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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.

Changing Climate Science and Changing Change Agents

This entry is by Spectrum staffer Sally Adee:

On Wednesday night Columbia University held a panel discussion to commemorate the release of a new book called Climate Change: Picturing the Science, edited by Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, and photographer Josh Wolfe. The book, born of a 2005 show Wolfe curated called â''Photographersâ'' Perspectives on Global Warming,â'' was produced in partnership with scientists from Columbia University's Earth Institute and documentary photographers. It bills itself as â''an unprecedented union of scientific analysis and stunning photography [that] illustrates the effects of climate change on global ecosystems and human society.â''

The panel, moderated by New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, featured Schmidt and Wolfe, Peter deMenocal, a paleoclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Stephanie Pfirman, a polar scientist at Barnard College, and scientists from the Earth Institute at Columbia.

The main themes of the evening were the complexity and fluidity of climate science, interweaving policy, politics and science, and evolving public attitudes. As a reporter, I consider myself a great testbed for the various arguments because I have no real background in climate change. I am the uninformed publicâ''and like much of the public, I suspect, I feel that the climate change debate tends to be a magnet for sanctimony on all sides.

The audience at Columbia seemed firmly in the camp of the believers and was preoccupied mainly with deflecting attacks by deniers. One of the things climate change deniers seize on, the panel agreed, is the multi-facedness of the science, which is always changing. Pfirman, a former congressional house staffer at the House Committee on Science and Technology, wrote a chapter in the book on sea ice. She said she kept having to send and re-send updates because even as she was writing it, the situation in the Arctic was changing so rapidly. That was part of a larger discussion on how things are happening much more quickly than had been projected. And yet, ice in the Arctic does not melt evenly.

â''The [scientific] questions are more sophisticated than they were five years ago,â'' said Schmidt, and models are always being updated. â''Uncertainty is not our friend,â'' he said, worrying about how public confidence is affected. â''We struggle with articulating the science so that people feel that they are being given information, not an angle,â'' said deMonocal.

With the panel and audience largely in agreement, attention tended to focus on how to deal with dissentersâ''not always constructively, perhaps.

Peter deMenocal said that his name appears on a list of 200 scientists who supposedly believe that global warming is a hoax, despite his obvious beliefs to the contrary. He said that when he lodged a complaint with the keeper of the list, his message went unanswered. â''Two dead scientists are on that list with me,â'' panned the paleoclimatologist.

Fair enough, assuming what he said is vaid. But what about serious critics of mainstream climatology? Nobody liked The New York Timesâ'' recent profile of Freeman Dyson, the physicist who has questioned the gravity and significance of global warming. But the general reaction was to assault the messengers rather than engage the message. A shaggily bearded man in a rumpled-suit asked whether the newspaper has become an â''actively hostile force.â'' As for Dyson, â''This is another in a long line of scientists who knows just enough to be dangerous,â'' said another.

Dyson, along with others, thinks climate scientists rely too much on computer-generated climate models that foresee what the Times call a Grand Guignol of devastationâ''icecaps melt, oceans rise, and storms and plagues sweep the earth. â''The climate-studies people who work with models always tend to overestimate their models,â'' Dyson told the Times. â''They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models.â''

I hate to say it, but he has a point.

Why do the climate scientists seem so paranoid about contrarian views, especially when they come from physicists? In late February, after physics leader Will Happer testified before Congress on global warming, his testimony was chopped up into out-of-context pieces and ridiculed around the internet. (Happer was director of energy research at the Department of Energy from 1990 to 1993.)

To judge from the Columbia panel and reactions, climate scientists appear to be constitutionally skeptical of engineering solutions. The book offers a nod to some â''mega-engineeringâ'' projects such as solving the problem of keeping London and New York above the water line in case a 5-meter sea level rise should occur. But it doesnâ''t pay much heed to measures that have been proposed to actually prevent climate change. Dysonâ''s notion of genetically engineering a carbon-eating tree came in for the usual ridicule.

Oddly, psychological engineering proved to be an exception. Mass social engineering, the one questioner implied, may be the only way to get everyone to act on the crisis. Responding, Pfirman talked at some length about the new centers on climate and how they were becoming interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary, involving different disciplines such as social science, climate science and psychology. Pfirman said important decisions, like recycling, are influenced by group dynamics. â''People say â''oh, yeah, Iâ''ll recycle,â'' but then they donâ''t,â'' she said. Getting people to change their habits is more about psychology than it is about climate science or computer modeling.

I donâ''t know. Personally, this blogger is more likely to trust in problem solving by engineers than in the ability of social engineers to rejigger human psychology.

--Sally Adee

China's Wind Surge Ignores Financial Mess

Speaking of China: The global wind power industry is bottoming out amidst the global financing crisis and yet China's wind sector is still going strong according to a research update issued this week by consultancy Emerging Energy Research (Cambridge, MA).

EER adds up the impact of "a steady flow of wind industry CAPEX reductions, project postponements, order cancellations, and corporate downsizings on a scale never seen before in this relatively young segment of the energy sector." They forecast a 24% decline in megawatts installed in the US this year over 2008, and a 19% decline in Europe.

Then there's China, which EER calls "the only major market left standing in the face of the crisis." EER projects a 59% jump in megawatts added there in 2009 -- enough to make up for the U.S. and European losses.

Spectrum readers will recall our May 2008 reporting on China's wind sector that was already notable for (a) its "endurance in the face of below-cost pricing" and, (b) low quality assurance that had even its trade association calling for slower growth. Looks like its too late for that.

Nissan Announces Electric Car Program in China that Would Wow Mao

Japanâ''s Nissan announced yesterday that it will provide free electric vehicles and help set up a network of charging stations in Wuhan, an industrial city in Central China on the Yangtze River. The pilot program, to be done in cooperation with Chinaâ''s Ministry of Industry and Information and the Wuhan municipal government, will be modeled on a similar project in the Japanese prefecture of Kanagawa, where Nissan is based. That program, according to a report several days ago in the Wall Street Journal, involves installing 1,000 charging stations by 2014.

Wuhan may not be a household name in the United States, but it was here, midway between Beijing in the North and Hong Kong and Guanzhou in the South, where the first vehicular bridge was built over the Yangtze in the mid-1950s. (Until then, believe it or not, there was no such bridge over the mighty river that bisects China, west to east.) Mao maintained a vacation retreat in Wuhan, complete with an indoor competition-size pool, and it was here that he swam the Yangtzeâ''several times actuallyâ''to demonstrate his continued health and prowess. (Yes, he really did.)

When it comes to electric cars, Chinaâ''s ambitions are of a grandiosity that would do Mao the neo-emperor proud. As noted here earlier this week, battery maker BYD has proclaimed its intention to become the worldâ''s leading electric car manufacturer. According to a report in todayâ''s New York Times, top government officials said at a conference yesterday that they hope to make the country as a whole the top global source of EVs and hybrids.

China Automotive Threat

EnergyBizâ''s Marty Rosenberg, in a recent post, draws attention to the uphill battle the United States faces in trying to outmaneuver the Chinese in the worldâ''s emerging markets for hybrid and electric cars. â''I fully expect China will conquer world auto markets in the coming decade of 2010-2020,â'' says Rosenberg. â''That is the real criminal story of the failure of nerve and vision by GM, Ford and the Michigan mob that has planted a shiv into the heart of industrial America.â'' For a fuller analysis of Chinese near and long-term economic prospects, see also the thoughtful article by James Fallows in the current issue of The Atlantic.

Fallows argues persuasively that China will weather its current difficulties and emerge stronger than ever. Not surprisingly, he ends with a focus on BYD, the hugely successful Shenzhen battery maker which unveiled a mass-produced battery-hybrid car at the Detroit auto show earlier this year. â''The companyâ''s official goal is to be the biggest automaker in China by 2015, and the biggest in the world by 2025,â'' reports Fallows.

BYDâ''s F3DM, â''the worldâ''s first production plug-in hybrid,â'' might also be described as a hybrid hybrid, in that it has three distinct modes of operation: all-electric, gasoline-powered, and parallel gas-electric. Its lithium-ion battery pack is based on iron phosphate.

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