Sunday, August 26, 2007

Pardon my enthusiasm, but I love my new Prius
About a month ago we took the plunge. I have to give my husband, John, the credit. After months of on-and-off talk about getting a new car, he went online and found a dealer nearby who’d just gotten a shipment of 6 or 8 new Priuses. Two days later we went over, test drove one of the 3 that were left, turned in our Volvo and drove away in our brand new Prius.

It’s so cool. I love the little power button you press to turn it on (like on a computer or DVD player) and the tiny gearshift on the dashboard to put it in drive or reverse. And the key that isn’t a key. The car is totally quiet when you turn it on, and very roomy and comfortable, with a hatchback for easy stowing of groceries. But best of all is the display that shows the mileage you’re getting. It makes me turn down the air conditioning and keep the speed below 60 to see if I can eke out another 0.1 mpg.

We’ve found we can make the 60-mile round trip to see the grandkids in the suburbs at a rate of between 54-59 mpg, and that includes doing some errands and car-pooling around town while we’re there. In Chicago, though, it’s not getting great mileage – in the 30s or 40s for a series of very short trips. But we’ve only filled the gas tank twice since we got it, and we’ve gone nearly 1,200 miles (and have half a tank left). Even people who don’t think about the environment are impressed with how little gas it requires.

I don’t see a lot of Priuses around Chicago, though a friend visiting from California said they’re very popular there. I read that driving a Prius makes a statement. And I do feel there’s no need to have bumper stickers. The car is one big bumper sticker: Fight Global Warming.

Prius, the only car built from the ground up as a hybrid, was introduced in 1997 and has had 10 years of customer feedback to make improvements. It also gets the best gas mileage. Prius passed 1 million in sales in June and is the overwhelming leader in the class. Sales in the U.S. were up almost 94% the first 6 months of 2007, almost as much as all of 2006.

Toyota will add a less expensive Prius ($20,000) to its lineup for 2008 (current price is about $25,000). And it’s thinking about creating a Prius brand, with several different models.

I’m disappointed in Toyota, though. It lobbied with the Big 3 automakers against corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in Congress. I have to think the company, which is expected to pass up General Motors soon as the world’s largest automaker, is worried it will lose its advantage if American companies are forced to start producing more efficient models.

Mileage on new cars not so good
All vehicles are going to see their mileage rating drop in 2008. Turns out the mpg the EPA slapped on all new cars has been bogus, and now the agency is adjusting numbers downward to account for the way real people drive – considering such things as air conditioning, sudden stops, a heavy foot on the gas and traveling at speeds above 50 mph.

The Toyoto Camry hybrid, for example, had been listed at 39 highway and 38 city. Under the new system it’s down to a more realistic 34 and 33 respectively. The Ford Escape hybrid is reduced from 37 combined to 32. A couple of non-hybrid examples: Honda Pilot 4WD and Volvo XC70 4WD were both at 19 combined. Now they’re at 17. You can check out other models at (click Find and Compare Cars) to see what kind of mileage you can expect from a hybrid or a regular car of your choice under the new, more realistic, system.

Looking to the future: hybrids, plug-ins and fuel cells
Despite auto companies’ resistance to changes imposed by government, most are planning to offer some new, more efficient models in the short run and experimenting with very different vehicles for the future. Last year, for the first time since 2002, cars outsold SUVs and pickup trucks, as consumers became more conscious of the high cost and environmental hazards of guzzling gas. Automakers prefer SUVs and trucks because they make a bigger profit on them. Nonetheless, they are facing up to change. Here are some recent announcements:

* General Motors will sell a hybrid GMC Yukon SUV later this year, with an estimated combined 20 mph. GM also plans to make hybrid versions of the Chevy Tahoe, Saturn Aura and Chevy Malibu.
* Porsche it will have a hybrid in about 3 years.
* Chrysler, which has lagged, is introducing hybrid engines in its Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen, which currently get 13 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway. The hybrid versions should get 18.2 and 22.5, respectively, the company says.
* Honda plans to create a new hybrid-only model to have the same cache as Prius. The company dropped its Accord and Insight hybrids, for lack of consumer interest. It gets good sales on its Civic hybrid, though.
* Nissan, which is running behind other Japanese makers, plans to launch a line of low-emissions cars.

Hybrid electric-gasoline cars with bigger batteries that are recharged at night are in the testing phase, slowed down by the difficulty of coming up with a reliable lithium-ion battery for greater range.

* General Motors’ Volt plug-in should be ready by 2010, but rollout depends on developing a better battery. GM says Volt has a range of 40 miles without using gas.
* Toyota is road-testing a modified Prius plug-in that gets 73 mpg, but with the battery it’s using it has only a 7-mile range in its pure electric mode.
* Ford is road-testing plug-ins based on Escape and hopes they’ll be ready to sell in 5-10 years.

Widespread use of plug-ins could cut U.S. GHG emissions the equivalent of removing one-third of vehicles from the road, according to new research from the Electric Power Research Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council. Their middle scenario shows a reduction of 3-4 million barrels of oil per day but an increase of 7-8% in electricity use. Plug-ins could be introduced by 2010, and have full penetration by 2050, according to the study. NRDC said improved battery technology and cleaner electric plants are needed. Carbon capture and sequestration are needed for the full environmental benefit.

Electric cars
*India’s Reva Electric Cars is ready to mass-produce its zero-emission 2-door hatchback. The hope is to sell 3,000 this year and 30,000 next. It’s been test-marketed in India and Europe.
* Zap Electric Vehicle Co. plans to sell mini-cars (a cross between a compact car and a golf cart) to universities, local governments and companies that deliver. This 3-wheeler has a range of 25 miles. They’re working on a Zap X, with a range of 350 miles.

Hydrogen-powered fuel cells, etc.
* Ford is close to introducing hydrogen technology. In 3-5 years it
could have a zero-emission car. Problems for hydrogen include infrastructure and storage.
* GM has 2 prototype hydrogen-powered Sequel SUV fuel-cell vehicles, which set a world record of 300 miles in New York. The company said it will announce by year’s end if this car is feasible. Meanwhile it will test a Chevy Equinox SUV with fuel cells on 100 consumers later this year.
* Honda has a fuel-cell model it will test on the streets of Japan and the U.S. next year. The range is 270 miles, but like other prototypes it’s extremely expensive -- $1.5 million.
* Smart Cars will introduce its tiny 2-door Smartfortwo in the U.S. next year. It gets 40 mpg, but has an unproved safety record on roads where it’s up against many SUVs.
* China unveiled prototype hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell cars at the Shanghai Auto Show in April.

Stay tuned for new developments. And meanwhile, if you rent a car, ask for a hybrid, or at least a highly fuel-efficient car, to drive up demand. Or try I-GO Car Sharing in Chicago at or ZipCar at in 10 cities around the country. Both specialize in environmentally friendly rentals by the day or for extended times.
(Sources: Greenwire,, Associated Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Sierra magazine)

News briefs

1. Asia-Pacific draft asks for voluntary, not binding GHG goals
The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries will be asked in September to support “aspirational goals” of reducing GHG intensity 25% by 2030, according to a draft obtained last week by the Sydney Morning Herald. “Intensity” is related to growth of the economy and may not mean real reductions. The 21 APEC countries, which include the U.S. and Russia, are expected to announce the agreement at the end of their meeting in Sydney Sept. 7-9. The goals are regional and there won’t be targets for individual countries, according to the draft. It sets up a network to share technology, promotes investment in renewable sources, and advocates preservation of forests as carbon sinks. Environmentalists said this won’t do. GHG goals must be real, firm and legally binding. (Sources:, E&E News PM)

2. Antarctic melting faster than predicted by UN climate panel
With both Antarctic and Greenland ice thawing faster than expected, sea levels could rise 3 feet or more by the end of the century, some climate experts say. Chris Rapley, outgoing head of the British Antarctic Survey, told Reuters, “The realistic view is nearer 1 meter (3 feet) than the 40 cm” (15.75 inches) predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In a worst-case scenario, seas could rise 2 meters (6 feet) by 2100, but that is extremely unlikely, he said. Rapley was at a climate seminar in Ny Alesund, Norway, on an Arctic island where glaciers are in fast retreat. (Source: Reuters)

3. Economic reward needed to keep tropical forests intact
Countries that have kept all or most of their tropical forests need to be able to sell carbon credits based on keeping those forests, a recent study says. While carbon-trading systems give credit for planting new trees, they do nothing for those who avoid cutting them down. Yet, deforestation contributes around 20% of the carbon emissions that cause Global Warming. As the international community debates carbon trading for a successor agreement when Kyoto expires in 2012, preserving forests must be rewarded, the study says. Countries with most of their tropical forests intact are Panama, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru, Belize, Gabon, Guyana, Suriname, Bhutan, Zambia and French Guiana. (Source: Reuters)

4. PG&E to buy solar -- it's amazing, it's the mirrors
Pacific Gas & Electric will purchase 550 megawatts of solar energy from a plant under construction in the Mojave Desert. The energy will be created by mirrors that cover 9 square miles. They will focus sunlight on a fluid-filled pipe, heating it up to 750 degrees to produce steam. The plant is expected to be operational by 2011 or 2012. (Source: Greenwire)

Congressional round-up

Who got energy industry donations this year? Hillary, for one
In the first half of 2007, electric utilities, oil companies, automakers and mining interests contributed nearly $4 million to lawmakers on key House and Senate committees dealing with climate change, according to Federal Election Commission records. Members of the House Energy Committee got a total of $1.5 million, while those on the Senate Environment Committee totaled $1.4 million and Senate Energy Committee members got $896,415 total. Those who favored industry or did not have a strong position on Global Warming legislation got the most, while environmental advocates like Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) got the least: $2,000 and $1,000 respectively. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) only got $250. On the House Energy Committee, Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chair of the subcommittee on energy and air quality, led with $123,422. Boucher represents a coal-mining district. Next was Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) with $84,850. Third was Energy Chair John Dingell (D-Mich.) with $81,000, mostly from power companies. On the Senate committees on Environment and Energy, top money went to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), $647,297; followed by James (“Global Warming is a hoax”) Inhofe (R-Okla.), $233,800; Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), $185,859; Max Baucus (D-Mont.), $174,655; Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), $143,550; and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), $135,839; all of whom are up for re-election in 2008. (Source: Greenwire)

Xtreme weather watch

* Hurricane Dean was a Category 5 storm when it hit the Yucatan Tuesday. It was the most powerful Atlantic storm to hit land since 1988, with winds of more than 165 mph that tore off roofs, flooded streets and downed trees and power lines. The storm diminished in strength as it moved across Mexico. (NY Times)

* Firefighters gave up trying to quell fires in three national forests in Idaho last week, as the governor declared a state of emergency. Officials expect the fires to burn until snow hits the mountains, which could be awhile. In California, the third-largest wildfire in modern state history swept through Los Padres National Forest. “The fuel conditions are extreme,” a U.S. Fire Service official told Associated Press. (AP, NY Times)

* Flooding caused 5 Midwest governors to declare states of emergency last week, in Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. The National Weather Service in LaCrosse, Wis., said August was already the wettest month in the city’s history, with 12.22 inches of rain. Rainfall shattered records in parts of Minnesota as well. In northern Ohio some downtown areas were under water, and in the Chicago area fierce storms knocked out power for 600,000 and 36,000 trees were reported down. (NY Times, Chicago Sun-Times)

* 180 miners were trapped in flooded coalmines in China’s Shandong province, after a river broke through a levy last weekend. According to Xinhua news agency, 584 miners escaped from one mine, but efforts to rescue 172 others were blocked by continued flooding. Several days later, officials said there was no hope of a rescue. In another mine nearby, 9 miners were trapped. China has had severe rains and flooding for weeks. (Reuters, NYTimes)

Do something

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Global Warming film, “The 11th Hour” opened this week in many cities around the country. To see where it’s playing, go to
You can also invite friends or post comments. The earlier you see the film the better, as that will help get it into more theaters.

Tell your senators and rep to support the strongest Global Warming bills introduced in Washington, the Sanders-Boxer bill (S309) and Waxman bill (H1590). Send the message that you don’t want a watered-down compromise just because industry lobbyists are pushing for it. Learn more about the two bills, find out who the co-sponsors are, and take action on the Physicians for Social Responsibility Web site, Click Take Action and go to the Global Pollution Reduction Act (S309) and the Safe Climate Act (HR1590) to send your message.

Go to a Save Mass Transit rally in Chicago, at 11:30 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 28. Join Mayor Daley, other elected officials and environmentalists in protesting the Governor’s budget, which cuts CTA money, meaning service cuts and higher fares. We need more mass transit in this world, not less.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

News extra

1. Bush sees new technology as solution to Global Warming
New technology, paid for by rapid economic growth, is the way to reduce greenhouse gases, the Bush administration said in advance of its summit next month with other major polluting countries. The administration opposes mandatory caps on emissions, saying they would stifle growth. In China following a trip to the Asia Pacific summit in Australia, Bush environment advisor James Connaughton said he sees a consensus growing around the U.S. view. Without a growing economy, you don’t have resources to pay for new technology, he said. It took the U.S. less than 30 years, Connaughton said, “to implement strong environmental policies. China can do it in less than 30 years.” We have strong environmental policies? Could have fooled me. (Source:

2. Conservative talk shows, bloggers exploit minor NASA error
Talk show host Rush Limbaugh and the conservative blogosphere jumped all over a Canadian blogger's discovery that NASA made an error figuring average U.S. temperatures for the past 6 years. As a result of the catch, and some adjustments by NASA, the "dust bowl year" of 1934 has now displaced 1998 as the hottest in the U.S., by a hair, and 4 of the 10 hottest years are in the ‘30s, reducing the number in the past decade to 3. Some skeptics are pointing to this error as proof Global Warming isn't a problem. But even the blogger, skeptic Stephen McIntyre, calls it a “micro-change,” according to the Toronto Star, and “not necessarily material to climate policy.” The impact of the adjustment on global temperature records is insignificant, only one one-thousandth of a degree. Worldwide, 1998 and 2005 tie for the hottest year. Let's not forget this is a global problem, not just a U.S. one. (Sources: Washington Post, Toronto Star, Greenwire, Bloomberg, and wired science.)

3. Arctic sea ice hits record low with a month of melting to go
With another month of melt season still ahead, artic sea ice, as observed by satellite, showed record shrinkage last week. "Today is a historic day," Mark Serreze, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, said Friday. He called the record melting “very strong evidence we are starting to see the effect of greenhouse warming.” Sea ice was especially low in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska and in East Siberia. Fast-melting summer sea ice in the Arctic could affect rain patterns and temperatures across the U.S, according to University of Colorado researcher Sheldon Drobot, as well as open the Northwest Passage by 2020 or 2025 to shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific. (Sources: AP, Greenwire)

4. Rainforest destruction rate in Amazon drops by a third
The rate of deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest dropped to an estimated 3,707 sq. mi. during the past 12 months, down from 5,417 sq. mi. the year before. The all-time high, in 2004, was 10,590 sq. mi. Brazilian Environment minister Marina Silva called the reduction “a great achievement for Brazilian society.” Officials attributed the drop to better policing of illegal logging, economic development projects that preserve forests, and improved land-ownership certification. But environmentalists are concerned that a rise in grain prices could spur a new surge in clearing trees for farmland. (Sources:, Greenwire)

5. NYC and 4 other cities get grants to ease traffic congestion
New York City has won a $354.5 million U.S. Dept. of Transportation grant to implement its congestion-pricing plan. Seattle, Miami, Minneapolis and San Francisco also got DOT grants to fight traffic congestion. NYC’s award is the largest and is contingent on winning state legislature approval. The money will be used to implement a plan to charge cars and trucks entering Manhattan south of 86th Street. A similar charge in London has cut traffic and CO2 emissions. The NYC grant also will fund new bus facilities, improved traffic signals and increased ferry service. The other cities have plans to create toll systems that will vary with the number of people in the car and the time of day they travel. (Sources: E&E News PM)

6. States back California plea for EPA waiver on auto emissions
The National Conference of State Legislators voted 40-8 to urge the EPA to “act immediately” to approve California’s request for a waiver to start cutting tailpipe emissions. California has been waiting a year and a half for an answer and 12 other states that adopted California’s standards are watching to see what happens. The EPA has said it will give an answer at the end of the year. The states also agreed that federal law should not pre-empt states’ GHG mitigation laws. Voting no on the waiver were: Georgia, Kentucky, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. (Source: E&E News PM)

7. 'An Inconvenient Truth' coming to Chicago’s Grant Park
The Illinois Science Council and Chicago Department of Environment will present a free screening of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” in Grant Park’s Butler Field (on Monroe between Columbus and Lake Shore) Wednesday evening, Aug. 22, at sundown. Electricity for the film will come from biodeisel fuel and solar power. A complimentary bike valet service will be provided. Co-sponsors include the Illinois Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Chicago Climate Exchange, NBC5, WTMX 101.9FM and WLIV 100.3FM. No pets allowed. (Source: Illinois Science Council)

8. Automakers plan rallies against tough CAFE standards
The Big 3 auto companies reportedly were planning rallies in Chicago and St. Louis last week, saying workers’ jobs were at stake and local plants might close if tough fuel-economy standards were implemented. They planned to have their largest models there, with owners saying why SUVs are essential to their lives. Autoworkers, who are being told their jobs are threatened, have been circulating petitions to take to local congressional offices, supporting the weak Hill-Terry fuel-economy bill. Hill-Terry calls for separate schedules for cars and light trucks (SUVs), to reach a combined standard of 32 mpg by 2022. This bill, which was withdrawn in the House, is weaker than the Senate-passed standard of 35 mpg by 2020 that treats cars and SUVs the same. (Editor’s note: I haven’t seen any coverage of this rally in Chicago, have any of you?) (Source: Greenwire)

Xtreme weather watch

* Japan hit an all-time high temperature Thursday, 106 degrees Fahrenheit in central regions. A reported 33 people died from the heat, which also bent train rails. The previous record was set in 1933.
* Unprecedented torrential rains in North Korea have left up to 300,000 people homeless, hundreds dead and missing, and an agricultural disaster for a country that already has trouble feeding its people. Railroads and roads were swept away by landslides and power substations destroyed by the massive floods. More than 6,000 Red Cross volunteers helped with evacuation and relief, as the country sought aid from the international community.
* In flooded Bangladesh, more than 53,000 were suffering from diarrhea after eating bad food and drinking impure water. A health center in the capital reported 1,100 new patients last Tuesday, the highest single-day admission in history. Low-lying Bangladesh is expected to be one of the first countries inundated when oceans rise due to Global Warming.
* The heat wave across the southern U.S. caused power and health problems last week. The Tennessee Valley Authority announced record power use the past two weeks and had to shut down a reactor in Alabama because water for cooling from the Tennessee River averaged 90 degrees over a 24-hour period. Hospitals said after 5-6 days of high heat, they were seeing many cases of dehydration.
* In dozens of U.S. cities, temperatures hit 100 degrees or more during the past week, some of them for multiple days. In the triple digits were: Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Charleston, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Columbia (Mo.), Columbia (S.C.), Dallas-Ft. Worth, Greenville (S.C.), Houston, Jackson, Kansas City, Knoxville, Las Vegas, Lexington, Little Rock, Louisville, Memphis, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Raleigh, Shreveport, St. Louis, Tucson, Tulsa, Waco and Wichita. (And that’s only the cities listed on the NY Times weather page!) In Tulsa, the PGA championship golf tournament last weekend was the first-ever played completely in 100-degree weather.
(Xtreme weather sources:, Greenwire, NY Times)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Is nuclear ‘renaissance’ a solution to Global Warming?
Global Warming and pressure to meet Kyoto goals have spurred the world to seek carbon-free energy sources. Some say any solution must have nuclear in the mix. So after a 20-year hiatus in most countries following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, nuclear energy seems to be back on the table.

Worldwide, 30 plants are under construction, while 74 are planned and 182 proposed. In the U.S., where 20% of the energy now comes from nukes, the race is on to build the first reactor in decades. The Nuclear Energy Institute expects 17 new reactors to start construction here in the next 6 years.

Just days before an earthquake in Japan damaged the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the Japanese government had announced a public-private partnership to develop next-generation nuclear reactors that would produce 40% less radioactive waste.

Japan gets nearly a third of its power from nukes and needs to replace 20 aging reactors by 2030. Worldwide, there are 437 reactors that will soon need replacing.

On top of that, energy demand is expected to rise about 50% in the next 25 years. So the dilemma is three-fold.
• What to do about replacing aging nuclear plants?
• Should more nuclear be used to replace carbon-spewing coal plants?
• And how can we meet additional energy needs without increasing CO2 emissions?

Is nuclear energy worth the risk of accidents, terrorism and disposal problems because it is carbon-free?

Some countries say it is. Those who support nuclear energy says it’s much cleaner than coal and that the new plants will be safer and more efficient.

Top on the list is France, which gets 78% of its power from nukes and has an accident-free record at its 59 plants. India – with new support from the U.S. government – plans to start a huge 10,000-megawatt plant next year. And Australia, with its large uranium reserves, will begin building reactors.

Vietnam expects to finish the first of 4 reactors in 2015. Indonesia, despite concerns about earthquakes (there was one last week), plans for the first of 4-6 plants to come online in 2016.

Europe now gets 32% of its energy from nuclear and in April the G7 threw its support behind nukes as one solution to Global Warming.

And in the wake of Iran’s quest for nuclear energy, about a dozen Middle East countries – including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – have asked the International Atomic Energy Agency to help them start nuclear programs. Some fear this could start a nuclear-arms race in the area.

Russia recently began construction on the first of at least 7 floating nuclear power plants. China, which gets only 2% of its energy from its 11 reactors, has 4 more under construction, 23 in the planning stage and 54 proposed. Finland is building plants, and the Dutch recently reversed a decision to phase out their plants.

In the U.S., where nuclear is controversial, the 2005 Energy Policy Act offered billions in tax incentives and loan guarantees to spur nuclear development. Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force called for 1,300-1,900 new power plants, many of them nuclear. Several states provide significant power from nukes, including Connecticut (45%) and Virginia (30%). The U.S. has 103 reactors and all will need replacing by mid-century.

Arguments against nuclear energy include the threat of weapons proliferation and terrorist attacks, disposal of the radioactive waste, and cost – about $4 billion per plant. Safety violations and lack of evacuation plans at existing plants are a concern, as are comments from guards about their inability to defend a plant against attack. The Union of Concerned Scientists has recorded 51 cases at 41 plants where reactors had to be shut down for more than a year.

Waste storage is a critical issue. The Nevada permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain has been put on hold with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as majority leader, and likely won’t be usable until at least 2017, if ever. Then there’s the concern about transporting all the waste.

Americans are still wary of nuclear energy. A recent poll by MIT showed 54% strongly oppose having a nuclear power plant within 25 miles of their home and a similar number think it is harmful to the environment. Only 28% believe radioactive waste can be safely stored indefinitely.

Anti-nuclear countries include Germany and Sweden, which have vowed to phase out their nuclear plants. (In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist, disagrees with her government’s stance, calling the phase-out “disastrous” for German efforts to curb CO2.)

Belgium and Spain have decided not to build and South Korea has slowed its efforts. The state of California renewed its position against nukes this year, though a group of businesspeople there want to put the issue on the ballot.

How practical is it?
With the industry pretty much in mothballs for the 20 years since Chernobyl, a scarcity of uranium, parts and trained workers would hamper a ramp-up of nuclear power. It also takes a very long time to build one.

Some studies, including one from the Council on Foreign Relations, suggest it could take 50 years to make a dent in curtailing GHG emissions with nuclear power. The Oxford Research Group said the world would need to construct 3,000 reactors, or 1 a week for the next 60 years, to make a difference, and others have made similar estimates.

International monitoring
The Foreign Relations Council study said an international agreement is needed to ensure safe and secure practices and storage of nuclear waste.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, responsible for monitoring 900 nuclear sites in 145 countries, recently told Congress it doesn’t have enough money in its $130 million budget to adequately safeguard the world’s nuclear materials. Indiana Sens. Richard Lugar (R) and Evan Bayh (D) proposed giving IAEA another $10 million to upgrade its increasingly obsolete laboratory in Austria.

Bayh and Lugar’s bill (S. 1138) also calls for an international fuel bank that would be a reliable and secure source of nuclear fuel, and includes incentives for non-nuclear countries not to develop their own enrichment and reprocessing plants (which could be used for weapons). A similar strategy is in President Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership concept. Expect to hear a lot more about international monitoring and cooperation if nuclear energy is on the rise again, as it appears to be.

(Sources:, Greenwire, E&E Daily, Christian Science Monitor, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, E Magazine, U.S. Dept. of Energy)

News briefs

1. Natural disasters increasing rapidly all around the world
The number of natural disasters doubled between 2004-2006, from 200 a year up to 400, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Floods alone were up from 60 to 100 in that period, and so far this year 70 serious floods have been recorded. Flooding has affected 500 million people and is straining relief efforts. Above-average heatwaves have occurred on 4 continents, in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. The organization also found that global temperatures in January and April were the highest ever recorded, topping the average by 3.4 degrees F in January and 2.47 degrees in April. Other researchers studying Western Europe found the average length of a heat wave there has risen from 1.5 days to 3 days since 1880, and that the number of extremely hot days has tripled. (Source: PlanetArk, NY Times)

2. Don’t be lulled by lack of hurricane activity so far this year
It could just be the calm before the storms. With little tropical storm activity in the Atlantic so far this summer, the U.S. Climate Protection Center revised its forecast last week, predicting 9 hurricanes this season – down 1 from their prediction last May. This is still well above the average of 5.9. Forecasters said 3-5 of those storms are likely to become major hurricanes, with winds exceeding 110 mph. August-October is the peak season and the forecasters said those in hurricane-prone areas should keep up their guard. (Source: E&E PM)

3. New 10-year temperature forecast shows rise after 2009
Global temperatures will likely stabilize for the next two years, counteracted by natural causes, before temperatures rise sharply again at the end of the decade, British researchers said this week in the journal Science. Using computer models, the researchers, from the Met Office in Exeter, England, plotted out likely temperatures for the next 10 years. After 2010, each year has a 50% chance of exceeding the record hot year of 1998, they said, and after 2014 the odds of record-setting temperatures will be even greater. The two-year stall is expected as a result of cooling in the Southern Ocean and tropical Pacific Ocean over the past two years. A 10-year prediction should be more useful than the 50- or 100-year forecasts provided by most scientists and should help planners and emergency responders better prepare, the study authors said. (Sources: The Guardian, CNBC)

4. Illinois legislature OK’s RES and energy efficiency standards
At the end of July, in the midst of the flurry of activity in Washington, the Illinois General Assembly approved a Renewable Electricity Standard of 25% by 2025 and an Energy Efficiency Performance Standard calling for a 2% reduction in energy demand by 2015. The governor is expected to sign both bills. Still under consideration, as state leaders got bogged down in a budget fight, were the Illinois Clean Car Act (HB 3424), which would adopt California’s strict standards for tailpipe emissions, and the Energy Efficiency Building Act (SB 526). (Sources: Environmental Law and Policy Center, Illinois League of Conservation Voters)

5. Court halts drilling in Arctic waters to assess impact
As international interest in Arctic oil peaks, and Russia plants a flag at the North Pole, an Appeals Court has blocked Shell Oil Co. from drilling offshore from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, pending a review of whether it will endanger whales and other animals. The area is home to 10% of the remaining polar bears. A hearing is set for Aug. 14. “It would take just one spill on the icebound Beaufort Sea that borders the Refuge to create a perpetual toxic waste site that could never be cleaned up – because the oil industry has no proven method for cleaning up oil in icy water,” warned Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in a letter to supporters. Shell says it has studied the impact on animals and developed a plan to respond to spills. (Sources: Bloomberg, NRDC)

Congressional round-up

*Climate bills face tough time in Conference, then likely veto
In late September and October, the climate bills recently passed by the Senate and House will have a tough go of it in the House-Senate Conference, with opponents and lobbyists continuing to hammer away on contentious points. The corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard of 35 mpg by 2020, passed by the Senate, never made it to a vote in the House because of objections from the auto industry, many Republicans and Energy Chair John Dingell (D-Mich.) The Renewable Electricity Standard, calling for utilities to produce 15% of their power from renewable sources by 2020, made it through the House but was blocked in the Senate, after fierce lobbying by the utility industry and southeastern states concerned that they don’t have access to enough renewable resources. The energy tax bill also passed in just one chamber, the House, and is fiercely opposed by the oil and gas industries and “oil patch” Democrats. Once the Conference agrees, the new bills will have to be accepted by both chambers. Finally, they will go to the president, who is likely to veto them because they don’t increase domestic oil and gas production. Nonetheless, advocates will be working hard to get strong but palatable bills through the Conference committee. (E&E Daily, Greenwire)

*Lieberman, Warner unveil plan to cut GHG 70% by 2050
Before the recess, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) previewed a “compromise” economy-wide plan to cut Global Warming they will introduce in the fall. It requires electric utilities, heavy manufacturers, petroleum refiners and importers to limit GHG to 2005 levels by 2012, then cut them 10% by 2020 and 70% by 2050. The Senators offer a cap-and-trade system that would initially give away more than half the credits to industries most impacted by the new requirements, with another 24% to be auctioned. Revenue from the auctions would go for alternative power sources, carbon capture, new transportation technologies and adaptation to climate change. Industry would be able to meet 15% of its obligations through offsets, and U.S. trading partners would have to buy credits for carbon-intensive exports. Environment Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called it “an excellent starting point.” (Greenwire)

*Dingell takes his energy tax views on the road during break
Powerful House Energy Chair John Dingell (D-Mich.) has been talking to constituents about his plan to introduce a gasoline tax of up to 50 cents and a “stiff” tax on carbon in an effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He spoke at two town meetings, in Ann Arbor and Dearborn, last week. He also advocated removing the mortgage deduction on “McMansions,” homes of over 3,000 sq. ft., and increasing funds for low-income energy assistance. Dingell will play a critical role in crafting a House bill to cut GHG emissions this fall. Ford CEO Alan Mulally said this week he favors Dingell’s idea of a gasoline tax over CAFE standards. (Source: Greenwire)

Xtreme weather watch

*10 million people in India, Nepal and Bangladesh have been left homeless and are increasingly desperate as they face food shortages and disease. More than 455 have died in the annual floods, which are the worst in living memory in some areas. (PlanetArk)
*About a half-million people in Sudan have been flood victims in the past month, according to the U.N. The earlier and heavier than usual rains caused cresting rivers and flash floods. Many in Sudan lose their homes to flooding each year, but this was the worst in memory. (PlanetArk)
*Nearly 1,000 Chinese were dead or missing in disasters last month. Like other parts of Asia, China experienced intense rain and floods, while some parts of the country suffered severe drought. In July alone, a reported 464,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed, 3.8 million people were evacuated, and 7.5 million faced water shortages. (PlanetArk)
*Northern Greece was hit by heavy rains last week, resulting in flooding and power outages in the middle of an unusually hot summer. Greece has seen two heat waves this summer, with temperatures up to 115F, and has had thousands of forest fires, some suspected arson by unscrupulous developers wanting to build on wooded land. (PlanetArk)
*The first half of 2007 in Texas has been the wettest on record, with rainfall of 27.11 inches for January-July, compared with an average of 16.21, according to the National Weather Service. Serious flooding resulted. The good news? It ended a 10-year drought. (Greenwire)
*South Africa’s first substantial snowstorm in more than 25 years dumped about 10 inches in some regions in June (which is winter there). Meanwhile, Chile, having its coldest winter in 30 years, had snow in its wine region for the first time in a half-century. (CNN, PlanetArk)

Do something

Feeling frustrated by the slow progress of our government in acting against Global Warming – the fact that bills passed this session could end up being vetoed by the President? You can express your impatience and concern by joining in a one-day fast Sept. 4, the day Congress returns to Washington. Check it out at

Sunday, August 05, 2007

News brief extra

1. Victory for energy bills and renewable standard, but veto likely
The House of Representatives adopted an energy package 242-172 Saturday afternoon that included a renewable electricity standard. The (Udall-Platts) RES amendment had earlier passed by a 220-190 vote. Also approved was a separate energy tax bill, 221-189, that would take billions in oil and gas subsidies and steer them toward renewable energy. The White House said President Bush would veto the measures. The energy bill had been expected to pass. The RES provision, requiring investor-owned utilities to get 15% of their power from renewable sources by 2020, and the tax bill had been less certain. Some provisions in the energy bill would improve energy efficiency of appliances, lighting and buildings; increase biofuels development and delivery; make the federal government carbon neutral; boost development and demonstration of carbon sequestration programs; and help create a "smart" electrical grid. Those wanting to know how their representative voted can find out at Click on Roll Call Votes (bottom of page) and then on 110th Congress (2007). The roll call votes you want to check are 827 (Udall), 832 (energy package) and 835 (tax bill). (Sources: Greenwire, New York Times, C-Span, Sierra Club,

2. Bush invites major polluting countries to climate conference
President Bush has invited presidents and prime ministers of the top 15 GHG-emitting countries (after the U.S.) to meet in Washington Sept. 28-29. Bush said he hopes they will reach consensus on steps to be taken after the Kyoto accord expires in 2012. Invited are (listed in order according to amount of GHG they emit) China, the European Union, Russia, India, Japan, Germany, Brazil, Canada, the U.K., Italy, Mexico, South Korea, France and Indonesia. Also included are Australia, South Africa, Portugal, the European Commission and the U.N. While Bush said he will speak, he’s leaving the details to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The conference comes right after the Sept. 24 General Assembly climate change debate at the U.N. and prior to the formal U.N. climate change meeting Dec. 3-14 in Bali., international sister organization of and a partner of LiveEarth, is saying Bush envoys are putting pressure on foreign governments to avoid a climate treaty with binding emissions targets. Avazz is mobilizing a campaign to try to counteract that. Those who want to contribute can do so at

3. Smog will accelerate Global Warming, study warns
Ozone smog damages vegetation and therefore hurts its ability to act as a “carbon sink,” according to a new study in the British journal Nature. Ozone hinders photosynthesis and so causes more carbon dioxide to remain in the atmosphere, which accelerates Global Warming, the study said. The researchers found highly ozone-sensitive plants had a 23% decreased capacity to absorb CO2, compared with low- sensitivity plants at 14%. Climate models have not taken ozone into account, the authors said, and it could add 0.5-1.25 degrees Celsius (0.9-2.25 F) to predictions of temperature change. In pre-industrial times ozone averaged 17 parts per billion. Today it is double that and expected to rise to 54 ppb by the end of the century. (Sources: E&E Daily, Nature, ELPC,

4. New coal-fired plants likely to increase emissions 34%
At a time when we’re looking to cut greenhouse gas emissions, a new wave of coal-fired plants being planned and built across the country could increase them 34% by 2030, says an Environmental Integrity Project study released in July. A tally of the dirtiest plants in the U.S. shows Texas in the lead with 5; followed by Ind. and Pa. with 4 each; and Ala., Ga., N.C. and Ohio (3 each). Coal-fired plants usually release about a ton of CO2 for every megawatt-hour. Some plants in N.D. and Texas release more because they use low-grade lignite coal plentiful in those states. The best way to cap emissions in the short run is to reduce demand for electricity, the study said. Power plants account for about 40% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere here. (Source: E&E News PM)

5. Warming, coastal erosion threaten Alaskan oil wells
Warming temperatures and erosion along the coast of the National Petroleum Reserve could send oils wells into the sea, warns the U.S. Geological Survey. Erosion of parts of the coast has doubled in the past half century, as permafrost thaws and salt water intrudes into coastal fresh-water lakes. The Bureau of Land Management says 30 coastal oil wells in Alaska must be plugged before the erosion gets much worse. (Source: Greenwire)

6. Shell and TXU announce plans for largest wind farm yet
Royal Dutch Shell’s wind division and a subsidiary of TXU have agreed to cooperate on a 3,000-megawatt wind project in the Texas panhandle. They say it would be the largest in the world and would supply the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. The project would capture wind in off-peak hours, compress and store it, and then use it to run natural gas turbines. This technology would make intermittent wind much more reliable, the two companies said. Total wind capacity in the U.S. is now less than 12,000 MW. Worldwide it is about 75,000, up 26% in the past year, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Germany, Spain and the U.S. generate about 60% of the wind power today, but rapid growth is expected in Canada, France, Portugal, Australia and Brazil. (Sources: Greenwire,

7. Japanese try out hybrid train on short mountain run
The East Japan Railway Co. has begun service of its first commercial hybrid train to a mountain resort. The train has a diesel engine, which it uses going uphill, and lithium ion batteries to charge the electric motors under each car. The hybrid reduces emissions 60% but costs twice as much as a standard train. Amtrak and Deutsche Bahn AG are also investing in hybrid train technology. Meanwhile, Japan has admitted it’s not on track to meet its Kyoto goal of reducing GHG 6% (below 1990 levels) by 2012. (Source: Greenwire)

8. Parisiens take to the streets on 10,000 loaner bicycles
Residents and visitors to Paris seem to have taken to a new bike program blanketing the city. More than 600,000 users have signed up to pick up the “velibs” at 750 locations throughout the city, and take them where they want to go – be it work, pleasure or shopping. There are 10,000 of the gray-green bikes, a number that is expected to double by the end of the year, according to City Hall. The pickup points will increase as well, to more than 1,400. A few kinks need to be worked out – like the tendency to pick up bikes at high points in the city, such as Montmartre, and ride them downhill, then leave them and take the metro home. C’est la vie. (Source:

Xtreme weather watch

• New Zealand reader Andrea Needham writes they’ve had 10 tornados this year in her area on the north island – “very, very unusual” – and massive flooding where it hasn’t flooded before.
• Montana has been engulfed by dozens of fires in a wildfire season that began earlier than usual. One, north of Helena, burned 37,000 acres. Another, 26 miles north of Whitefish, had burned 14,000 acres by Saturday. Montana was abnormally hot in July, with more than a week of 100-plus temperatures. (AP)
• Almost half of Bangladesh was submerged last week, driving snakes to share higher ground with fleeing residents. Flooding is an annual event in the low-lying nation, but this year is worse than usual, with rainfall totaling 29 inches in July, double the average. Also affected by torrential rains are Nepal and India, where Bihar state had the worst floods in 30 years. (New York Times, PlanetArk)
• South Africa has suffered both wildfires in the east, which drove thousands from their homes in Swaziland, and flooding in Capetown, where 38,000 were affected. (PlanetArk)
Got something to add? E-mail me at

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

It’s not just ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’*
I was in London last week, and the newspapers were full of the flooding in the countryside. England has had flooding before. Much of it is built in a flood plain. But this was the most intense rainfall in a 24-hour period, the wettest May-June-July since records began in 1766, and the most severe summer flooding since the early 19th century.

Those in the affected areas were suffering – 350,000 without water, 50,000 homes and businesses damaged, whole towns cut off, thousands without power, diary farms that couldn’t get water for their cows, and uninsured crops that were destroyed. Losses were estimated at $10 billion in American dollars. There was panic buying at grocery stores, the prospect of rising food prices, and public health worries like rats and E.coli. And the rain just kept coming.

It was caused, in large part, by a stalled jet stream too far south, which at the same time delivered a vicious heat wave with hundreds of deaths and fires in Eastern and Southern Europe. Surface temperatures in the North Atlantic are above normal, probably a result of exceptionally warm weather in Europe last winter and spring.

Extreme weather now common
All over the world this summer, there’ve been floods, monsoons and droughts. Floods in China, in Texas, in Kansas. Droughts in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Monsoons in India and Bangladesh. Heat waves in Montana and much of the U.S. West. Drought in Australia. The list goes on. And much of it is unprecedented.

It’s not unusual to have occasional extreme weather events. They happen all the time. And they’re isolated, so much of the world doesn’t care. But we’re getting more and more, and that’s exactly what has been predicted by climate scientists. As the Earth heats up, more water vapor in the air means more severe rainfall in some places, and very little rain in others. England and the higher latitudes will get the rain, lower latitudes like Africa the droughts.

Lady Young, head of Britain’s Environment Agency, declared last week, “Climate change is coming home to roost.” New Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the country must act now to protect itself from the impact of Global Warming, which will make flooding a regular event.

The need to prepare
As with Katrina in New Orleans, England wasn’t ready for this disaster. Despite 25 reports since the last flooding chaos in 2000, the government was woefully unprepared. Recommendations that the Environment Agency take overall control of such problems never happened. Only a portion of the money allocated for defenses and infrastructure had been spent. And despite the advance warning this time, trucks carrying metal defenses to install along the riverbanks waited too long and got blocked by flash floods. Water supplies to those who needed it were totally inadequate.

The papers were full of what needs to be done to prepare for the next time, for surely there will be a next time (this was the second flood this summer). More must be spent on drainage, clearing out pipes and ditches, protecting electricity substations and water plants, setting aside areas for retention, and building homes higher up and more able to withstand water.

Ultimately, a major concern is London itself, untouched this time but vulnerable. London itself is built in a flood plain. In 1982 it built the extraordinary and costly Thames Barrier, which rises up to block surges from the North Sea, but that must be raised higher in the next 20 years, for South England is slowly sinking and the water at high tide is now 2 feet higher than it was a century ago.

Climate scientists forecast that by the end of the century, storms like those that swept England this summer will be far more frequent there and at other high latitudes. And much of the rain will fall in torrential downpours, bringing a month’s worth of rain in a single day.

Predictions for 2080
Forecasts for 2080 show winter rainfall in London up 30%, with the Thames rising an average of 20 inches. Parched ground, caused by hotter summers, will be less able to absorb the water, increasing the risk of flash flooding.

Flood walls alone won’t solve the problem – they only push it downstream. In Japan, structures are built on raised ground, with parklands, tennis courts and sports fields to hold floodwaters. In the Netherlands, homes are on stilts and some float on the water, with farmland bought up to set aside for flood retention. In the Florida Keys houses are on stilts. In the Mediterranean, stone, concrete and tile floors make for easier cleanup, or the ground floor is used for cars, with housing above.

This is not just England’s problem – it just happened to strike there last week. The series of unfortunate events this summer will likely continue and get worse throughout the world, as the climate warms and the seas rise. What are we going to do about it? Get caught unawares, like in New Orleans. Or plan ahead for disasters like flooding and drought?

Or get serious about stopping greenhouse gas emissions.

(Sources: The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, CNN, International Herald Tribune)
*Title borrowed from Lemony Snicket

Congressional round-up
Updated 9 p.m. CST Aug. 1.

*The House will consider a 786-page energy package (H.R. 3221) Friday and Saturday. It includes bills from 11 committees and covers many topics, including energy efficiency, R&D, public transportation, renewables infrastructure, a smart electricity grid and carbon sequestration. A separate energy tax bill gives incentives to renewables and alternative energy by cutting oil and gas subsidies.

*The Markey-Platts and Hill-Terry dueling corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) amendments were both withdrawn from consideration late Wednesday. Instead, advocates for a strong CAFE bill will work in Conference with the Senate-passed bill. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) had made changes to his amendment in the hope of winning more votes, exempting large pickup trucks, extending the date to 2019 from 2018 for a 35 mpg standard, and structuring the bill like the Senate-passed version. Markey-Platts was up against the auto-industry-backed Hill-Terry bill, supported by House Energy Chair John Dingell (D-Mich.)

*A Renewable Energy Standard amendment will now be the focus of environmental advocates on the Hill. In order to gain more support, chief sponsors Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Todd Platts (R-Pa.) reduced the percentage of renewables to 15% from the original 20% and added new sponsors. This amendment is critical because the Senate did not pass a renewable standard bill. If Udall-Platts passes the House, it will go to Conference and have a chance to end up on the President's desk. Last chance to call your rep on behalf of Udall-Platts et al. Capitol switchboard is (202)225-3121.
(Sources: Greenwire, Sierra Club and others)

News briefs

1. Tibet heating up faster than any place on the planet
Tibet, with its high altitude and glaciers, is the most sensitive place on earth to Global Warming and is heating up at a rate of 0.3 degrees Celsius (0.54 F) every decade, according to the Xinhua news agency. Chinese scientists have long warned that melting glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau could dry up major Chinese rivers and cause droughts, desertification and sandstorms. The average temperature in China is rising at a much slower rate, 0.4 degrees C every 100 years, and the worldwide average is .074 C per century. (Source:

2. Lake Superior’s high temps, lower levels puzzle scientists
One buoy reads 75 degrees for the surface temperature of Lake Superior, the deepest and coldest of the Great Lakes, which holds 20% of the world’s fresh surface water. The average temperature has risen 4.5 degrees F since 1979, compared with a 2.7-degree increase in the air. And water levels are the lowest in 80 years, down more than a foot in the past year. What’s going on? Well, precipitation is way down since the 1970s, and 6 inches below normal this year, and the winter ice cap has shrunk due to mild winters. The expectation was for the area to get more rain and snow. Instead, it’s gotten less, which is affecting fishing, shipping and vegetation. Scientists are busy trying to figure out what to expect next, so we can be more prepared. (Source: AP, AOL)

3. California plans biggest, best solar farm so far in U.S.
Cleantech America LLC has announced plans for an 80-megawatt solar farm near Fresco, Calif., that will be able to power 21,000 homes. Likely to cover 240 acres, the plant will be 17 times the size of the largest existing one in the U.S., which is near Tucson, the company said. According to CEO Bill Barnes, Community Choice Solar Farm will be big enough to drive down the price of solar, and will help change the industry. While the company still needs to buy the land and contract for solar panels, it is confident the project will be finished by 2011. Cleantech is partnering with the California Construction Authority, which will help ease the way. (Source: PlanetArk)

4. Germany and Spain claim world’s largest solar plant
Solar Millenium Group in Germany and ACS of Spain have begun the second phase of what they say will be the world’s largest solar plant, near Madrid. Covering 480 acres, the plant will go online in 2009 and will serve 200,000 people, the two companies announced. Each phase will produce 650 megawatts. Solar Millenium said it plans a third plant in partnership with Portuguese Energy Group. Spain is the largest producer of renewable energy, according to Greenwire. (Source: Greenwire)

Do something

Tell the auto companies to get serious about better fuel efficiency and not to rely on corn ethanol. Send a message at