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Obama Ratchets Up CAFE to Match California's Standards

President Obama gathered auto executives, auto workers, environmentalists, and top federal and California officials at the White House this week to unveil a new consensus on fuel economy standards. His plan will harmonize the federal government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy or CAFE standards with tougher tailpipe standards for CO2 poised to take effect in California and 17 other states.

Obama traded up, according to close Detroit observer Jim Motavalli, who writes in the New York Times' Wheels blog that the new-and-improved CAFE is "roughly equivalent to those proposed under Californiaâ''s tailpipe greenhouse-gas program."

As Motavalli and others note, automakers had no choice but to join Obama and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's march to higher efficiency, with the feds holding their much-tightened purse-strings.

The newly robust CAFE will start rising in 2012 and reach 39 miles per gallon for cars and 30 mpg for trucks by 2016, with a fleetwide average of 35.5 mpg. That's quite a jump from the current standards of 27.5 mpg for cars and 23.1 for trucks. It's quite an acceleration from the CAFE boost approved by Congress and President Bush in 2007, which would have not have reached a combined average of 35 mpg until 2020.

This is very good news for technology developers. As your author documented in early 2008, the 2007 upgrade would have required minimal implementation of next-generation technologies -- such as advanced electric drivetrains and light-weight composite parts -- that will be required to put personal transport on a path to sustainability.

How Green Is My Coke?

In his book, "The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World," Peter Senge, Chairman of the Organization for Learning, highlights the unlikely partnership that the Coca Cola Company forged with the World Wildlife Fund to study the impacts of Coke's water use on the watersheds and biodiversity of countries in which the company operates.

To demonstrate its seriousness about the environmental impacts of its business, Coca Cola has set as a goal not only to be more efficient in its use of water but also to become "water neutral." That will require that its "waste" water be pure enough for agricultural irrigation and that it completely "offset" the amount of water it uses in its soft drink products by funding clean water projects and watershed preservation efforts around the world. 

Setting aside the difficulties of determining how progress towards water neutrality can be precisely and objectively measured, Senge notes the strategy is risky for Coke:"By merely teaming up with WWF, Coke acknowledges that the water crisis is real and could impact the soft drink industry. It is bringing attention to an issue--the amount of water used by soft drink companies in their entire supply chain--about which many people are unaware. As more people recognize this issue they will want to know what percent of a country's water, especially for water-scarce countries like India, is being used for what purposes--and even though the percentage for soft drinks is quite low, it puts companies like Coke in the spotlight and could put them on the defensive." 

The Coke case highlights the rocky road that many companies are beginning to travel down as they attempt to call attention to their green credentials. And while many sustainable investors may applaud Coke's sustainable water projects, they may inevitably ask that Coke own up to the nonsustainability of its very product line. "We would not invest in Coke," says Leslie Christian, President of Portolio 21 Investments, a fund that invests according to strict sustainability criteria. "For us to invest, Coke would have to say something like 'we recognize we have a finite resource we are putting into this product and we will change our product base away from a water-based one.' Coke is not an appropriate product for an eco-constrained world." 

Going totally green for Coke would also require the company to own up to the health care impacts of the consumption of sugary soft drinks like Classic Coke or of the empty calories of Diet Coke that the company has thus far not been required to internalize in its cost structure". It would be fantastic if producers had to pay the external costs associated with their production," says Simon Thomas, Chief Executive, of the London-based Trucost which analyzes environmental corporate risk for the investment community. "If it can be proved that Coke plays a part in obesity then consumers should pay a tax reflecting the contribution Coke makes to the social costs of obesity."

Why New Nuclear Depends on Loan Guarantees

Constellation Energy and Electricite de France boasted this week that they are closer to winning federal loan guarantees for a new reactor they propose to build at Constellation's Calvert Cliffs power station in Maryland. The $18.5 billion pool of funding they're vying for will be critical to jump-starting the stalled U.S. nuclear industry. Construction problems in Finland and France with the reactor design slated for Calvert Cliffs -- the EPR from Paris-based nuclear technology and services giant Areva -- show why.

Bad news flows in constantly from Olkiluoto, the site on Finland's coast where Areva is three years behind schedule on an EPR it is building for a Finnish utility -- the first of the 1,600-megawatt reactors. Earlier this month the bad news came with the leak by Greenpeace of a letter from Finnish nuclear regulators complaining of a lack of professionalism at Areva. The regulator said this was complicating resolution of questions regarding EPR safety system designs and welding quality on key reactor parts. One week later Areva was ordered to stop work on some welds.

 

London's Independent called the Finnish safety concerns a potential threat to four EPRs proposed for construction in the U.K. Areva responded with a press release saying all was well in Finland. It says that the "slight imperfections" identified on the surface of the reactors cooling lines will "have no impact on their strength properties or safety features."

 

But any way you slice it, the Finnish reactor that was supposed to start up this year is now hoped for 2012 -- a delay that has put the project at least 2 billion euros over its original 3-billion euro budget. Delays and cost overruns were what scuppered the U.S. nuclear construction industry in the 1980s, and they are no doubt driving up the cost of financing today. Federal loan guarantees are the only way to bring them back down.

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''

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