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Trails for Rails?

The time is ripe to use some of the Economic Recovery Act monies for conversion of trails back to their original mass transit use.

I walk every day on a trail that is the former right of way of the New York, Westchester & Boston railroad. The rail line, which ran for a quarter of a century between 1912 and 1937 from The Bronx to White Plains in Westchester County, was unusual for its time in having been designed exclusively for high-capacity passenger service. As Roger Arcara notes in his book â''Westchesterâ''s Forgotten Railway,â'' â''it was the first American railway of main-line form which was designed and built as an electric line right from the ground up, rather than being an electrification of an existing steam-powered road.â'' The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company, which claimed to have spent $50 million on this â''costly little charge,â'' which never showed a net profit according to Arcara, fell victim to depression economics and was forced to reorganize in 1935 under the National Bankruptcy Act. Subsequent efforts to save the line were unsuccessful.

The original investors in the line had anticipated that it would kickstart a spurt of population growth in Westchester that did not materialize fast enough to keep the line in business. But today's densely populated county just north of New York City would be well served by the line were it still in operation. Remarkably, the line stopped at four stations across a distance of only about 2 miles in White Plains and would now be accessible to the car-dependent suburban southern portion of the city. Seventy years after the New York, Westchester & Boston ceased operations, White Plains--the county seat and a 35 minute train ride from Grand Central Station-- has no dedicated intracity public transportation and only one railroad station on the Harlem line of Metro North. That station is located in a part of the city that is not in walking distance of the majority of the cityâ''s suburban neighborhoods. The wait for a parking permit at the train station is years long.

One reads a lot about the rails for trails movement in the United States. But what are the precedents for conversion of trails back to rails? As it turns out, the Federal governmentâ''s popular Rails to Trails program, which originated in 1983 with amendments to the National Trails System Act, was never just about creating opportunities for biking and hiking. It directed what is now the Surface Transportation Board to â''railbank,â'' at the request of an existing railroad owner, the corridors of inactive rail lines for interim use as recreational trails. The idea was that these rights of way would be held in the public trust in anticipation of the day when they would revert to their original railroad use or to accommodate some other future mode of mass transportation. Over 190 railway corridors stretching 4000 miles have been railbanked under the program in 30 states.

Only a few conversions of trails back to rails have occurred in recent years. A listing hosted on the American Trails website includes a 10-mile stretch in Ohio that was reactivated in 1992; 13 miles in Georgia reactivated in 2003; 52 miles in Idaho in 2003 and a total of 55 miles in Arizona in 2003.

The Economic Recovery Act includes $48 billion for mass transit. The time is ripe for some of it to trickle down to projects to convert more of the railbanked rights of way back to their original use.

Subversive Additives to a Cash-for-Clunkers Bill

Bike parking in Freiburg Germany COPYRIGHT P FAIRLEYProspects for a "cash-for-clunkers" bill to stimulate new car sales in the U.S. are dimming amid dissatisfaction with the law's slim environmental benefits.

As Energywise reported, representatives in the House led by Michigan Democrat John Dingell converged on an automotive scrappage bill earlier this month that would provide cash vouchers worth up to $4,500 to buyers of new cars and trucks that get at least 22 miles to the gallon if they scrap an old one that gets no more than 18 mpg. Duke University researchers estimate that the reduced energy consumption from such a swap would make up for the energy required to manufacture the vehicle. But some senators were hoping for a more.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein is leading the charge. She initiated her own cash-for-clunkers legislation to accelerate the greening of the U.S. auto fleet, and says the concect was hijacked by Dingell and the automotive industry, according to reporting by The Manufacturer. Feinstein says, according to The Manufacturer, that fuel savings will be inadequate under the bill under debate in the House:

Essentially what it means is that perfectly good vehicles would be scrapped, so that vehicles with below average fuel economy could be purchased... American taxpayers have already pledged $33 billion in bailout funds to this flagging industry -- without any special considerations for achieving greater fuel economy. This is unacceptable.

If Feinstein and others sharing her concerns are looking for compromises, there are a few out-of-the-box ideas circulating that could put a little more 'greenage' in the scrappage. One is from a nonprofit in Feinstein's state, Palo Alto-based CalCars, which promotes plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. CalCars proposes that the government finance the conversion of clunkers into plug-in hybrids, thus avoiding the energy wasted in crushing older vehicles and simultaneously accelerating the auto fleet's conversion to more energy-efficient electric drive.

CalCars estimates that it would take 40,000 miles of driving to overcome the energy penalty from manufacturing a new plug-in hybrid, compared to just 8,000 miles to payback the energy cost of a conversion.

A more subversive idea has proven wildly popular in Mannheim, just about an hour's drive north of Stuttgart -- the capitol of Germany's automotive sector. The city government of Mannheim (inspired or repulsed by Germany's scrappage law, depending on how you look at it) has offered a two-wheeled version of the program.

Mannheim residents bringing in old bikes in "more or less rideable condition" receive a â'¬50 ($67) vouchure towards the purchase of a new one, according to coverage of the scheme by German newsweekly Der Spiegel. The old bikes, meanwhile, are refurbished and resold by a local youth employment group.

I'd like to see Duke's crunch the energy balance for that swap!

BASF Takes Fuel Cells to the Next Level

For decades, ever since fuel cells provided electricity to the Apollo spacecraft, their design and manufacture has been a niche businessâ''one in which small startups or somewhat obscure divisions of big companies made the electrochemical devices and most of their ingredients in-house, almost by hand. But on Wednesday, May 6, the German chemicals company BASF cut the ribbon at a new plant in New Jersey where it will make the key components used in high-temperature methanol fuel cells, without actually making or selling fuel cells as such.

The event highlights a significant new trend in fuel cells. â''In the last several years, most fuel cell companies have stopped trying to do everything in-house, and weâ''re now seeing competitors offering critical components like membranes and bipolar plates,â'' says Robert Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council. Itâ''s a development that promises to bring down costs sharply and make fuel cells more than just a niche technology.

At the new little factory in Somerset, N.J., just south of New Brunswick, BASF will take its patented Celtec membrane, and sandwich itâ''cut into rectangles of various sizes to match different applicationsâ''with similar-sized cathode and anode elements, to make what it calls its membrane electrode assembly, or MEA. In the fuel cell process, which is rather like reverse electrolysis, when hydrogen (culled from a feedstock like methanol) is introduced at the anode, its protons are lured across the membrane; its electrons take a separate route, forming the current that is the cellâ''s raison dâ''etre. At the cathode, the hydrogen ions meet up with oxygen to yield water as a byproduct.

BASF claims to have patented procedures for making several of the MEA elements and says the Celtec membrane is uniquely tolerant of high temperatures. Therefore, any fuel cell made with an MEA can be air-cooled without need for water, which eliminates the need for humidifiers, pumps, tanks, valves, and cleaning systems. The basic feedstock is typically methanol in a water solution, essentially the same as the car washer fluid used in wintertime, but with a higher methanol fraction.

Andreas Kreimeyer, BASFâ''s research director, said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony that mass production of MEAs can bring down fuel cell costs by 40 or even 50 percent. To lend his words credence, the companies PlugPower and Ultracell mounted small exhibits. PlugPower, having had a difficult history in the residential market, recently has got a new lease on life putting its GenDrive fuel cells into forkliftsâ''an application that has its own little line-item appropriation in the federal stimulus bill. Ultracell is one of several companies making a relatively light-weight powerpack for use by soldiers out in the field.

BASFâ''s New Jersey plant will be able to make anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of MEAs per year, said Horst Tore Land, CEO of BASF Fuel Cell Inc. Since 2006-7, when BASF acquired two companies with fuel cell expertise, it has invested about 100 million euros in the technology overall and about 10 million dollars in the New Jersey facility, which also got support from the U.S. energy department, the state of New Jersey, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. BASF operates a similar plant in Frankfurt, Germany, and you donâ''t need a lot of smart money to bet that it will soon build one in East Asia as well, though it declines to comment on that prospect.

As New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine said at the ceremony, â''This is the kind of growth that has legs.â'' Though the Somerset plant only employs about 40 people, it may attract makers of fuel cells to the area, and that in turn could bring in companies manufacturing products that rely on the cells. Corzine, who has a background in investment banking, didnâ''t just stop by to have his picture taken and say a few words. He stayed for the whole morning, took a tour of the MEA assembly hall, and asked a lot of good questions.

The Unsolved Problems of Long-Term Coal Waste Disposal

One doesnâ''t want to make overly direct and invidious comparisons between coal-generated and nuclear-generated electricity, for fear of being called a vulgar environmentalist. But itâ''s hard not to wonder, sometimes, why such a fuss is being made about hypothetical dangers that nuclear wastes could pose 100,000 years from now, when coal wastes are wreaking havoc right now, right before our eyes.

A report released today by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice draws attention to dangers connected with some 200 landfills and wetponds where ash and scrubber sludge from coal-fired power plants are dumped. Believe it or not, according to the report, each year nearly 100 million tons of ash and sludge are dumped in the United States, sometimes in poorly secured dammed ponds like the one that burst in Kingston, Tennessee, last December.

The report, based largely on data and analysis done by the EPA in 2002 but released only this March, finds that there are high-risk dump sites in at lest three dozen states; 21 states have 5 or more such sites. In all, there are 100 landfills and 110 surface impoundments lacking the synthetic liners needed to prevent leakage of heavy metals and toxic compounds into groundwater.

Lethal substances contained in the ash and sludge include arsenic, selenium, lead, boron, cadmium, and cobalt. Adverse effects on human health and local ecological systems can linger for well over a century, typically peaking 78 to 105 years from the time the pool or impoundment is filled.

EIP was founded in 2002 by Eric Schaeffer after he resigned as director of EPAâ''s enforcement office. Earthjustice seeks to preserve and improve the environment by taking action in court to induce enforcement of laws.

Is Cash for Clunkers a Clunker of a Concept?

Those formulating the U.S. cap-and-trade climate bill appear to have converged this week on a â''cash for clunkerâ'' formula: those driving cars or trucks that get 18 miles to the gallon or less will be entitled to trade them in for more fuel-efficient vehicles, entitling them to a cash voucher of up to $4,500, depending on how much better the new vehicle is. Taking into account the elementary fact that it takes a lot of energy to make a new car, does the formula make sense? IEEE Spectrumâ''s automotive editor John Voelcker addresses the question critically in a recent blog post.

Voelcker takes his cues from researchers at Duke University who developed a concept called GPM: the notion that a vehicle has to save at least 1 gallon of gasoline every 100 miles in 70,000 miles of driving to balance the energy consumed in its manufacture. Translated into the more familiar miles-per-gallon, the team at The MPG Illusion calculates that a vehicle getting 18 mpg would have to be replaced with one getting 22 mpg to make up for manufacturing energy, and a 25-mpg vehicle would have to be replaced by one getting 33 mpg.

Seen from that perspective, the Hill compromise looks pretty good for cars and small light trucks, but less sound for large light trucks. As described in The Wall Street Journal, the highest incentive of $4,500 will be granted only if a new car gets at least 10 mpg more than the old one and a new truck at least 5 mpg more.

Cosa Nostra Goes Green

â''Like giant sentinels, dozens of wind turbines straddle the mountain ridges near Sicily's infamous mafia stronghold of Corleone,â'' the ancestral home of the fictional Corleone family of Godfather fame. So begins a story in todayâ''s Financial Times detailing the alleged muscling of the Sicilian mob into the lucrative business of building wind farms, taking advantage of generous government subsidies. "Sicily is blessed with sun and wind, but it is also cursed by the Mafia," an official told the FT. So itâ''s only to be expected that Cosa Nostra would make the sun and wind one of its things.

At the root of the problem is a law requiring the national grid to make payments to owners of wind farms even when the farms are not actually generating electricityâ''a feature not found in the â''feed-inâ'' wind production credits that have made Germany, Denmark, and Spain Europeâ''s largest producers of wind-generated electricity.

According to the FT, Sicily has at least 30 wind farms with a combined capacity of 600 MW, with a further 1800 MW approved in principle. Many of them are owned by developer Vito Nicastri, known locally as â''lord of the winds.â''

However, â''wind power is now passé as the market is virtually saturated for big developments. The future, they say, is solar. Mr Nicastri is applying for permits for nine large solar power plants.â''

Will Jatropha Meet High Expectations?

The jatropha plant, native to Central America but growable in many tropical and subtropical environments, has been widely hailed in recent years as a very promising source of biodiesel. Because it is hardy and relatively undemanding, the thinking has been that it could be grown on a lot of land that isnâ''t good for much elseâ''and therefore would not compete uncomfortably with cropland for food, the way, for example, corn for ethanol does. But preliminary results from a study being done by researchers at Yale suggest that the hopes may be overblown. According to one of them, while jatropha can indeed grow on lands with minimal water and poor nutrition, â''if you plant trees in a marginal area, and all they do is just not die, it doesnâ''t mean youâ''re going to get a lot of oil from them.â''

Fast German Company Helps Vatican Go All Solar

Because of Germanyâ''s hefty solar incentives, a number of its startup companies have been carving big niches in the global market, first and foremost Q Cells, which now ranks first in the world in terms of megawatt capacity produced and delivered. Another entrant much in the news today is Solarworld AG, based in Bonn, which is not showing up on top-ten lists but surely soon will do so.

Solarworld has invested $500 million in a production facility in Hilsboro, Oregon, in the heart of that stateâ''s â''silicon forest,â'' where it is making â''rooftop-readyâ'' cells from polysilicon. That plantâ''s purposes and production procedures are nicely described in yesterdayâ''s New York Times by green blogger and journalist Kate Galbraith. Meanwhile, Solarworld is building a module production facility in South Korea to serve the East Asian market.

Solarworld intends now to build Europeâ''s largest solar electricity generating plant in Santa Maria di Galeria outside Rome, to power the Vaticanâ''s radio transmitters. With a planned capacity of 100 MW, coming from some combination of PV panels and concentrating devices, it will generate enough electricity to serve much more than the needs of just the Vatican and local Santa Maria residents.

Last year Solarworld donated a 222 KW rooftop array to the Catholic Church, to provide electricity to the Paolo VI audience hall at the Vatican. Company executives are talking about designing a green â''popemobileâ'' for Benedict XVI, who is a booster of green energy.

A corporate foundation, Solar2World, has given PV arrays to an AIDS orphanage, a hospital, and several training centers in Africa.

Can the Stimulus Bill both Stimulate and Transform?

Can the stimulus bill both generate jobs immediately and lay the technological foundation for long-term economic growth? Thatâ''s the 100 billlion dollar question that Tech Review editor David Rotman addresses in the current issue. The notion that a big government program can produce both short and long-term benefits represents a big shift in attitude, notes Rotman, citing Robert Pollin and a September 2008 University of Massachusetts report that â''now reads like a blueprint for much of the stimulus billâ''s energy funding.â''

The numbers are impressive: the Department of Energy is getting an additional $39 billion, on top of its pre-stimulus $25 billion budget; DOEâ''s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is seeing its budget go from $1.7 billion to $16.8 billion. About $11 billion are allocated for smart grid programs and technology.

Rotman makes a persuasive case that when it comes to renewables, there are real dangers in trying to combine stimulus with infrastructure building. If excessively expensive technologies are subsidized, and if the subsidies fail to make the technologies more market-ready in the long run, then there could be a backlash leaving them in a worse position than where they started.

Better, argue many economists and energy specialists, to drive up the price of carbon emissions, and then let the market decide which low-carbon and renewable technologies are best set to replace fossil fuels.

When it comes to smart grid technology, however, the opportunities may be greater and the risks smaller than Rotman and his sources seem to think. Harvard environmental economist Robert Stavins told Rotman that rebuilding the electricity grid will take years and have little immediate effect. But is that obvious? If, for example, every electricity meter in the country were replaced with a smart meter in the next few yearsâ''which would be very expensive, but not insanely expensiveâ''the immediate effect on employment could be considerable and the medium-term impact on economic growth could be considerable.

Once homeowners have meters that tell them how much electricity theyâ''re using hour by hour, and how much theyâ''re paying for the electricity as prices fluctuate with supply and demand, they will start thinking about their home appliances and personal habits much more critically and constructively. Theyâ''ll replace their old refrigerators and freezers, their clothes washers and driers, their window-mounted air conditioners and electric space heaters, with ones that come with DOEâ''s Energy Star recommendation. A little further down the line, having discovered that there are times of the day when electricity is almost freeâ''some places, the utility will even PAY you to use electricity under certain conditionsâ''theyâ''ll buy themselves one of them plug-in electric cars and charge them at just those cheap-electricity times.

I donâ''t want to sound too much like Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who enthusiastically told Tech Reviewâ''s Rotman that the stimulus bill is â''almost like free money.â'' (ITIF also produced a tech jobs report consistent with the stimulus bill philosophy, but only after the election.) Itâ''s possible, however, to imagine a smart grid future in which first lots of people get jobs and make money building and installing basic equipment, and then a lot more find employment in making and selling the equipment that best interacts with the reconstructed transmission and distribution systems. The benign effects could be almost immediate, but also medium- and long-term.

The Texas Anomaly

While former Texas governor George W. Bush was busy as president belittling the dangers of climate change and doing everything he could to help the coal and oil industries, Texas itself was moving into the forefront of states aggressively building out wind generation capacity. Now itâ''s getting set to go even greener, with a bill its senate passed this week that would provide a half billion dollars in solar subsidies over the next five years. If enacted, the bill could result in as much as 500 MW in new solar generation in Texasâ''almost as much as the total solar generation deployed at present in the United States.

An online analysis in Barronâ''s says that for residential customers, the Texas solar rebates would be even more generous than Californiaâ''s. They will cut the cost of a 3 KW photovoltaic installation by about $5,000 and cut the payback period from 14 to 9 years, Barronâ''s estimates. This will be good news for leading PV manufacturers like First Solar, SunPower and Suntech, it concludes.

Separately, a Texas senate committee has approved a bill that will require that the state get 3,000 MW of power from solar. Texas already has a mandate in place requiring 5,000 MW of wind power.


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