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"Shovel-Ready" Criteria May Disqualify Worthy Projects

We've heard an awful lot about â''shovel-readyâ'' projects latelyâ''those not yet funded infrastructure projects around the country that will be the beneficiaries of the Obama administrationâ''s attempt to jumpstart the economy. To qualify for fast-tracking consideration, they will reportedly have to be ready to go within 90 to 120 days of securing funds. Funding may be withdrawn if they encounter significant delays. Unfortunately, if we take the phrase â''shovel-readyâ'' literally as a predictor of which infrastructure projects will receive government financing under the stimulus package, a lot worthy projects are not going to qualify.

â''Betsyâ'' in Raleigh, a respondent to Paul Krugmanâ''s â''The Obama Gap,â'' opinion piece in the January 8, 2008, New York Times says it all too well: â''I question the emphasis on so-called 'shovel-ready' projects. Is there something about paying a planner or engineer in the design stages of a project that is less real than paying a backhoe operator? If the object is to get money and paychecks flowing in the domestic economy, does the income of the engineer not do that as much as that of a laborer?â''

If shovel-ready does turn out to be a literal criterion, one of the most ambitious and forward-looking mass transportation projects under planning in the Northeast, the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, will fail to secure stimulus funding. The current bridge spans the Hudson River between the counties of Rockland and Westchester in New York State. According to the projectâ''s website, between 140,000-170,000 vehicles cross the 3.1-mile span daily. The average number was 18,000 daily when the bridge was opened in 1955. The replacement bridge, which is estimated to cost $16 billion, will include cars, commuter trains and a dedicated corridor for bus rapid transit. The BRT will connect Suffern in Rockland County to Port Chester in Westchester. The new rail line will connect the Metro North line in Suffern on the Rockland side of the Hudson River with Tarrytown, a Metro-North stop on the Westchester side of the river.

Although the current bridge undergoes regular maintenance it was not built for its current capacity. The extraordinary congestion it experiences during commuter hours is the stuff of urban legends. The New York State Department of Transportation has made the courageous decision NOT to increase the non-mass-transit capacity of the current bridge with the replacement bridge. Instead the DOT hopes to entice drivers out of their cars as they sit trapped in traffic and watch the high speed, high tech buses and trains speed past.

However, the DOT contemplates at least a two year environmental review as communities and policymakers work together to map out the best design for the bridge and optimal roots for the bus and light rail.

These deliberations will take time but it is hard to argue that the new bridge wonâ''t accomplish many of Obama's stated policy objectives--energy independence, improved mass transit, safer infrastructure, and enhanced public health-- across one of the most congested commuter corridors in the Northeast.

So here's hoping the new Congress comes up with a more enlightened definition of "shovel ready" that would not preclude immediate funding for this and other, visionary public sector projects.

Russia-Ukraine Gas Crisis Spreads into Europe

The natural gas price dispute between Russia and Ukraine has begun to have drastic effects on industry and daily life in southeastern Europe, highlighting Europeâ''s radical dependence on supplies from Russia and the â''stans.â'' Because gas is so attractive, being cleaner and greener than any other fossil fuel, Europe uses more of it all the time, and countries like Germany obtain upwards of half their supplies from pipelines ultimately controlled by Russia. The Putin regime would not dare cut supplies for a country as might as Germany, of course, but for countries of lesser weight itâ''s a different story.

The Financial Times reports today, January 9, that in Bulgaria, which depends entirely on Russian supplies, 70 large and medium companies have lost their supplies completely and gas to another 150 is restricted. Slovakia also has had to limit supplies to industry, in Hungary schools and workplaces will not be able to open tomorrow, and Croatiaâ''s government has declared crisis conditions. Serbia and Bosnia-Herzogovina are having to reduce industrial allocations in order to save gas for home heating.

According to a provocative commentary that appeared earlier this week in the FT, not only does the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom have vital pipeline assets in Ukraine, but Ukraine controls most of the gas storage capacity connected with Russiaâ''s pipeline system. Jerome Guillet and John Evans say that traditionally Ukraine got paid in kind for acting as the transit hub for Russian gas, taking an allocation of gas to cover national needs as payment. The trouble began, they say, when Russia privatized part of the gas transfer system in an attempt to extract cash payments. Tycoons and traders in both Russia and Ukraine now have vested interests in the private trading system, complicating the negotiation of new prices.

Scientists Deliver More Sobering Climate Findings

In an article that will appear in Science magazine tomorrow, January 9, a team led by D.S. Battisti (University of Washington, Seattle) warns that the worldâ''s future food supplies will be seriously threatened by unprecedented summer heat in temperate zones. By the end of this century, they predict, growing season temperatures will exceed the most extreme seasonal temperatures recorded from 1990 to 2006; the hottest seasons on record will, many places, represent the new norm. Crops and livestock will be stressed worldwide, and so heat- and drought-resistant crop varieties and more diversified irrigation systems will be widely needed.

Those conclusions, though broadly consistent with patterns known to climate modelers for a couple of decades, are sharper. The same can be said of some recent findings related to ocean acidification, an effect of human carbon emissions that been rapidly ascending in rankings of most serious impacts, as we reported years ago. Last weekâ''s Science contained an article about the recent history of Australiaâ''s Great Barrier Reef, by a team led by a person with the ominous-sounding name Glenn Deâ''ath. Regrettably, it seems to be a slow-motion death that the Deâ''ath team has been monitoring. They found that the deposit of calcium carbonate by Porites corals has declined more than 13 percent since 1990. Though the ultimate causes are not fully understood, increasing temperature stress and a declining saturation state of seawater aragonite would seem to be at the root of the problem.

Similar results come from a University of Chicago team thatâ''s been looking closely at ocean acidity over an eight-year period around Tatoosh Island, off the coast of Washington state. They found that calcareous species generally performed poorly in years when acid levels were relatively high, and predict substantial changes in dominant species, both because of direct calcification effects and ramifying species interactions. â''Our results indicate that pH decline [i.e. acidification, for those of you who donâ''t remember your high school chemistry] is proceeding at a more rapid rate than previously predicted in some areas, and that this decline has ecological consequences for near-shore benthic [sea-bottom and deep-water] ecosystems.â''

CNN's Climate Change Denial Darkens a Dimming Media Picture

CNN axed their entire science, environment and technology unit in December, as documented by the Columbia Journalism Review. The Society of Environmental Journalists (disclaimer: I serve on the board of directors) joined three other journalism groups on a letter to CNN's leadership protesting this "short-sighted" move "at a time when science coverage could not be more important in our national and international discourse." Unfortunately, further developments suggest that we can expect further ocular dysfunction from the media majors in general and CNN in particular.

This week CNN anchor Lou Dobbs gets the silliness award for devoting precious broadcast minutes to a poorly documented rehash of climate change skepticism, putting sunspots and natural cycles in the climate change driver's seat in place of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. See the video clip above, immortalized by progressive media watchdog group Media Matters' County Fair blog.

The deterioration of science reporting threatens to spread as other major media outlets follow suit with budget-slashing bloodletting. Joel Makower, a pioneer in reporting on sustainable business, made that point last month in a discouraging post entitled Are Environmental Journalists an Endangered Species?. Makower sees the cuts at CNN as just one example of a "devestating" trend, noting the recent loss of senior journalists at Fortune magazine, The Weather Channel, and the Los Angeles Times.

The likely result is fewer reports on the environment, which today is largely a function of energy consumption according to the IPCC (which Dobbs ignores). As Makower points out, those news reports that do run will be delivered by generalist reporters scrambling to get up to speed on complex topics:

I hear from such reporters every week: general-assignment reporters from newspapers and broadcast stations around the U.S., niche trade magazines, and others seeking comment or context on a story they're covering. I can tell you unequivocally that the nature of their questions reveals a high degree of ignorance. I'm happy to bring them up to speed, but it's a slog.

One of the few bright spots is the New York Times, where the environment team is still growing. However, given that the paper recently announced plans to re-mortgage its headquarters building to make up for slumping ad revenues, one wonders how long the leadership will last.

PV Watch

A couple of interesting developments may eventually have a big positive impact on the efficiency of photovoltaic cells. Last month, MIT researchers reported at a meeting of the Materials Research Society that they had found generic methods of boosting the efficiency of a PV cell by as much as 50 percent. The dozen or so researchers led by Lionel Kimerling did thousands of computer simulations to figure out how a cellâ''s performance could best be improved by combinations of anti-reflective coatings and diffraction gratings, and then validated their results with lab tests.

Meanwhile, scientists led by the distinguished chemist Malcolm Chisholm of Ohio State University have doped a polymer commonly used in semiconductor applications to produce a PV material that responds to light in wavelengths from ultraviolet to infrared. Typical silicon cells function well only in a much narrower range, from orange to deep red.

Freelancer Jesse Emspak or one of his editors at Scientific American deserve credit, assuming they have it right, for spotting the Chisholm story and (apparently) grasping its significance. The title of the PNAS article reporting the doped polymer reads: â''The remarkable influence of M2ο to thienyl Ï' conjugation in oligothiophenes incorporating MM quadruple bonds.â'' Just as invitingly, the first sentence of the abstract says, â''Oligothiophenes incorporating MM quadruple bonds have been prepared from the reactions between Mo2(TiPB)4 (TiPB = 2,4,6-triisopropyl benzoate) and 3â'²,4â'²-dihexyl-2,2â'²-:5â'²,2â'³-terthiophene-5,5â'³-dicarboxylic acid.â''

In yet another innovative approach to improving the light yield in solar cells, researchers at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics in The Netherlands suggest lacing thin-film PV material with nanoscopic metal particles. These generate surface plasmon waves when hit by light, and if the particles are sized and arranged just right, light is scattered more thoroughly and the harvest of light can be improved at wavelengths that otherwise are poorly captured.

More Evidence of Meteor(s) in Big Chill Climate Catastrophe

For the last few decades, Exhibit A in catastrophic climate change scenarios has been the Younger Dryas event that occurred about 12,000 years ago, when a sharp cold snap in Europe and North America evidently resulted from the shut-down of North Atlantic currents. A year ago an international team reported evidence that the shutdown may itself have resulted from the explosion of a meteor or meteors over Canada. Wallace Broecker, father of the big chill scenario, commented that he might be convinced if more direct evidence were found, perhaps in the form of buckyballs, nanodiamonds, or iridum. Now in fact the discovery of nanodiamands is reported, in an article that appeared this week in Science magazine.

Douglas Kennett and colleagues report finding nanodiamands in sediments across North America that mark the onset of the Younger Dryas period. "Selected area electron diffraction patterns reveal two diamond allotropes in this boundary layer but not above or below that interval," says the abstract. "These diamonds provide strong evidence for Earth's collision with a rare swarm of carbonaceous chondrites or comets at the onset of the Younger Dryas cool interval, producing multiple airbursts and possible surface impacts, with severe repercussions for plants, animals, and humans in North America."

 

We repeat the question we raised at the end of our report last year: Might the new scenario have some influence on some of the better informed northern Europeans who have been worrying that runaway greenhouse gas emissions could melt the Arctic ice and plunge them into an ice age? At a time when concerns are rising in Europe about the costliness of carbon reduction measures, it might indeed.

 

But let me now add: it really shouldn't. This is because, as Richard Alley observed last year, something had to have initiated the vast infusion of fresh water into the North Atlantic that resulted in the conveyor current's shut-down. In Broecker's scenario that event was the postulated breaking of an ice dam in the St. Lawrence river system that sent fresh waters from a vast inland lake hurtling toward the North Atlantic. In terms of the final catastrophic outcome, it doesn't really matter whether the initiating event was an ice dam break, meteors, or rising greenhouse gas emissions that capture heat and melt the Arctic and Greenland ice caps.

Analysis of Obama Climate Factions

In case you missed it, the rarely read Saturday New York Times carried an outstanding analysis of how climate policy factionalism is shaping up in the Obama administration. The climate team headed by Carol Browner favors prompt adoption of a tough cap-and-trade system for carbon. The economic team led by Larry Summers worries about near-term economic effects of making energy companies pay for the right to emit. Summers and other top members of the economics team have in the past preferred the idea of a carbon tax. Given Summersâ'' formidable determination and intellect, could a carbon tax come from behind and end up beating out cap-and-trade? Stay tuned.

Saying Adieu to the Mighty UCTE

By summer the mighty Union for the Co-ordination of Transmission of Electricity (UCTE), whose 240,000 kilometers of high-voltage lines connect 26 European countries, may cease to exist. Europe is not giving up electricity. Electrons will still flow on the world's largest interconnection of power grids. Rather, the 57-year-old UCTE will be subsumed within a new and broader organization designed to, among other improvements, make Europe's grids renewables-ready: the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E).

CEOs from 42 transmission system operator companies in 34 European countries unanimously decided to create the new association last month. Whereas UCTE was limited to ensuring the interoperability of largely self-sufficient national grids, ENTSO-E is to play a proactive role in coordinating grid development to create a truly European grid that can operate on a larger scale. This is exactly what's needed as Europe increasingly seeks to widely distribute electricity generated from concentrated renewable resources such as wind power in the North Sea and Baltic Sea and Mediterranean solar power.

Moving power across regions implies a European-scale supergrid, while the European Commission (EC) has struggled simply to add small interconnections between the states. Last month for Spectrum Online I profiled the EC's latest desperate attempt to overcoming inertia in transmission expansion: recruiting high-profile volunteers to sell the interconnections.

One of those volunteers, WÅ'adysÅ'aw Mielczarski, the Polish electric power engineering expert whom the EC recruited to unstick projects connecting Poland to Lithuania and Germany, minced no words in describing his best efforts to get things as no substitute for European institutions dedicated to grid planning. "If we're going to do a professional job on interconnection," said Mielczarski, "we must have professional people working full time, and we must have more support from the commission."

A Commuter Rail Cautionary Tale

A cautionary tale in the annals of climate change policy implementation was offered up last week by Colorado Railcar Manufacturers LLC and Portland, Oregonâ''s, TriMet system when Colorado Railcar announced on December 23 that it was ceasing operations. The companyâ''s website stated that the firm has a â''major liquidity problem and its lenders have secured a position in the company.â''

In 2005, TriMet contracted with Colorado Railcar to pay $17 million for the purchase of railcars for its new Westside Express Service between the Portland suburbs of Beaverton and Wilsonville. The WES is to run every thirty minutes during commuting hours, Monday through Friday. According to a December 14 article in the Oregonian, TriMet spent an additional $5.5 million in public money to keep Colorado Railcar afloat since it signed the contract, including paying the CEOâ''s salary. Trimet also discovered that some of the monies it paid for the manufacture of its railcars were diverted to other projects.

Why did TriMet choose to do business with Colorado Railcar? The WES is to run on active freight lines and apparently Colorado Railcar manufactured the only commuter railcar that meets the Federal Railroad Associationâ''s crash test standards for mixed use freight lines. The companyâ''s DMU (diesel multiple unit) is a self- propelled rail passenger car that can pull up to three additional coaches. According to the Colorado Railcar website, the DMU logs 2 miles per gallon carrying 90 seated passengers (or up to 200 passengers including standing room)â''four times better than a standard commuter rail locomotive. While European railcar makers like Siemens and Bombardier manufacture DMUs, theirs donâ''t meet FRA crash-test standards. Furthermore, TriMet has reported that it was compelled to purchase from a US manufacturer in order to access federal funding for the WES.

There is clearly considerable skepticism about Colorado Railcarâ''s management practices and many unanswered questions about why TriMet undertook the WES project in the first place, especially since to realize the project it was required to sign a $17 million dollar agreement to build railcars with a firm that was already experiencing financial stress. Although the WES is still expected to start operations in February 2009, how its railcars will be serviced and repaired going forward is anyoneâ''s guess.

We all want to hope that once policies to address climate changeâ''like the approval and funding of mass transit systemsâ''are put in place all will be clear sailing. But Trimetâ''s misfortunes prove otherwise and that the devil, as ever, is in the implementation details.

The Four Biggest Energy Cliches of 2008

Clean coal, geoengineering, cellulosic alcohol, next-generation nuclear: What they have in common is that they all sound great and basically donâ''t exist. Itâ''s not that theyâ''re bad ideas as such, it just that so far theyâ''re little but ideas. Individually and collectively, they suggest that quite soon, weâ''ll have energy thatâ''s renewable or sustainable or carbon-free without our having to make any difficult choices right now about how to immediately make our energy economy greener and more climate-friendly.

For a dose of reality about clean coal, go to Reality, the organization thatâ''s been blanketing the airwaves and putting ads in many magazines. Reality emphasizes the elementary reality out that so far no commercial scale plant has been built anywhere in the world in which carbon emissions are captured and permanently stored. By most estimates the first such plant is at least five or ten years off. And of course it will be years later than that before CC&S makes much of a dent in aggregate emissions from coal-fired plants, which in the United States account for one third of carbon emissions.

This of course doesnâ''t mean that clean coal is a bad idea, just that we donâ''t have it yet. The same goes for climate modification schemes, which were recently reviewed in this space. Arguably, the world is not going to be able to reduce emissions fast enough to eliminate the possibility of dangerous climate change in the next generation, and so we shouldnâ''t exclude any optionsâ''maybe one or more of the geoengineering ideas will materialize and be demonstrated soon enough to mitigate some of the worst effects of human induced global warming.

But thereâ''s also the danger, and itâ''s a real one, that too much focus on geoengineering might produce complacency and delay constructive actions that can be taken right now to reduce GHG. One of the few benign effects of the global recession is that carbon emissions are sure to have been much lower than expected in the past year, and they likely will be lower still in 2009. Carbon reduction targets that seemed utterly unrealistic at the beginning of 2008 might now appear achievable after all.

Another silver lining: cellulosic alcohol has provided farm state politicians and the new Democratic leadership a graceful retreat from whatâ''s proved to be a reckless love affair with corn ethanol. As food prices have been driven up nationally and globally by the diversion of cropland to corn ethanol production, so-called â''next-generationâ'' ethanol gives politicians a way to say theyâ''re still for ethanol, even as they start to devise ways to cut back the current ill-considered subsidies. Even cellulosic ethanol may turn out to be not such a great deal in terms of energy and greenhouse gas balances, but we can cross that bridge when we get there, if we get there.

A general problem with â''next generationâ'' technologies is that people assume that sooner or later weâ''re almost sure to have them, even though in fact thereâ''s no guarantee theyâ''ll ever work and be economically viable. People have been talking for decades about the desirability of having nuclear reactors that are smaller, modular, significantly cheaper, more inherently safe, and proliferation-resistant. The trouble is, whenever anybody actually comes up with an idea for one, utilities around the world show absolutely no interest in buying it. So weâ''re not noticeably closer to next-generation nuclear than we were in 1980, when U.S. utilities stopped ordering additional reactors.

On this merry note, A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!

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