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Major Decisions Take U.S. Air Regulation back to Go

Actually itâ''s almost as if in a game of Monopoly, you somehow drew Community Chest and Chance cards simultaneously, and both told you to go back to Go. On Friday, July 11, Environmental Protection Agency head Stephen L. Johnson announced the agency would not try to impose restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, despite findings of a staff report he was releasing. The same day, in another part of town, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit threw out a plan the EPA adopted several years ago to reduce soot and smog, saying it was so flawed in so many ways no amount of tinkering could fix it.

A Washington truism thatâ''s held true longer than anybody can remember is that if you have to announce something potentially controversial, the best time to do so is on a Friday afternoon, preferably on a mid-summer day. The EPA and Circuit Court decisions conform to that pattern. Though they were reported in the Saturday papers, of course hardly anybody reads those papers on a hot July morning, and even the reporters filing them, instead of following up are off to the beach. Thatâ''s one reason why have followed up here, albeit with a six-day delay, and why we posted on a Thursday rather than a Friday.

Both decisions had somewhat startling, even perplexing, dimensions. The EPA climate report was a response to a Supreme Court decision telling the agency to evaluate the human impact of greenhouse gases. EPA Administrator Johnson, rejecting mandatory action on GHG emissions even as he was issuing a report detailing their adverse impacts, â''in effect was simultaneously publishing the policy analysis of his scientific and legal experts and repudiating its conclusions,â'' as The New York Times observed. Even stranger, it continued, along with his staffâ''s work he also published â''the comments of its critics, which had a definite tinge of hostility toward the EPA regulators.â''

However weird his modus operandi, Johnsonâ''s decision was not really a surprise. Nobody expected the Bush Administration in its waning months, despite the Supreme Court directive, to initiate carbon regulation, which it has always opposed. One way or another it was going to punt, leaving the difficult decisions to a next administration and one, presumably, that will have its heart in the matter.

The appeals court decision, on the other hand, was a shocker. EPAâ''s Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) â''represented the Bush administrationâ''s most aggressive action to clean the air over the next two decades,â'' as The Washington Post put it. CAIRâ''s purpose was to reduce or eliminate impacts of upwind emissions on clean air attainment efforts in downwind states east of the Mississippi, an effort that EPA said would help prevent 17,000 premature deaths. Naturally, given its scope and complexity, CAIR faced a variety of detailed challenges: from a state and a municipality, several utility groups, and a national energy company with big nuclear holdings. But nobody had expected the court to toss out the whole next-phase plan for reducing SO2 and NOxâ''or, if anybody did, theyâ''re not admitting it.

Because of the decisionâ''s immense importance, itâ''s worth lingering a little over some salient details. Again and again, considering various objections, the court found that EPA had adopted an overly regional approach, neglecting to assess the specific impact of one stateâ''s upwind emissions on another stateâ''s downwind attainment efforts; repeatedly, the decision takes EPA to task for adopting such a procedure merely because it was â''logicalâ'' or â''fairâ'' rather than in strict compliance with statutes. With specific reference to CAIRâ''s NOx trading program, the decision rebukes EPA for adopting a formulaâ''evidently from the acid rain programâ''that favors coal-burning utilities over those relying mainly on gas and oil, working to the disfavor of a state like oil-rich Louisiana. With reference to SO2, it found that CAIRâ''s proposed supplemental trading scheme would illegally devalue permits issued in the acid rain program.

â''Unfortunately,â'' the court concluded, â''we cannot pick and choose portions of CAIR to preserve.â'¿CAIR is a single, regional program, as EPA has always maintained, and all its components must stand or fall together.â''

A number of the petitioners in the suit declared themselves dismayed by the outcome, including Duke Energy, based in Charlotte, N.C. Though one of the nationâ''s top coal-burning utilities, Duke has been a leading industry advocate of carbon regulation; together with North Carolina, however, it was a major plaintiff in the CAIR suit. It appears now to be embarrassed and perhaps even damaged by the sweeping result. â''It was not the intent of Duke Energyâ''s participation in this litigation to overturn EPAâ''s CAIR,â'' a spokesman said. Though challenging just the SO2 portions of CAIR, now that the whole rule is overturned, Duke loses the benefits for coal-burning utilities contained in the NOx trading provisions.

Just how shockedâ''shocked!â''should we be? Georgetown University law professor Lisa Heinzerling, who wrote the petitionersâ'' brief in the 2007 Supreme Court climate decision, says itâ''s quite unusual for a big rule like CAIR to be vacated in its entirety: generally courts will remand defective portions to the regulatory agency for revision. But in this case Heinzerling feels â''the decision seems kind of right, assuming the courtâ''s accounting of EPAâ''s reasoning is accurate.â''

John Walke, the top air lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, sharply disagrees. In a blog he posted on July 15, he said that if Duke hadnâ''t wanted to overturn CAIR then it shouldnâ''t have brought suit in the first place, as â''any decent attorney practicing in the D.C. Circuit would know that the frequent practice in that [quite conservative] court is to vacate unlawful rules in their entirety.â'' Walke said this should have been particularly true of the able attorney who argued Duke's case in court, coincidentally a former classmate of his at Harvard Law School.

The immediate impact of the courtâ''s decision is that a previous NOx trading scheme, the so-called NOx SIP call, comes back into effect. But Walke, Heinzerling, and just about everybody else agree that in the longer run, stronger regulation of NOx and SO2 particulate will not be possible without new and revised statutory authority, which will have to await the next Congress and next Administration, along with a carbon mandate.

One final note: everybody considers the decision, as such, to be final. The D.C. Appeals Court, which is the one designated to deal with challenges to federal regulations, is after the Supreme Court the countryâ''s most prestigious and most powerful legal authority. The decision in the case of North Carolina versus EPA, written by the courtâ''s chief judge David B. Sentelle (coincidentally a native of North Carolina), can be readily found and downloaded at FindLaw, after a short log-in procedure.

Getting on the Big Green Bus

IMG_2128.JPGThis morning I walked a few blocks from my house and waited for the bus. The Big Green Bus, that is, a cooking-oil fueled, solar-panel powered, Dartmouth-college-student carrying, sustainable-living-promoting road show.

The bus was a little late, thanks to freeway accidents and massive traffic tie-ups. By the time it arrived, a crowd of moms, kids, and local journalists had gathered.

The point of the 40-state, 20,000 km summer tour, recent Dartmouth graduate and bus rider Ro Wang told me, is to make people realize that small changes in your lifestyle now can make a meaningful difference to the environment in the future, and you donâ''t have to make big sacrifices.

â''You donâ''t have to go back to the ice age,â'' says Dartmouth environmental studies major Nathan Mazonson.

Dartmouth mechanical engineering major Trey Roy pointed out that the twelve students and recent graduates on the tour were not giving up their high-tech college student lifestyle. Thanks to five top-of-the-line 215 W Sunpower solar panels, donated by T.J. Rodgers, and eight golf cart batteries, the students have flat-screen television, surround sound, videogames, computers, cell phones, and a refrigerator and freezer to hold their snacks day and night. On windy days, they stick a wind turbine out on the roof for a 400 W power boost.

The bus itself runs on a little diesel (to warm up the engine for the first five minutes of driving) and a lot of used vegetable oil, collected from restaurants that fry food. â''Weâ''ve never paid for the oil,â'' Mazonson said. And if you get to close to the exhaust, youâ''ll get hit with the smell of stale french fries.

The road trip is sponsored by Newmanâ''s Own, Waste Management, Timberlandâ''s Earthkeepers, Changents, and Burtâ''s Bees.

Below, a photo tour:

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ON THE BUS. Twelve Dartmouth students and recent grads, including environmental studies major Nathan Mazonson (left), mechanical engineering major Trey Roy (center), and physics major Elysa Corin are riding 20,000 km this summer to encourage people to make lifestyle changes to help the environment.

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VEGGIE POWERED. The Big Green Bus runs on waste vegetable oil, with a parallel diesel system that briefly warms the oil and can be switched in when fast food restaurants can't be found.

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CLEAN OIL. Two filtering systems in the back of the bus, plus a final filtering pass near the engine, make sure french fry fragments don't clog the fuel lines.

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THANKS, TJ! Five solar panels donated by Cypress Semiconductor's TJ Rodgers mean that bus riders don't have to leave their high-tech toys, like multimedia systems and videogame players, behind.

More adventures in converting to digital television

11.Dig.TV.Blog.gif The first step in my attempt to convert to digital televisionâ''use my coupon card to buy a converter at Wal-Martâ''went smoothly.

Since then, Iâ''ve hit a few bumps in the road. I wanted to buy a different brand of converter with my second coupon; I have two TVs, and I wanted to see if there were any differences between brands. I thought Iâ''d try Radio Shack. They were sold out.

I took a brief trip to New Jersey; while I was there, I thought Iâ''d trade in the converter coupons Iâ''d had sent to my mother and my aunt and hook up their boxes since I was on this converter bandwagon. There wasnâ''t a converter to be had on store shelves. Not at Radio Shack, Wal-Mart, Kmart, the three of the seven official converter program retailers with stores in town.

Back at home, I hooked up that first converter I bought, an RCA branded box. I normally get all the normal networks and a few UHF stations from my rooftop antenna. The local DTV guides tell me I should be picking up 44 digital stations. I got a tiny subset of that, essentially, 7, 11, and 54. Only 54 (and three substations using the same frequency) came in without horrendous pixilation and freezes. This was not an auspicious beginning.

I went back to Radio Shack to make another attempt at buying a converter, and to ask why the heck I was only getting in a couple of channels in this supposedly signal-laden environment. The store was still sold out, but with my coupon due to expire in three days, I took the salesmanâ''s advice to pay now and have my converter box shipped to me in a few days. I should have gotten it by now. I donâ''t have it yet. I also asked him about the channel problem. He said the RCA converter I bought at Wal-Mart wasnâ''t any good, and the new second-generation converter (second generation? These things havenâ''t been out that long) he was selling me would do much much better. Truth, or opportunity to badmouth a competitor? Weâ''ll see.

While I giving the salesman my shipping information, a big guy walked in with a pile of long boxes. I idly watched him stack them on the floor, and then realized that they were antennas. UHF antennas, to pick up those digital signals that are decidedly not getting to my digital converter via my decades old VHF antenna. Hmmm... Iâ''m thinking I need one of those, but had better check with my husband about how he feels about venturing up on our very steep roof.

Back at home; I called Mike Sherman, who represents Antennas Direct. I asked him if my problem could indeed be my old VHF antenna. Most likely, he said, but possibly also my ancient antenna cable. Heâ''d send me an antenna and cable to try, and my husband agreed to make the climb up onto the roof when it arrives.

I thought, at this point, Iâ''d be reporting on a successful conversion to digital television, perhaps a brief struggle to figure out which cable plugs where into the converter box/tv/dvd player; and that Iâ''d now be happily watching all sorts of new digital channels. But instead, it looks like my adventures in digital conversion continue.

For more tales from the digital television transition, as well as links to in depth coverage about digital television technology, see IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: THE DAY ANALOG TV DIES.

Out of Africa: Black Power!

Last Wednesday evening, I dined in a fashionable Nairobi restaurant with three recent graduates from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Big brains, these three young men have chosen to pursue a distinctly unusual set of inventive possibilities. They are seeking to design, engineer and implement new sources of energy for people in the developing world living "off the grid."

Step back a moment. For generations, the "grid" referred to the national electricity grid, the cornerstone of all power-generating activities in a given country. Throughout Africa and Asia, national grids are now straining to generate sufficient electricity to meet the growing appetites of bustling cities.

For rural dwellers in the developing world, large technological systems often bypass them completely. In Kenya, for instance, villages that are not reached by the national grid must survive for years -- if not an eternity -- before the grid reaches them. The power demands by city dwellers are simply too urgent to put rural needs very high on the electricity agenda.

Into the breach comes Distributed World Power, a Pasadena, Calif. company that wants to specialize in off-grid electricity sources. Backed by private funds, Distributed World Power sounds like the name for a political movement, not an energy startup. At dinner, John Howard, vice president of business development for the company and the oldest of the three Caltech grads, explained that Asia would probably be the best region for the company. But personally, he was drawn to Africa, Kenya in particular.

Howard and his fellow Caltech alumni had just spent the past week sleeping in remote Kenyan villages, far off the grid. The trio was assessing the potential for wind-generation. They also were looking at solar because, as Howard explained, consumption of off-the-shelf solar systems was greater in Kenya than anywhere else on the continent other than South Africa.

"They are straightforward engineering options," Howard said, that could deliver vast amounts of off-grid electricity to African villages. Yet the non-technical issues loom large in Africa -- and much larger than in usually-orderly and effecient Asian countries. So Howard questioned the wisdom of investing heavily in parts of Africa too.

"Maybe we try one country," he said.

The problem is identifying partners, which isn't easy in sub-Saharan Africa, where "good" partners often fetch a high price. The Cal Tech grads can't roll out systems on their own; rather they prefer to do the less-costly and more creative part of the job, namely conceiving and designing systems.

"The distances in Africa are enormous," Howard said, confessing this after a full day of traveling from a rural area to Nairobi. Indeed, densely-packed Asia, linked by all manner of transport, is quite a contrast from sub-Saharan Africa, where despite high birth rates the landscape at times seems almost lunar, bereft of people.

In such a region, can bright young Americans make a difference. John Howard thinks he and his Caltech alums can but he admits, "these are early days."

Memristors: Coming soon to a brain near you.

HP Labs has wrestled the memristor into submission. Or, to put it less hyperbolically, by engineering control over the memristor, they've made it possible to design integrated circuits that incorporate the devices.

EETimes reported earlier this week that memristors, the fourth element of circuit design theory, will likely be the basis for HP's 2009 RRAM (resistive random-access memory) prototype chips. RRAM, a new kind of non-volatile memory that could be faster than flash, is also being pursued at other goliaths like Sharp, Samsung, and Fujitsu. But HP's plans go way beyond low-power chip design. Analog memristors, the researchers speculate, are a promising route to chips that operate more like the human brain than like a computer.

"RRAMs are our near term goal, but our second target for memristors, in the long term, is to transform computing by building adaptive control circuits that learn," said [HP Labs principal investigator for memristors Duncan] Stewart. "Analog circuits using electronic synapses will require at least five more years of research."

mem.jpg

The same picture you will see in every article about memristors for the foreseeable future.
PHOTO CREDIT: R. STANLEY WILLIAMS

Back in April, HP anounced their successful manifestation of the hypothetical fourth passive circuit element, the memristor, first proposed by Leon Chua in a 1971 paper. The memristor joined the existing holy trinity of circuit elements-- resistors, capacitors and inductors-- with implications that were frankly kind of staggering. At the time, Stan Williams told me that they already had a chip humming away in the lab-- this wasn't just a bunch of hypothetical design specs. But the discovery met with much skepticism:

There is nothing new or revolutionary here. Bulk resistance versus incremental resistance is well known. Nonlinear resistances are well known. Resistance which varies depending upon the history of the device are well known. The claim that a fundamentally new circuit element has been found is overblown.

Similar fightin' words could be found in an uncharacteristic slapfight that broke out in the Spectrum Online comments section.

But now, EETimes reports (in what is by the way a must-read article) that HP labs "has demonstrated how to control its memristor material, which changes resistance in response to current flowing through it:

"We now have experimental proof that our memristor behaves the way our theory predicts," said [Stewart]. "Plus, we have now demonstrated engineering control over the memristor device structures, which will enable us to build real chips very soon."

HP Labs maintains that because of this property, massive memristor arrays could enable brain-like learning.

In the brain, a synapse is strengthened whenever current flows through it, similar to the way resistance is lowered by flowing current through a memristor. Such neural networks could learn to adapt by allowing current to flow in either direction as needed.

In case I haven't infuriated enough people, I will now half-jokingly mention the Singularity.

US Air Force Tanker Bid to Be Reopened

The US Department of Defense reopened the bidding between Boeing and the Northrop-Grumman/EADS/Airbus consortium for the midair refueling tanker contract yesterday afternoon because of major flaws the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found in the original source selection. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates made the announcement, and took away the source selection authority from the US Air Force and gave it instead to Mr. John Young Jr., undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley said that even though the â''GAO's conclusions show that even in a large, complex procurement with considerable staff resources and oversight, work accomplished by our contracting personnel, our warfighters and our engineers is not always adequately prepared to withstand the detailed audits and the legal challenges that we can now expect,â'' Air Force acquisition is not â''fatally flawed.â''

The Air Force will still get to manage the program after the contract is awarded (and hopefully not protested).

In a bit of jaw-boning (or wishful thinking), Young said, â''I think that would probably be the only silver lining in this, is the possibility that both teams decide to sharpen their pencils and offer the taxpayer and the warfighter an even better deal.â''

Young better be careful for what he wishes for. â''Optimistic biddingâ'' â'' or buying-in â'' is a major reason for procurement messes, as the GAO once more recently pointed out.

Out of Africa: Cooking with Human Waste

The shanty towns of Africa's great cities are incubators for material innovations that easily escape the ambitions of people living in wealthier surroundings. In Nairobi's Kibera slum, the latest sensation is a "bio-latrine" that converts human waste into energy that produces gas for lighting and domestic cooking.

The technology behind the bio-latrine was developed by the governments of Kenya and France. Under a project supported by the United Nation's Habitat agency, about 20 bio-latrines that convert waste into gas will be installed in four areas of Kibera.

The bio-latrine consists of a shallow pit latrine, a "bio-digester" that produces gas and fertilizer; and a dispenser. Above the latrine are toilets, a kitchen and a community meeting room.

The bio-latrine requires cooperation among neighbors -- and that may be its undoing. Crime in Kibera runs high; so does envy and conflict between neighbors. Yet the problem of human waste in African shanty towns is large and growing. Informal settlements in cities can't wait for government to act. Small-scale technologies, under the control of ordinary people, provide one answer to the glaring need in Nairobi -- and other African cities -- for better sanitation and less costly fuel for cooking.

While the bio-latrine is surprisingly complicated for an "appropriate" technology, it does address the two most vexing problems of poor Africans in makeshift neighborhoods and even schools. And that's reason enough for more experiments with them.

A Website Devoted to Nanotech Conferences...the Apocalypse is Nigh

For most involved in nanotechnology, even tangentially, one must learn early on the survival technique of how to sort through the truckload of conferences that are held weekly throughout the world, or even how to avoid them entirely.

The easiest way has been to use various websites like Nanotech-Now that provide a pretty thorough list of everything going on. There are many other similar sites that I will not mention simply because I am sure I will forget one of them.

But now, for those who are somehow challenged by using any number of these other conference listing sites, there is a new website solely dedicated to listing conferences.

What I enjoyed in the press release announcing this website was this tidbit â''This is believed to be the only website exclusively devoted to meetings in the rapidly emerging field of nanotechnologyâ''. They could be wrong, but this is what they believed at the time of the press release. Nicely done. I am sure the lawyers were pleased with that little tap dance.

When the two great hyped â''industriesâ'' of the last decade align in such a senseless way, we are hard pressed not to see this as a sign of dark days to come.

Plug-in Priuses: Toyota Dealers Getting Cold Feet?

Just a month ago, we told you that Hymotion named 4 Toyota dealers as official installers for its $9,995 plug-in conversion module for 2004-2008 Priuses.

Now, in a comprehensive piece in Green Car Advisor, the Edmunds.com blog on all matters automotive and green, Scott Doggett writes that two of the four seem to be getting cold feet.

There's a continuing story with much left to be played out here, but we wanted to bring you the latest update as soon as we could.

And what, dear readers, are your thoughts? Should Toyota permit its dealers to install Hymotion's kits--assuming the company can back up their claim that the kit passed all relevant new-car crash tests? If you chose to install a plug-in kit in your Prius, how much would the liability issues worry you?

A Little Bit of Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing When Discussing Nanotech

I came across this tidbit that gave me a bit of chuckle.

Apparently, itâ''s an excerpt from a book entitled â''The Design of Life.â'' I am guessing that the book is supposed to be a kind of defense of â''Intelligent Designâ''. But I am not sure. I canâ''t be bothered with that kind of drivel to actually find out.

But the reasoning process used in this little snippet is hysterical. Apparently, skeptics believed nanotechnology would never work because â''such small machines are unworkable.â'' Umh, should someone put him in touch with the Foresight Institute and the National Nanotechnology Initiative just to get his definition of nanotech straight? Nahâ'¿

It turns out the skeptics reached their close-minded perspective based on â''Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principleâ''. Yikes! Gee and I always thought it was based on Van der Waal forces and Brownian motion, nothing quite as esoteric as quantum physics.

I am beginning to think there may be a new law in physics that states that anyone who uses the term â''Heisenbergâ''s Uncertainty Principleâ'' and is not more than well acquainted with physics is talking a lot of nonsense.

I understand that this is the norm in public debate, but for me itâ''s just a pity when nanotech gets dragged into it.

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Ode to the Pulsar P2 LED Watch

Watch%20front.jpg My refurbished Pulsar P2 "Astronaut" LED watch came in the mail today, an early Xmas gift to myself that I've been anticipating for more than ten years. That's about how long it's been since my dad gave me his old watch and I've been looking for someone to fix it ever since. A recent fascination with the new crop of LED watches coming out of Japan led me to pull the old P2 out of the bottom drawer of my dresser a couple of weeks ago and renew my search for a repair person …

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