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Will Hybrids and Electrics Benefit from Demise of Internal Combustion Engine?

You would think that to the extent the old-fashioned car powered by an internal combustion engine comes into disrepute, because of its noxious emissions and oil consumption, the obvious beneficiaries will be the hybrid-electric and all-electric vehicle. But you might be wrong, to judge from the New York Times's second annual "energy for tomorrow" conference, which was devoted to "Building Sustainable Cities."

Last year the Gray Lady knocked the ball out of the park with a conference sharply focused on a single theme, the radically stronger U.S. position in energy—a development little noticed then that has become a virtual truism in the meantime. A repeat performance was not to be expected this year. But even so, "Building Sustainable Cities" delivered some startling perspectives too.

Most shocking, perhaps, was the level of hostility expressed by many speakers to the automobile as such. Jaime Lerner, a former mayor of Brazil's Curitiba, known for the work he did there introducing an integrated mass transportation system that has been copied the world over, expressed the belief that cars some day soon will be seen as noxious as tobacco is today. "The car is going to be the cigarette of the future," Lerner said.

The distaste Lerner and others expressed had to do not merely with pollutants and gasoline but, first and foremost, with congestion and what you might call human equities. Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, said his transportation reforms emphasized wide use of mini-buses (like the VW "Volksbus" seen ubiquitously in Mexico City), which after all emit pollutants and consume hydrocarbons too. The decisive factor for Penalosa is the amount of urban space consumed by a bus, as compared with a private car. "If we are all equal before the law," he said, then "a bus carrying 100 people should be entitled to 100 times as much road space as a private car."

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Groundwater Contamination Is the Latest Bad News from Fukushima

As one who believes that nuclear power has a vital role to play in guaranteeing our future energy supplies and in lowering the risk of catastrophic climate change, I am chagrined to report that Fukushima is still providing plenty of ammunition to anti-nuclear forces, two years after the worse-than-imagined cascading disasters that befell the reactor complex in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The New York Times reported on April 30 that groundwater is infiltrating the ravaged reactor complex at a rate of 75 gallons per minute (almost 300 liters/m), straining the operators' ability to collect the contaminated water and prevent it for escaping into the Pacific Ocean.

On top of that, there is serious concern that the accumulating water could swamp the improvised systems that cool the damaged cores, and cause another major accident.

"It feels like we are being chased, but we are doing our best to stay a step in front," a Tepco general manager and spokesperson told the Times.

Already, tanks built to accommodate the strontium-laden groundwater have the capacity of 112 Olympic-size pools (photo). And yet Tepco is planning to remove a small forest near the plant to make room for more tanks. Originally, Tepco thought it would be able to dump wastewater from the plant into the ocean, after filtering out most of the strontium and other radioactive materials. But public outcry over the amount of tritium remaining in the water has led to that idea being scotched.

Could a new generation of small, modular reactors, built underground, give new life to nuclear construction in the advanced industrial countries? Two designs are looking especially promising, as Matthew Wald of the Times reported separately last week. But, as one caustic critic told Wald, the nice thing about paper designs is that they only carry the risk of paper cuts; defects often become apparent only when designs are further along and construction begins.

Photo: Kyodo/AP Images

New York Politicians Decline to be Anti-Nuclear

New York City being New York City, it was hardly surprising Monday night that eight of the nine candidates vying to replace Michael Bloomberg as mayor said addressing climate change was a major city responsibility. Where New York City stands on issues of sustainability is, of course, of more than merely local interest. Besides being one of the world's great cities, under Bloomberg New York has emerged as a world leader in efforts to promote green development and plan for disruptive climate change effects. Bloomberg himself is a leader in national and international efforts to address climate change.

What was much more surprising was that eight of the nine—not exactly the same eight—declined to call for closure of the controversial Indian Point nuclear power plant, when invited to do so by the moderator. A relatively old nuclear power plant, Indian Point is situated on the Hudson River just 35 miles (55 kilometers) north of the city; a meltdown could contaminate the river basin and spread contamination to an area that would be virtually impossible to evacuate.

That was one highlight of the New York City Sustainability Forum held Monday evening at Cooper Union, in which five Democratic Party candidates, three Republicans and one Independent squared off on energy and the environment, with WNYC's highly regarded radio host Brian Lehrer presiding.

Public opinion on Indian Point has been rather evenly split, to be sure, with almost half of New Yorkers in favor of keeping the plant open and about 40 percent favoring its closure. But considering that opponents are likely to be the more passionate and activist voters, appealing to them might tempt the demagogue. To be sure, a reluctance to phase out nuclear is not inconsistent with taking a strong position on climate change, but that has not stopped most environmental organizations from remaining staunchly anti-nuclear and it has not stopped countries with strong climate policies (like Germany) from adopting a nuclear exit.

So it's noteworthy that eight of the nine mayoral candidates specifically opposing closure of the plant until the city knew how to replace its output, which accounts for up to a quarter of the city's electricity consumption. (And this is not to say that the one candidate advocating immediate closure of the plant, City Council chair Christine Quinn, the current front-runner, is demoagogic or insincere in her position. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also would like to see it shuttered.)

That said, many of the issues discussed in detail last night are of mainly local interest: The particulars of flood-zone planning, for example, and siting of solid waste disposal facilities. But even when it comes down to such nuts and bolts other cities may have something to learn from NYC--and NYC may have a few things to learn as well. One candidate pointed out, for example, that New York recycles 20 percent of its trash, while San Francisco is close to 80 percent. Moderator Lehrer observed that one of eight New Yorkers suffer from asthma, and that the rates are much higher in poor neighborhoods where there is a lot of trucking.

Urban air pollution was an area in which the nine candidates were surprisingly weak, though eight of the the nine agreed there is too much traffic south of Manhattan's 59th Street—an issue that Bloomberg tried unsuccessfully to address with a plan for congestion pricing, modeled on London's. Figuring out how to reduce automotive traffic in major cities is of course a major issue everywhere.

Photo: Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Photovoltaics Penetrate Brooklyn, New York

New York City, with its massive buildings, high population density, poor ratio of roofttop to resident, and rather northerly latitude, has represented a tough frontier for solar energy to conquer. Eight years ago, when I looked into the economics of putting a photovoltaic array on the roof of a home in the central Brooklyn neighborhood where I reside, I found that even with enormous state subsidies, going solar did not pay.

As laid out in a book about energy and climate that I was writing at the time, for a PV array costing about US $32 000, the homeowner stood to collect $20 000 in subsidies from New York State. Still, the payback period would be at least a decade—and then only if everything turned out to work as advertized.

Now, however, a few PV arrays are popping up on roofs in my neighborhood. The ones nearby are being installed by VoltaicSolaire, a four-year-old company founded by Carlos Berger, owner and operator of a successful electrical contracting business. (Why the French-sounding name? He just wanted the company to sound different, Berger explains.) The arrays are provided by an American company in Wisconsin, says Berger, and the PV material is standard silica.

Berger says that VoltaicSolaire's system installation costs run $4 to $6/Watt. The installer stands to collect a 30-percent subsidy from the federal government upon completion of the system, with another 25 percent (up to $5000), coming from the state of New York. 

Even so, the economics are still a close call. Berger says the expected payback period is now 5 to 7 years, a big improvement from what it was eight years ago. But the installation will pay off only if the home has a rooftop with a large expanse facing south or southwest. (A killer eight years ago was that my roof faced mainly west.) Another set of hurdles are the bureaucratic type. Obtaining city building permits can involve a lot of red tape, and so can getting net metering set up, which is essential. Berger expects such obstacles to diminish with time, however.

Will we soon see a deluge of photovoltaic installation in places like Brooklyn? It will depend largely on whether global PV prices stabilize near their current level—despite a general meltdown in solar manufacturing—or bounce back to much higher levels. Future price scenarios are explored in a current IEEE Spectrum news report by Peter Fairley.

Photo: VoltaicSolaire

Tiny Online Publication Wins Pulitzer Prize

This week a scrappy little online publication with no physical headquarters and an editorial staff of just seven was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in American journalism. InsideClimate News, based theoretically in Brooklyn, N.Y., is just the third electronic-only publication to be given a Pulitzer--ProPublica, the first to get one, now has two, and Huffington Post has one.

InsideClimate news won the Putlizer for an investigative story by three of its reporters about an under-covered oil spill in Michigan, an article that testifies to the publication's broad interest in energy and the environment, going beyond climate news as such.

The publication's report that most caught my eye was one in January, on the subject of drastic cuts in environmental reporting staffs at top U.S. newspapers. Prompted by the news that The New York Times was dismantling its environmental desk and reassigning many of the desk's reporters to other beats, InsideClimate News said that the country's leading five newspapers now had only a dozen journalists covering the environment, despite the general public's obvious interest in the subject.

The second paragraph to that story noted that Hurricane Sandy had just "brought home the reality of climate dangers to many Americans," and that a recently released draft government report predicted "far worse to come." Temperatures could rise by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century, threatening "Americans' health and livelihoods and the ecosystems that sustain us," as the draft report put it.

Michael Mann—whom the Yale University alumni magazine has dubbed "the most hated climate scientist in the U.S."—told InsideClimate News that "specialized, experienced environment editors and reporters are essential to navigate the escalating politics and complicated science of climate change." Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, said that climate change was "not just the biggest crisis ever, it's the biggest story ever."

Another InsideCimate News story catching my eye concerned John Kerry's appointment as Secretary of State: It said that he would take personal control of the controversial Keystone XL review. This struck me as a shrewd political observation. When President Obama delayed his decision on the pipeline last year, calling for further review, it was widely assumed that he would approve construction after the election. But his appointment of Kerry as Secretary of State may indeed have changed the political chemistry. Kerry is well known to be a passionate advocate of strong policy to counter climate change, respected as such around the world.

One of the InsideClimate News reporters who won this week's Pulitzer told The New York Times that though people think of the publication as an advocacy organization because of its name, that's wrong. This may be a trifle disingenuous. If you decide to devote a publication, say, to the science of evolution, that would seem to imply that you take evolution seriously. Or if you were to devote it to planetary science, that might imply you think the Earth is spherical and rotates around the Sun. By the same token, if you call your publication InsideClimate News, that will generally communicate that you take climate science seriously.

In any event, the award should hearten anyone who fears for the future of investigative journalism—a fear that all too often seems warranted. Like ProPublica, InsideClimate News has a set of media partners and makes its stories available to other publications. As other publications reduce their editorial staffs, it's a hopeful sign that other organizations are emerging to pick up the slack.

Miracle Microbattery? "Breakthrough" Is Promising, But Cycling and Safety Are Still Issues

Can I interest you in a microbattery with a power density better than the best supercapacitors—2000 times higher than other microbatteries—and energy density rivaling conventional lithium-ion batteries? Yes? Thought so.

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois report on a Li-ion microbattery composed of "three-dimensional bicontinuous interdigitated microelectrodes," and a University press release and a variety of media coverage has essentially decided the battery can save the world. While it is certainly impressive and may eventually fit a range of applications, there are still problems with the idea, and as of now it mainly exists in a paper in Nature Communications. It could take a while to go from the lab to your cell phone.

To the miracle claims: "The most powerful batteries on the planet are only a few millimeters in size, yet they pack such a punch that a driver could use a cellphone powered by these batteries to jump-start a dead car battery—and then recharge the phone in the blink of an eye." Whew!

Sounds great, right? I emailed Paul Braun, one of the researchers involved, and asked what the catch is. He said that though this battery can charge at speeds resembling capacitors, "a capacitor usually can be cycled millions of times. We have a long way to go in this regard. Almost all Li-ion batteries exhibit capacity fade with cycling, including our system." He added that this isn't a direct replacement for a capacitor, but "rather this is best for systems where the high energy density is particularly useful. Because of the 3-D structure, we can also provide capacitor-like power, but a million cycle life is quite unlikely."

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European Parliament Vote Leaves Carbon Trading System in Shambles

Abrupt role reversals are nothing new to the field of behavioral psychology: In a marriage, from one moment to the next one spouse stops being the perpetual nag and critic to assume the part of lazy laggard, while the other goes from laid-back to laying it on. There's dirty work that has to be done, so the two martial partners take turns doing it.

Evidently the picture is not much different in international affairs. During the decade following the adoption at Rio of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Europeans--above all Germany and the United Kingdom--took the global lead in cutting greenhouse emissions in conformity with the requirements of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the Rio treaty. But then, midway through George W. Bush's administration, the balance of action reversed. Virtually from one month to the next, it was the United States that was sharply cutting its carbon emissions, while Europe went from carping critic to whining, put-upon victim.

The latest manifestation was the decision yesterday by the European Parliament to not take aggressive action to shore up the price of carbon emission permits in the deathly ill (carbon) Emissioons Trading System (the ETS). The non-move left the European carbon trading system "in tatters," as the Wall Street Journal reported; an earlier report in the Journal attributed the underlying problem mainly to indecision and divisions in the government of Germany, Europe's heavyweight. In the last years, as any newspaper reader knows, Germans have gone from purposeful high-mindedness and self-sacrifice to feeling put upon in every possible way.

The U.S.-European reversal is by no means just a product of policy and public attitudes. In the last years, the single most important factor in decreasing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions has been fuel switching by utilities and energy companies from coal to natural gas, which has been largely a spontaneous response to free-market forces. In Europe, to pile irony upon ironies, the pattern has been the opposite. As several commentators on yesterday's parliamentary decision noted, in major countries like Germany, the UK and Spain, utilities have been switching from natural gas back to coal. In the UK, for example, coal consumption was 35 percent higher in the first half of 2012 than in the comparable period of 2011, while gas consumption was 33 percent lower.

Of course it's not possible in energy to distinguish sharply between market forces, policy and technology. To a great extent, price changes are driven by expectations about future policy and technological developments. But the U.S.-European reversal is just as visible in policy as it is in the marketplace. Another manifestation: A recent opinion column by former Secretary of State George Schulz and Nobel Prize economist Gary Becker advocating U.S. adoption of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Consistent with free-market principles, the two luminaries--both associated now with teh arch-conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University--argue that such a tax would level the playing field in energy.

Sun Catalytix "Artificial Leaf" Can Heal Itself

The so-called "artificial leaf" is continuing to grow up, with an announcement this week at the American Chemical Society meeting that the device can essentially heal damage it sustains during energy generation processes on its own. This would allow Sun Catalytix's device—a "catalyst-coated wafer of silicon"—to run in the impure, bacteria-laden water found out in the world instead of just in pristine laboratory conditions.

The artificial leaf actually mimics only a part of the photosynthetic process found in plants. Drop the leaf into some water and expose it to sunlight, and the catalysts on its surface break down water into hydrogen and oxygen. Those bubbling gases can be collected and stored to be used as energy.

"We figured out a way to tweak the conditions so that part of the catalyst falls apart, denying bacteria the smooth surfaced needed to form a biofilm. Then the catalyst can heal and re-assemble," said Daniel Nocera, founder of Sun Catalytix and a professor at MIT, according to a press release.

The company has been touting the leaf as a cheap and easy solution to global issues of energy poverty. Nocera says that as many as 3 billion people lack access to "traditional electric production and distribution systems," and that a simple device one drops in a bucket of water—even dirty water, with the latest development—could provide standalone electricity to those multitudes. A couple of years ago, the company's chief technology officer Tom Jarvi told me a bit more cautiously that because "the inputs are light and water, and the output is fuel, one can certainly see the applicability of something like that to the developing world." The economics of really reaching such an audience are probably still in question, and there is still a step missing: convert the fuel the leaf creates into something readily usable in generators or even cars. The leaf is also relatively inefficient, well below 10 percent, compared to 15 to 20 percent efficiency for solar panels.

Still, back in 2011 I wrote this about the Sun Catalytix leaf:

Jarvi says the company expects to be able to bring the device to the point where a kilogram of hydrogen could be produced for about US $3. Given that a gallon of gasoline contains about the same amount of energy as 1 kg of hydrogen, as long as gas prices stay north of $3 per gallon, this would make a cost-effective fuel source.

Let's see, what have U.S. gas prices done since then? Okay: never dropped below $3.22 and scared $4.00 once or twice. Looks like we're still on track there.

Photo: mediaphotos/Stockphoto

Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013): Chemistry Major, UK Prime Minister, Climate Hawk

This article originally appeared on Slate's Future Tense blog.

Thatcherites like to remember their heroine as a free-market absolutist. What most forget is how strongly she insisted that economic development not come at the cost of environmental destruction.

A chemistry major at Oxford, Thatcher was never one of those conservatives who saw science as the enemy of progress. And in the last three years of her premiership, she became one of the first world leaders to call for action of global warming. Below are excerpts from four of her most stirring speeches on the subject.

In a speech to the Royal Society on 27 September 1988:

For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world's systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself. …

The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development. Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century. …

In a speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 14 October 1988:

It's we conservatives who are not merely friends of the Earth—we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come. (Clapping.) The core of Tory philosophy and for the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full.

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"The Most Hated Climate Scientist in the U.S."

Since the first appearance of the famous or infamous "hockey stick" graph 14 years ago, it and its creator Michael Mann have been icons and lightning rods in the climate debate. Because of its empirical specificity, the chart showing a steep rise in global temperatures in the last century seemed to carry more weight with a lot of people than mere theory or computer models. So it is not surprising that the chart and its maker became the target climate change rejectionists most wanted to take down. In the affair of the hacked e-mails at, to and from East Anglia University, Mann's correspondence was especially closely scrutinized, leading to formal investigations.

Then too there is Mann's personality, which is said to be difficult and bristly. "Mann is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with climate science today. He is a hardcore political activist, very thin skinned, does not take criticism well at all, and he surrounds himself within his own little world of supportive warmist activists,” Marc Morano, communications director for Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, told the Yale Alumni Magazine. (The committee, a conservative non-profit in Washington, D.C., describes itself as dedicated to protecting environmental values, while ensuring that people the world over can enjoy the longer, healthier and more productive lives that modern science and technology can bring.)

That's a harsh judgment, but it's nothing compared to what others have called Mann, the Yale magazine reports. A writer for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, comparing Mann to Jerry Sandusky, the disgraced football coach at Penn State, where Mann happens to teach, said that "instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science." Morano himself has "called for Mann and other scientists to be publicly flogged. Morano’s former boss, Rush Limbaugh, said they should be drawn and quartered."

That kind of desperate rhetoric can be safely ignored and dismissed. What cannot be ignored are the data accompanying the Yale article showing how Mann's findings have fared in recent years. Best of all is a compact world map charting the world's hottest places in 2012. The hottest in modern history--the century and a half in which thermometer readings have been taken—were most parts of the United States, parts of south and southeastern Europe, and the areas around Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.

Photo: Greg Grieco

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