading to groundwater mining. The failure of governments to limit pumping to the sustainable yield of aquifers means that water tables are now falling in countries that contain more than half the world’s people, including the big three grain producers--China, India, and the United States.

Most of the world’s aquifers are replenishable, so that when they are depleted, the maximum rate of pumping will be automatically reduced to the rate of recharge. Fossil aquifers, however, are not replenishable. For these--including the vast U.S. Ogallala aquifer, the deep aquifer under the North China Plain, or the Saudi aquifer, for example--depletion brings pumping to an end. Farmers who lose their irrigation water have the option of returning to lower-yield dryland farming if rainfall permits. But in more arid regions, such as in the southwestern United States or the Middle East, the loss of irrigation water means the end of agriculture.

Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvests in some countries, including China, which rivals the United States as the world’s largest grain producer. A groundwater survey released in Beijing in August 2001 revealed that the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces over half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.

The survey reported that under Hebei Province in the heart of the North China Plain, the average level of the deep aquifer was dropping nearly 3 meters (10 feet) per year. Around some cities in the province, it was falling twice as fast. As the deep aquifer is depleted, the region is losing its last water reserve--its only safety cushion.

A World Bank study indicates that China is mining underground water in three adjacent river basins in the north--those of the Hai, which flows through Beijing and Tianjin; the Yellow; and the Huai, the next river south of the Yellow. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, the shortfall in the Hai basin of nearly 40 billion tons of water per year (1 ton equals 1 cubic meter) means that when the aquifer is depleted, the grain harvest will drop by 40 million tons--enough to feed 120 million Chinese.

As serious as water shortages are in China, they are even more serious in India, where the margin between food consumption and survival is so precarious. To date, India’s 100 million farmers have drilled 21 million wells, investing some $12 billion in wells and pumps. In a survey of India’s water situation, Fred Pearce reported in New Scientist that "half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them."

India’s grain harvest, squeezed both by water scarcity and the loss of cropland to non-farm uses, has plateaued since 2000. A 2005 World Bank study reports that 15 percent of India’s food supply is produced by mining groundwater. Stated otherwise, 175 million Indians are fed with grain produced with water from irrigation wells that will soon go dry.

In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas--three leading grain-producing states--the underground water table has dropped by more than 30 meters (100 feet). As a result, wells have gone dry on thousands of farms in the southern Great Plains, forcing farmers to return to lower-yielding dryland farming. Although this mining of underground water is taking a toll on U.S. grain production, irrigated land accounts for only one fifth of the U.S. grain harvest, compared with close to three fifths of the harvest in India and four fifths in China.

Pakistan, a country with 164 million people, is also mining its underground water. Observation wells near the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi in the fertile Punjab plain show a fall in the water table between 1982 and 2000 that ranges from 1 to nearly 2 meters a year. In the province of Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan, water tables around the capital, Quetta, are falling by 3.5 meters per year. Throughout the province, six basins have exhausted their groundwater supplies, leaving their irrigated lands barren. Sardar Riaz A. Khan, former director of Pakistan’s Arid Zone Research Institute, expects that within 10–15 years virtually all the basins outside the canal-irrigated areas will have depleted their groundwater supplies, depriving the province of much of its grain harvest.

Iran, a country of 71 million people, is overpumping its aquifers by an average of 5 billion tons of water per year, the water equivalent of one third of its annual grain harvest. Under the small but agriculturally rich Chenaran Plain in northeastern Iran, the water table was falling by 2.8 meters a year in the late 1990s. New wells being drilled both for irrigation and to supply the nearby city of Mashad are responsible. Villages in eastern Iran are being abandoned as wells go dry, generating a flow of "water refugees."

Saudi Arabia, a country of 25 million people, is as water-poor as it is oil-rich. Relying heavily on subsidies, it developed an extensive irrigated agriculture based largely on its deep fossil aquifer. After several years of supporting wheat prices at five times the world market level, the government was forced to face fiscal reality and cut the subsidies. Its wheat harvest dropped from a high of 4.1 million tons in 1992 to 2.7 million tons in 2007, a drop of 34 percent. Some Saudi farmers are now pumping water from wells that are 4,000 feet deep, nearly four fifths of a mile or 1.2 kilometers. Recognizing its hydrologic limitations, in early 2008 the Saudi government announced plans to phase out wheat production entirely by 2016.

In neighboring Yemen, a nation of 22 million, the water table under most of the country is falling by roughly 2 meters a year as water use outstrips the sustainable yield of aquifers. In western Yemen’s Sana’a Basin, the estimated annual water extraction of 224 million tons exceeds the annual recharge of 42 million tons by a factor of five, dropping the water table 6 meters per year. World Bank projections indicate the Sana’a Basin--site of the national capital, Sana’a, and home to 2 million people--may be pumped dry by 2010.

With its population growing at 3 percent a year and with water tables falling everywhere, Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basket case. With its grain production falling by two thirds over the last 20 years, Yemen now imports four fifths of its grain supply.

Since the overpumping of aquifers is occurring in many countries more or less simultaneously, the depletion of aquifers and the resulting harvest cutbacks could come at roughly the same time. And the accelerating depletion of aquifers means this day may come soon, creating potentially unmanageable food scarcity.

Lester R. Brown

# # #

Adapted from Chapter 4, "Emerging Water Shortages," in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

1st Demonstration-scale Cellulosic Ethanol Plant Opens in U.S.

A 1.4 million gallon demonstration-scale plant will use waste biomass to make biofuel.

A biorefinery built to produce 1.4 million gallons of ethanol a year from cellulosic biomass will open tomorrow in Jennings, LA. Built by Verenium, based in Cambridge, MA, the plant will make ethanol from agricultural waste left over from processing sugarcane.

The new Verenium plant is the first demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States. It will be used to try out variations on the company's technology and is designed to run continuously. Verenium wants to demonstrate that it can create ethanol for $2 a gallon, which it hopes will make the fuel competitive with other types of ethanol and gasoline. Next year, the company plans to begin construction on commercial plants that will each produce about 20 to 30 million gallons of ethanol a year.

Until now, technology for converting nonfood feedstocks into ethanol has been limited to the lab and to small-scale pilot plants that can produce thousands of gallons of ethanol a year. Since these don't operate continuously, they don't give an accurate idea of how much it will ultimately cost to produce cellulosic ethanol in a commercial-scale facility.

Almost all ethanol biofuel in the United States is currently made from corn kernels. But the need for cellulosic feedstocks of ethanol has been underscored recently as food prices worldwide have risen sharply, in part because of the use of corn as a source of biofuels. At the same time, the rising cost of corn and gas have begun to make cellulosic ethanol more commercially attractive, says Wallace Tyner, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. A new Renewable Fuels Standard, part of an energy bill that became law late last year, mandates the use of 100 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels by 2010, and 16 billion by 2022.

So far, however, there are no commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants in operation in the United States, although a number of facilities are scheduled to start production in the next few years. The Department of Energy is currently funding more than a dozen companies that will be building demonstration- and commercial-scale plants. One of these, Range Fuels, based in Broomfield, CO, plans to open a commercial-scale plant next year. It will have the capacity to produce 20 million gallons of ethanol and methanol a year.

Verenium will use a combination of acid pretreatments, enzymes, and two types of bacteria to make ethanol from the plant matter--called bagasse--that's left over from processing sugarcane to make sugar. It will also process what's called energy cane, a relative of sugarcane that's lower in sugar and higher in fiber. The high fiber content allows the plants to grow taller, increasing yield from a given plot of land.

Cane bagasse largely consists of bundles of cellulose that are surrounded by hemicellulose. Cellulose is made of long chains of glucose, a six-carbon sugar of the type usually fermented to make ethanol from sources such as corn. Hemicellulose, however, is made of five-carbon sugars, which typically can't be fermented using the same organisms as glucose. One of the things that makes Verenium's process novel, says John Malloy, the company's executive vice president, is its ability to ferment sugars from both cellulose and hemicellulose.

The process begins when the cane is ground up and cooked under high pressure with a mild acid to hydrolyze the hemicellulose and separate it from the cellulose. The five-carbon sugars in hemicellulose are then fermented using genetically modified E. coli. The cellulose is broken down with enzymes and fermented with another type of bacteria called Klebsiella oxytoca. This bacteria does double duty, since it also produces enzymes that break down cellulose, reducing the amount of enzymes from outside sources by 50 percent. The dilute ethanol produced from fermentation of both types of sugar is then distilled to make fuel.

In addition to opening the demonstration plant, Verenium is also starting to grow energy cane and to work with local farmers to ensure a steady stream of material for its planned commercial plants. Short term, the company says that it can rely on leftover bagasse from sugar production, but eventually it will draw on energy cane grown specifically to make ethanol. Provisions in the Farm Bill, which was recently passed by the United States Congress, will help by providing farmers with incentives to plant energy crops, says Carlos Riva, Verenium's CEO. The incentives are important because it takes two to three years for energy cane, a perennial plant, to become established and reach ideal production levels. As a result, farmers will need to start planting the crops next year, before commercial plants are built and there is a market for these crops.

The opening of the demonstration plant, and the current construction of a number of other demonstration- and commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants, marks a turning point for the industry, Riva says. The development of improved enzymes and fermentation organisms means that no further scientific breakthroughs are needed to make cellulosic ethanol commercially successful, he says. "There's been a tremendous amount of background work in science and technology development," he says. "We've learned so much about the process that the really important thing now is to start to deploy the technology at a commercial scale."

Source - Technology Review
Photo Credit: Shelly Harrison Photography

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Oil Left in the Ground

High prices still haven't prompted companies to use advanced extraction methods.

Even with record-high oil prices, about two-thirds of the oil in known oil fields is being left in the ground. That's because existing technologies that could extract far more oil--as much as about 75 percent of the oil in some oil fields--aren't being widely used, according to experts in the petroleum industry.

Several well-established technologies, including "smart oil fields," exist that could significantly boost the supply of petroleum from oil reservoirs. But a lack of investment in such technologies, particularly by the national oil companies that control the vast majority of the world's oil reserves, is holding back implementation.

When oil is drawn from a field too quickly, or from a bad location, or with the wrong kind of well, large amounts of oil can be left behind, says Richard Sears, a visiting scientist at MIT who has served as a vice president for exploration at Royal Dutch Shell, based in the Netherlands. But the best technologies for managing an oil field require up-front investment--when an oil field is mapped and characterized and the first wells are drilled--and the payoff can take decades.

In most oil reservoirs, the oil resides in porous rock in geologic layers that are tens of meters thick but stretch for miles. A conventional oil well is a vertical shaft, so it is in contact with only a narrow cross section of the reservoir. Such a well depends on oil percolating through microscopic pores over long distances. That can slow production, and often oil can be stranded inside the irregular geometry of the oil field.

For 15 to 20 years, however, it's been possible to drill horizontal wells. These follow along the length of an oil field, so that the well is in contact with oil for miles, rather than for just several meters. What's more, advanced imaging technologies and new drilling rigs have made it possible in recent years to drill to an accuracy of one or two meters, Sears says. The increased precision in drilling allows oil companies to stay close to the top of the reservoir, where the oil is, and away from the water that can exist in the reservoir.

It has also become possible to make "smart wells" that include sensors that can survive the extreme temperatures and pressures found deep underground. These allow oil companies to detect, for example, when water, instead of oil, is being pulled into the well, and to quickly shut off production from that area, while continuing to produce from other sections of the well.
Such smart oil fields have started to become more common for international oil companies such as Shell, Exxon-Mobil, and BP. But they still aren't used in most oil fields. And their use is particularly low in fields run by national oil companies, says Larry Schwartz, a longtime researcher and scientific advisor for Schlumberger, a Houston-based company that provides various services to oil companies.

Schlumberger historically focused on providing services at the "front end," he says, which includes taking measurements, such as of the amount of oil and how easy the oil will be to produce, and "drilling sophisticated wells." But since oil prices have been high, the company's biggest revenue stream has come from projects related to improving existing wells, such as by fracturing rock underground to try to improve oil production at conventional wells that have stopped producing as much as they used to.

Steven Koonin, BP's chief scientist, says that cutting-edge research could lead to automated oil rigs on the sea floor, ultra-deep-water ocean drilling, and arctic exploration and production, as well as to technology for extracting oil from unconventional sources, such as shale. But although oil prices have been higher than $60 a barrel for almost three years, Koonin says that for the most advanced technologies, "oil prices will have to stay high for a couple of years longer before companies think they can make big investments."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Billionaire Oilman T. Boone Pickens Backs Wind Power

(CNN) -- Billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens is sinking billions of dollars into a new wind farm in Texas. It is likely to become the biggest in the world, producing enough power for the equivalent of 1.3 million homes. CNN's Ali Velshi asked the oil legend why he thinks wind could be the answer to this country's energy problems:

Ali Velshi: Tell me about the wind. Now, you are buying, for a start, more than 600 wind turbines from General Electric. You're going to put them on this big tract of land in Texas, and you're going to generate a lot of electricity.

What happens to that electricity? Tell me where you think you're going to make your money and how this is going to help the situation in America.

T. Boone Pickens: Well, that's the first step to a 4,000-megawatt wind farm. This is 1,000 megawatts.

We start receiving those turbines in mid 2010. We will have the total 4,000 megawatts finished by the end of 2015. That power will go into a transmission line that will tie into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas system in the state of Texas, and it will be transmitted downstate.

Velshi: What's your view of wind power? It's one of several things that we should be looking at in terms of powering our homes, electrical power? We get most of it from coal and natural gas, and some from nuclear. Are you thinking it's one of the formats of power we should be thinking about, or is this going to be bigger than we all thought?

Pickens: The Department of Energy came out with a study in April of '07 that said we could generate 20 percent of our electricity from wind. And the wind power is -- you know, it's clean, it's renewable. It's -- you know, it's everything you want. And it's a stable supply of energy.

It will be located in [the] central part of the United States, which will be the best from a safety standpoint to be located. You have a wind corridor that goes from Pampa, Texas, to the Canadian border. And it has -- the wind, it's unbelievable that we have not done more with wind. Look at Germany and Spain. They have developed their wind way beyond what we have, and they don't have as much wind as we do. It's not unlike the French have done with their nuclear. They're 80 percent power generated off of nuclear, we're 20 percent.

Velshi: I'm fascinated by wind power. I love going by a field of these turbines. And I think they're fascinating.

You don't happen to think they're attractive, and you're not really putting them on your land. You're going to be using other people's land to put these things on.

Pickens: That's right. And it's very clear, these are my neighbors. And they want them. It generates income for them.

A turbine will generate somewhere around 20,000 [dollars] a year in royalty income. And on a 640-acre tract, you can put five to 10 of these on the tract. And you don't have to have them if you don't want them.

Velshi: And it's quite common that people who maybe have a piece of land, they might be farmers or something like that, this is extra income to them by making a deal with somebody like you who is going put these things up, if they don't mind having them on the land. Do they get the electricity from it or do they just get a royalty check?

Pickens: A royalty check. But look at Sweetwater, Texas. That town was 12,000 people, then went down below 10,000. The wind came in, it's above 12,000 in population now. The local economy is booming.

That can be repeated over and over and over again all the way to the Canadian border. Then you have a solar corridor that goes from Sweetwater, Texas, west to the West coast, and that solar corridor can also be developed.

But we are going to have to do something different in America. You can't keep paying out $600 billion a year for oil.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Air Pollution Increases Blood Clot Risk

(WebMD) Air pollution increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) -- dangerous blood clots in the veins -- even at pollution levels the EPA deems "acceptable."

Harvard researcher Andrea Baccarelli, MD, PhD, and colleagues in Italy studied 870 people diagnosed with DVT from 1995 to 2005. They compared their particulate air pollution exposure in the year before their diagnosis to that of 1,210 matched people without DVT.

They found that DVT risk goes up 70% for every 10 microgram-per-cubic-meterrise in particulate air pollution above 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air (the lowest pollution level measured in the study).

The U.S. EPA standard for particulate air pollution is 150 micrograms per cubic meter of air. However, it's likely that fine and very fine particles cause most of the health risks linked to particulate air pollution. The EPA sets much lower standards for these smaller particles, which Baccarelli and colleagues did not specifically measure."

Our findings introduce a novel and common risk factor into the pathogenesis of DVT and, at the same time, give further substance to the call for tighter standards and continued efforts aimed at reducing the impact of urban air pollutants on human health," Baccarelli and colleagues conclude.

Air pollution affects the heart and blood vessels even more than the lungs, notes Robert D. Brook, MD, a University of Michigan expert on the cardiovascular effects of air pollution. An editorial by Brook accompanies the Baccarelli report in the May 12 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

The study, Brook notes, adds DVT to a long list of cardiovascular illnesses linked to air pollution that includes heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, and sudden death.

However, Brook warns that while Baccarelli and colleagues link air pollution to a huge increase in DVT risk, part of this result may be due to chance or the unique circumstances of the population studied. Other studies are needed to better determine the absolute risk.

Even so, Brook says, we don't have to wait for these studies -- we already know that air pollution, even at current levels, is not healthy."

You do not need to know every last detail about the archer who shot you with a poison arrow before you know you need to pull the arrow out," he writes.

to the source


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Shell pulls out of Iran gas deal

LONDON, May 10 (Reuters) - Oil major Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L: Quote, Profile, Research) has pulled out of a planned gas project in Iran, after coming under pressure not to participate from U.S. lawmakers who were concerned about Iran's nuclear programme. A spokeswoman said on Saturday that the world's second-largest non government-controlled oil company by market capitalisation was pulling out of Phase 13 of the giant South Pars gas field but may yet join later stages of the field's development.

Shell, Spain's Repsol (REP.MC: Quote, Profile, Research) and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding in January 2002 to develop Phase 13 in a project to be known as Persian LNG.

At the time, Shell said deliveries of liquefied natural gas -- gas cooled to liquid under pressure for transportation in special tankers -- could begin in 2007.

However, United Nations sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear programme, which it claims is for power generation but which the U.S. and European states believe is aimed at developing weapons, and criticisms of the deal from U.S. politicians and investors, slowed progress.

Meanwhile Iran grew impatient and threatened Shell with eviction from the project if it did not commit formally.

The spokeswoman for the Anglo-Dutch company said:

"We have agreed the principal of substitution of alternative later phases for the PLNG project so that INOC can proceed with the immediate development of Phase 13."

She would not give a reason for the decision. Repsol was not available for comment.

Iran will now need to find new partners for the project. Media reports have suggested Russia's Gazprom (GAZP.MM: Quote, Profile, Research), Indian Oil Corp (IOC.BO: Quote, Profile, Research) and Chinese companies could join, as they are expected to be less susceptible to U.S. political pressure, but the companies have limited experience of LNG.
(by Tom Bergin, editing by David Christian-Edwards)