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Feathered Farmland Friends of the Fens

The wind power industry has had close to zero success designing bird and bat-safe turbines, but nascent research by ecologists nevertheless shows that wind power is compatible with local ecology. Case in point: today's report in Britain's Journal of Applied Ecology on wind farms and birds in the East Anglian fens.

Mark Whittingham and fellow ecologists from Newcastle University surveyed birds on farmland around two wind farms in the fens and recorded almost 3,000 birds from 23 different species. Among them are five endangered species: the yellowhammer, the Eurasian tree sparrow, the corn bunting, the Eurasian skylark and the common reed bunting.


Whittingham and company found the wind turbines had no effect on the birds' distribution with the exception of common pheasants. â''This is the first evidence suggesting that the present and future location of large numbers of wind turbines on European farmland is unlikely to have detrimental effects on farmland birds," says Whittingham.

Plenty of questions remain. For example, a comprehensive $15 million study of Denmark's large offshore wind farms published last winter showed seabirds to be remarkably adept at avoiding offshore installations, but ecologists remain concerned that the 10,000 megawatts of offshore wind power that Germany hopes to install by 2020 could scare off populations of endangered loons along Germany's North Sea coast.

Even the Newcastle study was conducted last winter and must be followed up to confirm there are no unexpected impacts during the breeding season.

The wind industry would do well to continue working on newer, safer technology.

Meta-twitter: The Twittering of the Presidential Debate



Contrary to my previous assumptions, twittering is actually a useful activity. (No, not here. Also, not here.) The U.S. presidential debate last Friday was twittered by Slate and countless other online entities, large and small.

Twitter made a graph of the frequencies of certain words in outgoing 'tweets.' The most intensively tweeted words were tax, Iraq and Korean, if I understand the chart correctly. That means these particular debate moments incited the greatest volume of twittering.

I imagine the campaign directors are already poring through the twitter archives for veins to mine for talking points. Tweeting points. The voices in my head are starting to develop a speech impediment.

(via Boingboing, where the comments will make you laugh)

Xohm: A Tale of Three Cities

Yesterday, Sprint announced the official debut of its first WiMax city, Baltimore, five months and one city behind schedule. Frankly, thatâ''s not a bad show of it. In some respects, the service lives up to Sprintâ''s promises, andâ''in part because of the delayâ''in some ways, exceeds it. And in other ways it falls short.

Iâ''ll get a better sense of whether Xohm is living up to its promise on 10 October; Sprint is having an invitation-only press event in Baltimore that day. My main question will be about the network coverage. Xohm bills itself as a mobile broadband service, with the speed of DSL, and the mobility of your cellphone. But a spot-check of Xohmâ''s coverage map suggests that there are large dead zones, far larger than you would tolerate from your cellphone service provider.

I entered three addresses into the coverage tracker page found here. The first is the home address of a friend who lives in the Fells Point area, down near the Inner Harbor. She would apparently get good coverage in her home and anywhere near her apartment. Sheâ''s an IT manager at the Baltimore Sun, and would, according to the coverage tracker, have terrific coverage in and around her office.


I then entered another address I found on Yahooâ''s people search pageâ''a random person with the same first and last names as my friend. This Baltimore resident doesnâ''t have the same good luck. While she would also apparently have coverage in her home, about half her immediate area does not.


Sprintâ''s coverage is, of course, also missing two cities. As we reported back in January (â''Sprint's Broadband Gambleâ''), the original roadmap for Xohm called for rolling out service to two metro areasâ''Chicago, and Baltimore-Washington, D.C.â''over the course of the first part of 2008, with a soft launch in January and a hard launch in April. This initial rollout is just Baltimore, with Chicago and the D.C. areas relegated to â''Coming Soonâ'' status.

Unfortunately, the delay doesnâ''t seem to have helped Sprint put together a very wide range of devices with which to connect to the nascent network. Looking at the Xohm product page, A ZyXEL-based modem seems to be the only way to get online with a non-Windows-based computer. Youâ''d be tethered to the modem via Ethernet, which, for us laptop users, constitutes mobility only in some highly ironic sense. Thereâ''s no sign of the Motorola modem that I saw demonstrated almost exactly a year ago.

Thereâ''s only one device that gives a laptop connectivity in a truly mobile sense, a Samsung PCMCIA card, and a USB thumb drive, and it only works on Windows-based computers. One nice feature, though, is that according to the spec pages, the â''XOHM Connection Manager automatically switches to the best available network - WiMAX, Wi-Fi and LAN.â'' A USB thumb drive made by ZTE is, like Chicago and D.C., listed as â''Coming Soon.â''

Another Coming Soon device, and maybe the most interesting item on the product page, is a WiMax-enhanced version of Nokiaâ''s N810 tablet. It looks pretty sweet, with enough features and maybe even enough keyboard and screen real estate to get real work done. Itâ''s hard to tell reading through the specs and then Nokiaâ''s own PR-laden product pages, but the initial version will run Nokiaâ''s OS2008, while a later edition might run Googleâ''s Android. Nokia is one of Xohmâ''s four core partners. The others are Intel, Motorola, and Samsung.

Speaking of Google, monthly Xohm accounts include â''One XOHM Mail, Calendar, and Chat account powered by Google.â'' Those are all part of your iGoogle page, if you have one, but perhaps a new iGoogle account is created when you sign up for Xohm. Iâ''ll be asking more about that on 10 October.

Out of Africa: liberation through the skies

Last Thursday morning, I flew from Tamale to Accra, Ghana on a 45-seat prop plane. The flight took barely more than an hour, and spared me a ten-hour car ride. Tamale is the most important city in Ghanaâ''s largely-Muslim north, and the air service is relatively new. Antrak flies daily; it is one of two commercial carriers.

The opening of Ghanaâ''s north through the skies does not resolve the continuing troubles with basic roads between Accra and points north. The very same awful road that links Accra to Kumasi continues further north to Tamale. If Tamale is to become the breadbasket for more-urbanized southern Ghana, the road to Kumasi must be greatly improved. But air service provides an important boost â'' and not only for people. Fresh mangoes are making the plane trip from Tamale to Accra as well.

Some of the mangoes get eaten by prosperous urban elites, while the remainder move onto another airplane â'' this one traveling to Europe.

Air service from Accra to Tamale remains an experiment. All seats were filled when I flew on Monday to Tamale. Only one seat was empty on my return trip. At 175 dollars per flight (or $350 roundtrip), air travel to Tamale is well beyond the means of ordinary Ghanaians. Yet while the service needs elite customers to survive and thrive.

There are wider lessons here for aviation technology and African development. These are early days but over time, regional air travel could solve one of Africaâ''s most vexing problems: how to move people and goods, quickly and economically, over vast distances.

Skeptics abound, citing relatively low demand -- and low purchasing power -- from African consumers. I have written elsewhere about the potential of aviation to liberate African travelers, drawing parallels with the mobile-phone revolution in the region.

"Just as the mobile phone bypassed the vastly expensive challenge of upgrading dysfunctional African land-line systems," I wrote in the January issue of The Wilson Quarterly, "a big push into rural-based aviation, aimed at moving crops from the bush to African cities and beyond, would leapfrog the problem of bad roads."

One commentator called my suggestion "certifiably insane," which may mean that aviation holds more promise than many presume.

Hubble Telescope Failure Causes NASA to Scramble

The magnificent Hubble Space Telescope has suddenly gone blind. NASA said today that the far-seeing orbiting telescope stopped transmitting data late Saturday, caused by the failure of a key communications component. The malfunction has caused the space agency to postpone the next mission of its space shuttle fleet, which ironically was supposed to have performed a series of long awaited repairs to the Hubble.

The Atlantis orbiter was ready to go for a service mission to the Hubble on 14 October. That mission, designated STS-125, will now be pushed back until February at the earliest. The extra time should give the STS-125 crew an opportunity to become familiar with the most recent piece of equipment to act up on the 18-year-old telescope. It is known as the Control Unit/Science Data Formatter and handles the storage and transmission of science data to Earth.

In a press release, NASA described the malfunction as follows: "Shortly after 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 27, the telescope's spacecraft computer issued commands to safe the payload computer and science instruments when errors were detected within the Science Data Formatter. An attempt to reset the formatter and obtain a dump of the payload computerâ''s memory was unsuccessful."

The unit's outage has effectively rendered the telescope useless until NASA engineers can effect a complex workaround using a backup data transmission channel for the science instruments onboard.

The STS-125 crew has already been in training for two years to fix a number of other glitches that have been acting up on the Hubble in recent years.

"The teams are always looking at contingencies, and this is just something that has cropped up we have the ability to deal with," said NASA spokesperson Michael Curie. "They're just trying to decide what direction we want to go."

Physicists Talk Tough on Efficiency and The War

I recall well a meeting of journalists at the Kennedy School of Government in 2003 where I was regarded as a wingnut + conspiracy theorist for seeing a linkage between U.S. intransigence on greenhouse gas controls and the War in Iraq. Never have I felt as alienated as an American intellectual. These days I reflect instead on how far the national conversation has come in the years since. I happened upon the latest sign of hope quite unexpectedly in a report on energy efficiency issued earlier this month by the American Physical Society: "Energy = Future. Think efficiency."

I'd been feeling guilty about letting the APS report pass by without a mention. Energy efficiency is a tough story for journalists -- making do with less energy simply lacks the sex appeal of faster cars or new power generating technologies such as high-tech techniques for pollution-free coal power or the latest in photovoltaics. And yet, as the APS rightly points out, the U.S. is in a better position than most countries to meet its need for clean, domestic energy by squeezing a bigger bang out of every joule of energy consumed.

What will be useful about the APS report is its explicit connection between the technologies available to boost efficiency in the key sectors of transportation and buildings, and the shortcomings in science & technology policy that thwart their ready adoption or rapid adoption.

But what I really appreciated was the no-nonsense manner in which the analysis unfolds. The relatively frank prose of the executive summary (considering the genre) sets the stage for what follows:

"Nowhere is the standard of living more rooted in energy than in the United States, and, with its defense forces deployed in the most distant regions around the world, nowhere is the security of a nation more dependent on energy...Yet only in times of extreme turbulence â'' the OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil embargo in 1973, the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979 and the Persian Gulf War in 1991 â'' when public frustration became politically intolerable did American officials devote serious attention to energy policy. Although some of the policy initiatives yielded significant benefits, others were left on the drafting board as the nation reverted to a business-as-usual energy routine once the turbulence passed and public dissatisfaction dissipated."

How refreshing. Now, let's get to work.

Open Source for Nanotech Labs: Will it make a difference for innovation?

In the spirit of scientific cooperation and goodwill, MIT researcher, Stephen Steiner, has decided to make available for download via a website programs he is developing for further automating the lab processes used for making nanomaterials.

The first up is a program he is calling â''Ansariâ'' after Anousheh Ansari, who was intent on making space exploration more accessible for all. The program essentially automates a furnace for â''cooking upâ'' carbon nanotubes.

This may save some tired research assistants from staring at a furnace while waiting to turn the dial to 1000 degrees Celsius. But itâ''s not clear that this will actually speed up the â''innovation processâ'' as Steiner seems to ultimately hope.

When one considers that maybe 80 to 90% of the academic research that this automation will speed up will never yield any kind of economic value, it really comes down to how you define â''innovationâ''.

I think many would consider the discovery and later the exploitation in a little over a decade of the giant magneto resistance (GMR) phenomenon has led to innovation. But the discovery of carbon nanotubes, which can be dated back to the mid-70s or early 90s depending on who you ask, has yielded little commercial impact to date except for some filler in composites for sporting equipment. These two examples demonstrate how difficult it is to determine exactly what innovation may constitute.

In the world of nanotech, the science seems to be rolling along quite nicely with research turning up new possibilities seemingly daily. The problems seems to be the disconnect between the labs and the markets.

What might be in order is Open Source for managing the business based on an emerging technology.

Negative Prices for Clean Power

How do you know that congestion on high-voltage transmission grids is stranding valuable renewable energy? When the price of electricity goes negative. American Wind Energy Association power industry analyst Michael Goggin delivers a snapshot of the phenomenon in a recent column for Renewable Energy World.

Goggin points to data from the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT, the state's grid operator, showing an increasing incidence of generators paying buyers to take their power. According to Goggin, such conditions track the explosive installation of wind farms in West Texas -- and are very bad news for their operators.

Prices fell below US -$30/MWh (megawatt-hour) on 63% of days during the first half of 2008, compared to 10% for the same period in 2007 and 5% in 2006. If prices fall far enough below zero that the cost for a wind plant to continue operating is higher than the value of the US $20/MWh federal renewable electricity production tax credit plus the value of other state incentives, wind plant operators will typically curtail the output of their plants.

Worse still, consumers in adjacent areas are paying top dollar for power because the transmission lines between them and the excess wind power are overloaded.

Texas is running into trouble because it pushed wind power harder and faster than other states, but it is also leading the way to address what is really a nationwide problem. This summer the Public Utility Commission of Texas approved a scheme called the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) process to incentivize construction of new transmission lines to evacuate stranded wind power. Earlier this month a consortium of major utilities including MidAmerican and AEP announced their intention to do so.

For a detailed yet accessible look at Texas' renewable energy transmission challenge and efforts to clear out the bottlenecks, see this overview from the State Energy Conservation Office.

China Launches Mission to Attempt Space Walk Exercise

China today launched its third manned orbital vehicle into space, carrying a crew of three. The goal of the mission is to attempt the Chinese program's first extravehicular activity (EVA), or space walk, an essential step in mastering complex spacecraft maintenance routines.

According to a report from the Xinhua News Agency, the Shenzhou-7 vehicle lifted off at 9:10 pm local time aboard a Long March II-F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province. The crew consists of Chinese taikonauts Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng, all 42 years old, who will spend the next three days in space.

During one orbit, at an altitude of 343 kilometers, one of the taikonauts wearing a Chinese-made Feitian spacesuit will leave the crew cabin through an airlock to perform a number of EVA experiments. The name of the domestically produced spacesuit comes from a legendary Buddhist goddess known for flying.

Xinhua reports that the crew will also perform other key mission tasks such as releasing a small monitoring satellite called the Tianlian-I. The China National Space Administration was careful to characterize the mission as one of scientific exploration in the country's long-term interest of becoming a leading civilian space program.

"China pursues the principle of making peaceful use of space in its exploration and development," Zhang Jianqi, deputy chief commander of the manned space project, told Xinhua.

The Shenzhou-7 is scheduled to return in three days after a hard landing in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Hub Motors: Where EVs Smash Open Auto Design

Chrysler leapt back into relevance this week announcing no less than four EVs in development -- at least one of which it promises to sell in 2010. Most intriguing for this fan of EV technology is its claim to be experimenting with permanent magnet in-wheel motors for an plug-in hybrid version of the Jeep Wrangler. That step would be an exciting leap in auto design where the electric drivetrain frees the automobile from its heavy and design-constraining mechanical transmission and driveshafts.

For a sense of the hub motor's potential design impact, consider the experimental Reconnaissance Surveillance Targeting Vehicle that General Dynamics built for the U.S. Marine Corps. The "Shadow" is "a four-ton armored truck that has the payload of a Humvee and yet is svelte enough to deploy from a tactical aircraft." The Shadow used a series hybrid design in which the engine serves only to keep the lithium battery charged in extended range use--much like GM's vaunted Chevy Volt.

Unlike the Volt it transmits power to the wheels via power cables, rather than using its stored electricity to drive a central motor and mechanically distributing it to the wheels. The result is unprecedented traction thanks to the direct control of each wheel by its hub motor and the wheels' freedom to range up and down almost half a meter.

Then there's the Shadow's metamorphosis when it rolls out of a V-22 vertical take-off tactical plane. Sizing for the V-22's cargo hold constrained the Shadow's chassis to just 150 cm side to side -- way narrower than the 215-cm-wide Humvee. How to ensure stability in operation at that width? Upon exiting from the V-22 the Shadow extends its wheels sideways 20 cm beyond the chassis, achieving a total wheelbase of 190 cm. The key is a folding pneumatic suspension, something that's all but impossible with a mechanically-driven wheel.

The Shadow was General Dynamics' 2004 bid for what has since become the joint U.S. Army - Marine Corps Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program. Development contracts for the vehicles are expected to be announced next month.

The Shadow, Hub motors and all:



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