Friday, July 30, 2010

Is Solar Power Now Cheaper Than Nuclear Energy?


nuclear power plant

Solar power took a big step toward becoming the alternative energy of choice with this week's news that energy from sunlight might be cheaper than nuclear power. The analysis, which comes from a Duke University report entitled Solar and Nuclear Costs: The Historic Crossover, claims that, "Electricity from new solar installations is now cheaper than electricity from proposed new nuclear plants" in North Carolina.
The reason, according to the study, is a dramatic drop of the price of solar in recent years combined with an increase in the price of nuclear. In 2002, construction cost estimates for new nuclear power plants were in the $3 billion per reactor range. As new design and engineering problems emerge, construction costs continue to rise--now nuclear plants are estimated to cost $10 billion per reactor. And price isn't even the half of it. The study (PDF) reasons:
Solar electricity has numerous advantages other than cost. Rooftop solar can be installed in a few days. Small incremental gains in total generating capacity start producing electricity immediately. One does not have to wait ten years for huge blocks of new capacity to come online. Solar panels leave no radioactive wastes. They do not consume billions of gallons of cooling water each year. There are no national security issues with solar installations. An accident would be a small local affair, not a catastrophe.
This doesn't mean that we should completely ditch nuclear power. The Duke analysis argues that solar's status as an intermittent power source (it only works when the sun shines) is irrelevant because of smart grid technologies that optimize the energy mix. And the upfront costs for nuclear are astronomical compared to the cost of implementing, say, a rooftop solar system, but the fact remains that nuclear plants can pump out energy 24 hours a day. Solar plants can't. A long-lasting nuclear plant will most likely generate more energy per dollar invested than a solar plant ever could.
Solar should always be considered first, to be sure--one report estimates that construction of 100 new nuclear reactors would cost taxpayers an extra $1.9 trillion to $4.4 trillion over the 40-year life of the devices. But writing off any reliable, clean energy source would be a mistake.
Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Exploring Algae as Fuel

July 26, 2010


SAN DIEGO — In a laboratory where almost all the test tubes look green, the tools of modern biotechnology are being applied to lowly pond scum.
Foreign genes are being spliced into algae and native genes are being tweaked.
Different strains of algae are pitted against one another in survival-of-the-fittest contests in an effort to accelerate the evolution of fast-growing, hardy strains.
The goal is nothing less than to create superalgae, highly efficient at converting sunlight and carbon dioxide into lipids and oils that can be sent to a refinery and made into diesel or jet fuel.
“We’ve probably engineered over 4,000 strains,” said Mike Mendez, a co-founder and vice president for technology at Sapphire Energy, the owner of the laboratory. “My whole goal here at Sapphire is to domesticate algae, to make it a crop.”
Dozens of companies, as well as many academic laboratories, are pursuing the same goal — to produce algae as a source of, literally, green energy. And many of them are using genetic engineering or other biological techniques, like chemically induced mutations, to improve how algae functions.
“There are probably well over 100 academic efforts to use genetic engineering to optimize biofuel production from algae,” said Matthew C. Posewitz, an assistant professor of chemistry at the Colorado School of Mines, who has written a review of the field. “There’s just intense interest globally.”
Algae are attracting attention because the strains can potentially produce 10 or more times more fuel per acre than the corn used to make ethanol or the soybeans used to make biodiesel. Moreover, algae might be grown on arid land and brackish water, so that fuel production would not compete with food production. And algae are voracious consumers of carbon dioxide, potentially helping to keep some of this greenhouse gas from contributing to global warming.
But efforts to genetically engineer algae, which usually means to splice in genes from other organisms, worry some experts because algae play a vital role in the environment. The single-celled photosynthetic organisms produce much of the oxygen on earth and are the base of the marine food chain.
“We are not saying don’t do this,” said Gerald H. Groenewold, director of the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center, who is trying to organize a study of the risks. “We say do this with the knowledge of the implications and how to safeguard what you are doing.”
At a meeting this month of President Obama’s new bioethics commission, Allison A. Snow, an ecologist at Ohio State University, testified that a “worst-case hypothetical scenario” would be that algae engineered to be extremely hardy might escape into the environment, displace other species and cause algal overgrowths that deprive waters of oxygen, killing fish.
A week earlier, at an industry-sponsored bioenergy conference, David Haberman, an engineer who has worked on an algae project, gave a talk warning of risks. Many scientists, particularly those in the algae business, say the fears are overblown. Just as food crops cannot thrive without a farmer to nourish them and fend off pests, algae modified to be energy crops would be uncompetitive against wild algae if they were to escape, and even inside their own ponds.
“Everything we do to engineer an organism makes it weaker,” said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-founder of Sapphire. “This idea that we can make Frankenfood or Frankenalgae is just absurd.”
Dr. Mayfield and other scientists say there have been no known environmental problems in the 35 years that scientists have been genetically engineering bacteria, although some organisms have undoubtedly escaped from laboratories.
Even Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been critical of biotech crops, said that if genetically engineered algae were to escape, “I would not lose sleep over it at all.”
Still, some algae researchers worry they will be engulfed by the same backlash aimed at biotech foods and say care must be exercised. “About 40 percent of the oxygen that you and I are breathing right now comes from the algae in the oceans,” the genetic scientist J. Craig Venter said at a Congressional hearing in May. “We don’t want to mess up that process.”
Dr. Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics, is getting $300 million from Exxon Mobil to create fuel-producing algae, in part by using synthetic genes. When the two companies cut the ribbon on a new greenhouse here earlier this month, Dr. Venter assured local dignitaries in attendance that no algae would escape. “Nothing will go into the drains, Mr. Mayor,” Dr. Venter said, only half-jokingly. “San Diego is safe.”
In the long run, Dr. Venter said, the algae should be given “suicide genes” that would kill them if they escaped the lab or fuel production facility. Some companies are sticking with searching for and breeding natural strains. “Re-engineering algae seems driven more by patent law and investor desire for protection than any real requirement,” said Stan Barnes, chief executive of Bioalgene, which is one of those companies. But Dr. Venter and Mr. Mendez argue that there are huge obstacles to making algae competitive as an energy source and that every tool will be needed to optimize the strains.
Sapphire Energy seems one of the best-positioned companies to do that. The company, which is three years old, has raised $100 million from prominent investors, including Bill Gates. Sapphire is also getting $100 million in federal financing to build a demonstration project containing 300 acres of open ponds in the New Mexico desert.
The company has inserted a gene into algae that allows the organisms to make a hydrocarbon they would not naturally produce, one that would help make fuel. “You don’t want to take what algae gives you,” said Mr. Mendez, who previously worked for medical biotechnology companies. “You want to make the best product.”
The company is also developing algae that can thrive in extremely salty and exceedingly alkaline water.
It has even developed what might be called Roundup Ready algae. Like the widely grown Roundup Ready soybeans, these algae are resistant to the herbicide Roundup. That would allow the herbicide to be sprayed on a pond to kill invading wild algae while leaving the fuel-producing strain unhurt.
Not all these traits are being developed by genetic engineering, because in many cases scientists do not know what genes to use. Instead, the company screens thousands of strains each day, looking for organisms with the right properties. Those desirable traits can be further enhanced by breeding or accelerated evolution.
In one room at Sapphire’s lab, parallel tubes contain algae with identical traits growing under identical conditions. But each strain is slightly different, and only the fastest growing one — determined by which tube turns the darkest green — will be chosen for further development.
“If you can’t outcompete your wild cousin, it doesn’t make it out of this room,” said Mr. Mendez. Algae can reproduce rapidly, doubling in as little as a few hours. And they can be carried long distances by the wind. “They have the potential to blow all over the world,” said Richard Sayre of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.
Dr. Sayre, who is also chief technology officer of Phycal, an algae company, is using genetic engineering to develop algae that capture less light. Right now, he explained, algae capture more light than they need and waste a lot of it as heat. If each organism captured less, then a given amount of light could be shared by more organisms, increasing biomass production.
Instead of using open ponds, some companies are using bioreactors, which typically contain the algae in tubes. Some experts say, however, that these would not totally prevent escapes. “The idea that you can contain these things and have a large-scale system is not credible,” said John R. Benemann, an industry consultant in Walnut Creek, Calif. He said, however, that he saw absolutely no risk from genetically engineered algae.
Sapphire says it is not growing any genetically engineered algae in open ponds yet. When it is ready, it says, it will comply with all regulations.
Genetically engineered algae, whether in open ponds or enclosed bioreactors, are likely to be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which now regulates genetically engineered microbes under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Still, there has been at least one case in which genetically modified algae seem to have fallen between the regulatory cracks. When Mera Pharmaceuticals, which is based in Hawaii, wanted to test the feasibility of producing human pharmaceuticals in genetically engineered algae in 2005, none of the three federal agencies that regulate the various areas of biotechnology — E.P.A., the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department — claimed jurisdiction.
Steven G. Chalk, acting deputy assistant secretary for renewable energy at the Energy Department, said any federally financed project, like Sapphire’s New Mexico demonstration, would have to undergo an environmental assessment. But risks would be assessed case by case, he said, not for all conceivable genetically modified algae.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Natural Gas Drilling: Calling on New York to Stop This Unnatural Process

JULY 22, 2010

Mark Ruffalo

Actor, Director
Posted: July 21, 2010 07:30 PM

I live in a quiet corner of New York State. My wife and I chose to raise our children here because we want our children to grow up in its peaceful, pastoral landscape. But the calm that drew us here is about to be shattered by a gold rush in natural gas drilling.

Most people think drilling happens out on the lonely Western plains or on distant rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. But in the past few years, a natural-gas gold rush has spread across Pennsylvania, is poised to burst into New York State and could spread across the watershed that supplies drinking water to more than 15 million people in New York City, Philadelphia and other locations.

Like people in the Gulf, local communities are learning that when something goes wrong, neither the energy companies nor the government regulators offer much help.

Companies aren't even legally obliged to tell us the names or formulas of the nearly 590 chemicals that have been identified by experts as being used in their wells. I don't know when America got to the point where someone can pour 590 chemicals into the ground with impunity -- where we have to argue for our right to know what's in our water and to protect our families.

But as I watch this natural-gas gold rush get closer to my home, I realize America has a choice to make: We can either keep going down this road of dirty energy's boom and bust or we can pursue something more sustainable. I think America can make the shift to renewable power, but in the meantime, the drill pads keep coming.

I live on the Delaware River -- which the organization American Rivers just named the number one endangered river in the nation because of gas drilling. About a month ago, I got a call from my friend who lives on the Pennsylvania side of the river.

He said, "They're here to drill next door. My one-lane country road has turned into a 30-foot highway. Huge trucks keep coming. They've started doing sonar pounding to see where the gas is and they're going to start test wells just a mile away from the river."

My friend and I wouldn't be so panicked about the arrival of those wells if we knew they could pump gas without endangering the water or the people nearby. That isn't the case.

These wells use a technology called hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. To get to the gas -- which is buried in tiny pockets deep within a formation called the Marcellus Shale -- companies have to fracture the rock. They drill down and inject fracking fluid -- a mixture of water and some of those 590 chemicals -- into the well at high pressure to blast the rock apart and release the gas.

A loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act exempts fracking from regulation. States can step in with their own regulations, but most haven't. Two thirds of the states where fracking takes place have done nothing at all to regulate the practice. And Pennsylvania hasn't done nearly enough. It's basically been a free-for-all for companies. So energy representatives go into struggling farming communities and offer to pay royalty for sinking wells on people's land. It sounds good at first, then reality sinks in.

I have made several trips to Albany to talk to lawmakers. The first few times were discouraging. You pass the well-dressed, well-paid industry lobbyists in the halls and you know the deck is stacked. But after you show up three or four times, you see a light go off in the politicians' heads. They realize, "Hey, these people aren't paid to be here. They are showing up with real science, they aren't coming out of ideological cause. They are here because it is a public safety issue."

Our elected officials are the only firewall we have between us and dirty-energy disasters, and we have to pressure them to stay strong. We have to demand they stand up and say: "We need to know what energy companies are putting in our water. We need to protect our farmland. We need to invest in renewable energy that don't carry these risks."

Right now, New York State's legislature is considering two separate bills that would impose a temporary moratorium or suspension on new drilling in the Marcellus Shale. This is the chance for New York to become the first state to put a halt to any new drilling on the grounds that the risks -- and how to manage them -- are not yet adequately understood.

New Yorkers should act now and click here to tell their elected officials step up and make sure its people and places are protected first.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Book reviews: Going 'off the grid' — what it means and what it takes and why

Eight books about moving away from the city and living without power, running water, cars and in some cases, companionship.

By Susan Salter Reynolds, Special to the Los Angeles Times

July 18, 2010

It's all Thoreau's fault. In the whirring, churning American imagination, that vast and lovely virtual world — fed by books and stories — with territory one can still "light out" for, Thoreau is the guy who showed it was possible to get off the merry-go-round, the constant forward movement, and still walk into town from time to time. Plant yourself within spitting distance of civilization, refuse to participate in the orgy of commercialism, refuse to pay taxes if you don't agree with how they're spent. You don't need everything they tell you that you need. You can do more for yourself than they tell you that you can. The message was political, spiritual, practical and environmental. It contained a fine amount of humor, a pinch of self-doubt and a smidgeon of hypocrisy. Today we would call Thoreau's move to the banks of Walden Pond going off the grid.

Although books about carving out your own piece of the pie have been written ever since the Transcendentalists took issue with the direction that American democracy was taking, never before have I seen the current deluge of books on how to escape the American Dream. I grew up in New York City in an apartment full of them — my mother spent her short life trying to get out of Dodge and into the hills, though the schools she attended surely did not teach survival skills. I've chosen seven new tomes that represent various approaches, or should I say escape routes, but there are at least a dozen more. Why? Why now?

Nick Rosen sees going off the grid as a political choice. In "Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America," he writes that corporate greed, massive layoffs, healthcare wars, ecological disasters have caused many true believers to question the American Dream. "Most of the people I met on my tour of America," writes the British Rosen, "are losing faith in the grid, both in its literal and metaphorical sense. They don't feel a sufficient advantage to being inside the fabric of society." The grid was created, he writes, relying on David Nye's 1990 book, "Electrifying America," to "optimize efficiency (and hence, profitability) for the producer. Society has organized around this approach to business, and in doing so, I believe, has tied itself in knots." And Rosen adds: "The growth of the grid and the growth of the amoral corporation went hand in hand." He travels across the U.S. visiting individuals, families and communities that have chosen to live free of the "Meter Man." He distinguishes between the back-to-the-landers, the hippies, the anarchists and the survivalists and writes about the issues they face as they go off-grid — zoning problems, permits and social ostracism.

In "On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work," Scott Huler sets out to better understand the infrastructures that bring power, water, telecommunications, transportation, sewage treatment and other amenities to his corner of North Carolina. He's "more interested in minutiae," he writes, than in the big political questions, though he does report that the U.S. infrastructure is on shaky ground. "27 percent of the country's bridges are obsolete or deficient," he quotes a recent study from the American Society of Civil Engineers, "the federal government funds less than 10 percent of our clean water needs; you can plan to spend 46 hours a year stuck in traffic — meaning actually motionless — helping waste 5.7 billion gallons of gas. And that's just the public works portion of our infrastructure." Huler explains the genesis and evolution of the electrical grid and writes a bit on hopes for the new Smart Grid, "a virtual power plant" that will improve "use patterns instead of building capacity," and will "respond much more effectively in real time to changing demand loads." It will also allow people who create their own energy (wind, solar, etc.) to sell excess energy back to the grid. Huler reminds his readers that the grid is nothing more than an extension of our own greed ("our infrastructure, ourselves.") "I feel like a late-empire Roman," he writes, just hoping things hold out long enough for my kids to stay relatively safe."

Perhaps my favorite book in this crop is "Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader," in which Philip Ackerman-Leist writes about homesteading, using his experience in Vermont as an example. Ackerman-Leist challenges conventional notions of homesteading (owning one's own land, self-reliance, independence). Those days are gone, he writes. Today, you can homestead anywhere (a student of his has founded the "back to the yard" movement), not only in rural settings, and the key to successful homesteading is interdependence, not independence. It is no longer possible to fully retreat from society. "Homesteading is an act of defiance and of reliance: defiance of cultural norms and habits and reliance on self and local community." It is, he writes, "much less about location than it is about intent." "Up Tunket Road" raises the issue of mentors, literary and practical. Ackerman-Leist cites Thoreau, Helen and Scott Nearing and others who have written about the experience. (Thoreauvians try not to disturb the land; followers of the Nearings bring "shelter, order, and a whir of activity to a place.") He writes with great reverence about a local farmer-gardener who gave Ackerman-Leist time, tips and help. "Up Tunket Road" takes us through the choices the author and his wife made about their lifestyle: how to create light, how to bathe, how to eat. Homesteading brings you "face to face with ecological choices," forcing the homesteader to confront, to realize the effect we have on our environment. The book also contains an excellent reading list for people dreaming of a different American Dream.

"Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream" is the story of how author William Powers built himself a new framework, a new way to think about his life and how he wanted to live it. The beauty of the book lies in Powers' generous intimacy — we watch him rethink his entire approach; we watch him relax into himself, become himself, carve himself out of a dream that was not his own. Like the other books, "Twelve by Twelve" makes a huge bow to Thoreau, but it is a far more spiritual, even na├»ve book (in the most gentle meaning of the word) than the others.

Powers' living mentor is 60-year-old Jackie Benton, a doctor who chose to earn only $11,000 a year so that she would not have to pay taxes. Benton lent Powers, a 36-year-old international aid worker on leave at home in the U.S., her 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin in North Carolina. "My time in the 12 x 12 was like an internship with Thoreau," he writes. Powers reconnects with the earth. His literary mentors also include Aldo Leopold, John James Audubon, Loren Eiseley, John Muir and Edward Abbey. During his months in the cabin, Powers learns how to live without things he thought he needed — electricity, a car, companionship, running water. Here are the things he finds one does need to be happy: positive emotion, engagement in the moment, and a sense of meaning and purpose.

In case you might be planning to go off grid in a rural setting, in "The Last Empty Places: A Past and Present Journey Through the Blank Spots on the American Map," author Peter Stark chooses four parts of the country: Northern Maine, Pennsylvania, Oregon and New Mexico, that still contain vast stretches of uninhabited wilderness — those blank spots on the map. It's true that just knowing these places exist is uplifting. "Creation is enormous and infinitely complex," he writes. "Man is only the tiniest, tiniest, tiniest part of all Creation. And you — yes, you — are even tinier than that. That's what blank spots tell us."

"Welcome to Utopia: Notes From a Small Town" is an intimate look at a town, really called Utopia, (population: 1,000) in Texas that has survived quite nicely, until recently, off the cultural grid. Karen Valby's editor at Entertainment Weekly asked her, in 2006, to find a town untouched by pop culture. What began as an assignment ended as a life-changing, mind-opening event for the New York writer, who lived on and off for two years in the town. She learned about roots; about what it means to live with generations tied to a piece of land, about what it means to live apart from commercial culture, to feel suffocated at times by your community.

"The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir" is an entirely different book, but I include it here because it is an antidote to the heaviness that sometimes attends decisions about lifestyle. Josh Kilmer-Purcell (who works in advertising in New York) and Brent Ridge, his partner (who works for the Martha Stewart empire), fell in love with a 200-year-old upstate New York mansion-farmhouse on a trip to pick apples. "This farm had style," Kilmer-Purcell writes in a stylish drawl, "loads of it. It was, if there was such a thing, a New York City farm." The pair are not interested in living off any grid, but they do appreciate and move toward a lifestyle that includes local, homegrown organic food and artisanal products. Moving to the country, taking up farming and husbandry was a leap — maybe not off the grid but off a different precipice, out of a comfort zone and into a world where skills that neither of them had were required. "This book is not about living your dream," Kilmer-Purcell writes up front. "It will not inspire you. You will not be emboldened to attempt anything more than making a fresh pot of coffee." "The Bucolic Plague" has something different to offer — if we can do it anyone can, it tells us, provided we can laugh at ourselves.

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Annie Leonard's animated Web video has spread her environmental message worldwide to more than 12 million people.

Teaching 'stuff' about ecology

By Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times

12:35 AM PDT, July 13, 2010

Annie Leonard used to spout jargon. She reveled in the sort of geek-speak that glazes your eyeballs.

Externalized costs, paradigm shifts, the precautionary principle, extended producer responsibility.

That was before she discovered cartoons.

Today the 45-year-old Berkeley activist is America's pitchperson for a new style of environmental message. Out with boring PowerPoints and turgid reports; in with witty videos that explain complex issues in digestible terms.

"We environmentalists are a whiny, wonky bunch," Leonard says. "We bombard people with facts. But who wants to join a movement where people just scold you? We have to make it inspiring. We have to make it fun."

In the past 2 1/2 years, more than 12 million people worldwide have viewed Leonard's animated Web video, "The Story of Stuff," a 20-minute expose of humanity's wasteful ways. It has been translated into more than 15 languages and has spawned a book of the same name, published on recycled paper with soy ink.

Leonard recently launched "The Story of Bottled Water," a video about how clever marketing turned a freely available commodity — tap water — into a source of profit and pollution, and "The Story of Cap and Trade," her take on how carbon trading undermines efforts to curb global warming.

"The Story of Cosmetics," about toxicity in personal care products, will go live July 21. Coming this fall: "The Story of Electronics," on planned obsolescence and pollutants in computers and cellphones.

The nation's most powerful environmental groups, with millions of members and scores of public relations experts, look at Leonard's one-woman show with something akin to awe. "Others have tried to do what she's done — including us," says Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club. "But none have connected with the public as well."

The gist of "Stuff" — that the consumer society is placing unsustainable burdens on the environment — is not new. But with her millions of Web fans and more than 70,000 Facebook friends, Leonard reaches beyond the usual eco-audience. And she doesn't lard her lessons with qualifiers and caveats. "Extraction," she says at the outset of "The Story of Stuff," "is a fancy word for natural resource exploitation, which is a fancy word for trashing the planet."

In a cartoon backdrop, forests collapse, factories burp pollutants, pillows are doused in flame-retardant neurotoxins and stick figures push shopping carts through "BigBox-Mart."

In the foreground, Leonard (the actual person, not a cartoon likeness) gesticulates, jokes, exclaims ("Yuck!", "Duh!") and exhorts viewers to "chuck … this old-school throwaway mind-set."

What began as a one-off video, financed by several environmental foundations, has given rise to the Story of Stuff Project, a nonprofit with a budget of $950,000 and a staff of four, housed in the attic of a century-old carriage house in downtown Berkeley. Here, stuff is kept to a minimum: a faded pink-and-purple sofa, a few mismatched chairs and some hortatory posters: "Power Past Coal" and "There is another way: Zero Waste."

Gathering staffers around a wooden table one afternoon, Leonard, in jeans and sandals, ran quickly through the meeting agenda before racing home to help her 10-year old daughter with a science fair project. There was an invitation for Leonard to appear on "Good Morning America" (she accepted) and news that a Persian translation of "The Story of Stuff" was underway.

There was also a progress report on a "Story of Stuff" curriculum for schools, and the launch of a downloadable study guide for churches titled "Let There Be … Stuff?"

In recent months, Leonard's 317-page book version of "The Story of Stuff" has brought her a wave of media attention.

"You must think this economic downturn is fantastic," said Stephen Colbert, razzing her on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report." "People have less money to go spend on things.... You must be going, 'Yeeee! Let's have a depression!' "

Leonard was unfazed. "I'm excited about the potential of the economic downturn to get us to think a little more critically," she replied. "When there's less dollars to spend, we've got to think: 'Is it really worth that extra job working that weekend to get this new car? Or that 15th pair of shoes?'"

Her videos attacking consumerism, toxic ingredients and heedless waste disposal have prompted criticism. Lee Doren, a blogger affiliated with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, called it "Marxism for Kids" in his four-part YouTube critique.

Fox News host Glenn Beck dubbed it an "anti-capitalist tale that unfortunately has virtually no facts correct."

"The Story of Cap and Trade," a critique of what Leonard calls the "multi-trillion-dollar carbon racket," is "entertaining … but terribly misleading," said Harvard University economist Robert Stavins.

In a cap-and-trade system, the government sets limits on carbon emissions and companies buy and sell permits to discharge pollutants within those limits. Clean manufacturers can sell their permits — in theory a strong incentive to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Leonard says that because of loopholes and exceptions, such a system would do little for the environment but would enrich financiers and trading firms. Stavins, however, noted that several environmental groups see cap-and-trade as "the preferred progressive approach to address climate change."

A video from the bottling industry countered "The Story of Bottled Water," which focuses on pollution from discarded plastic bottles.

Leonard grew up in Seattle, the daughter of a Boeing engineer and a school nurse. She majored in environmental studies at Barnard College in New York. Astonished by all the trash on the city's streets, she took a field trip to the now-shut Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, once the world's biggest garbage heap.

"If you've never been to a dump, I really recommend it," she says. "It is like a society's secret journal. You see what's going on behind the scenes."

After college, Leonard worked eight years for Greenpeace International on a team that battled the export of toxic waste from industrialized countries to the Third World. She lived in India and Bangladesh and visited factories and dumps across Asia and Africa. She lobbied governments, organized protests and survived a kidnapping attempt.

Work for other environmental groups followed, as well as a brief marriage, in Washington, D.C., to Maung Zarni, founder of the Free Burma Coalition. They had a daughter, Dewi.

In 2001, Leonard and Dewi moved to a two-bedroom bungalow in North Berkeley on a block where several friends also owned homes and had torn down the fences between their backyards.

Leonard, who collects a $33,000 salary from her nonprofit, doesn't watch TV — a device she holds responsible for ad-driven consumerism. She and her neighbors swap children's clothes and share one swing set, one pickup truck, one exercise machine and one ladder.

She has a two-seat electric car, a Zenn, which cost $8,000, and she powers it with solar panels she purchased with the advance on her book. The tangled pipes of a graywater system, shared with a neighbor, irrigate their yards with washing-machine runoff.

Leonard admits to "a kind of neurosis: when I pick up a pen or a cellphone or a toothbrush, its whole life cycle flips through my mind. Plastic is made from oil: I think of oil fields in Nigeria. I think of kids in the Congo dropping out of school to mine coltan, a metal used in electronics. I think of mountains of hazardous waste."

Leonard used to speak in less accessible terms. But five years ago, at a seminar for activists, as she was droning on about "the materials economy," an organizer from interrupted her, saying, "I have no idea what you're talking about."

She tried explaining, again, how extraction of raw materials, followed by production and distribution of consumer goods, followed by consumption and disposal of those goods, all on a giant scale, could not go on forever. But her listeners' attention wandered.

Finally, she marched up to a white board and began drawing cartoons.

After a year of refining her visuals before local groups, she raised money to hire Berkeley-based filmmakers, Free Range Studios, to put together the video that became "The Story of Stuff."

Evidence of Leonard's reach can be seen at Pioneer Middle School in Tustin: eighth graders watch "The Story of Stuff" and then draw up a list of the items they bought or received as gifts in the previous six months. "We talk about whether that item is still in use or important to them," said teacher Gina Dearborn. "For most, it is not."

But Leonard is a tad impatient with fans who boast that they are re-soling their shoes, eating organic and changing to energy-efficient light bulbs. Such steps are "like flossing your teeth," she says. "It's not enough."

Her message: Government must do more, and people must "engage their citizen action muscles" to change the way the economy works. A list of "10 Little and Big Things You can Do" on her website has such subtitles as "Park your car and walk … and when necessary MARCH!" and "Recycle your trash … and recycle your elected officials."

Leonard's new videos will be shorter and tied to activist campaigns. "The Story of Cosmetics" is being produced in partnership with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "The Story of Electronics," a collaboration with the Electronics Take-Back Coalition, will advocate laws requiring manufacturers to safely dispose of used cellphones and computers.

If her videos leave you overwhelmed, Leonard has an answer: "I've been reading about the emerging science of happiness," she says merrily. "It turns out that after our basic needs are met, more stuff doesn't make us happy. It's the quality of our relationships. It's coming together around shared goals.

"So, re-engage! It's more fun."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Restaurants Mobilize to Save Fisheries

JULY 12, 2010

As Global Consumption Soars, Big Buyers Join Growing Effort Toward Eco-Friendly Practices Meant to Sustain Species

The world's rising appetite for seafood is on a collision course with its wild fisheries, leaving restaurant companies and other big buyers caught in the middle.
Amid reports the world's oceans are in danger of being emptied of some fish, companies such as McDonald's Corp., Long John Silver's owner Yum Brands Inc. and Red Lobster parent Darden Restaurants Inc. have embraced the growing movement toward more eco-friendly seafood-buying practices.
Getty Images
Enforcement of federal fisheries conservation laws has helped the haddock, above, recover from declines.
They are working with scientists and nonprofit groups to ensure the fish they buy is sustainable, meaning caught in a way that doesn't damage the ability of the species to reproduce.
"We know if we go raping and pillaging it today, there's nothing left for tomorrow," says Ken Conrad, the owner of the chain of 10 Libby Hill seafood restaurants in North Carolina and Virginia and chairman of the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood-industry trade group.
Some experts say their efforts are coming none too soon.
A recent United Nations study predicts that unless something changes, nearly all commercial fisheries will be producing less than 10% of their onetime potential by the middle of this century. Already, almost 30% of the world's fish stocks fall into that category.
Production by wild fisheries has remained fairly steady over the past decade, totaling about 90 million metric tons per year, says the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization. But annual seafood demand will rise to at least 150 million metric tons by 2030, it adds.
While some fishing-industry groups agree that they need to change the industry's standards, they think smarter fishing can keep fisheries from becoming depleted.
"We know where weaknesses are and a tremendous amount is being done to address those challenges," says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry trade group. "The idea that vast fisheries broadly are headed to wholesale collapse contains a healthy dose of hyperbole and doesn't recognize much of the work being done."
Population growth and the public's growing appetite for seafood are only part of the problem. Mismanagement of fisheries and illegal fishing also have hurt some wild fisheries.
One glaring need for reform came from North Atlantic cod, the only fish McDonald's used in its Filet-o-Fish sandwich until the late 1980s. Newfoundland cod-fishing grounds became so overfished that the fishery shut down in the early 1990s. Fish suppliers and harvesters "destroyed the whole fishing area," says Gary Johnson, senior director of McDonald's global supply chain. McDonald's now uses five different whitefish species in the sandwich.
McDonald's, which buys 50,000 metric tons of whitefish a year, now judges fisheries on three factors: how closely they are monitored to ensure that, for example, fishing boats don't cheat on their quotas; whether enough fish are left to allow the stock to rebound each season; and the toll taken on the environment from the fishing methods being used. McDonald's says the vast majority of its fish now comes from sources that meet sustainability guidelines, such as those given by the Marine Stewardship Council.
In 2007, McDonald's stopped using Eastern Baltic cod because it was skeptical that the number of fish being caught was being recorded correctly. This year, after suppliers improved their reporting standards, McDonald's once again began buying Eastern Baltic cod, underscoring how large buyers can force change in practices.
McDonald's wouldn't disclose how much the tighter monitoring and pickier buying has added to its costs.
Not all of the large chains can expect their buying habits to trigger change, though. Red Lobster parent Darden, which buys 100 million pounds of seafood annually, decided shortly after it bought the Capital Grille chain in 2007 to take Chilean sea bass off the chain's menu because it couldn't find a supplier that used suitably sustainable fishing methods.
"We swallowed hard about taking it off [the menu], but we're such a small player that we would not be able to have an influence," says Bill Herzig, senior vice president of purchasing and supply-chain innovation. The company has only been able to persuade a few suppliers, including one Thai shrimp farm, to adopt sustainable practices.
Some species, such as haddock and Atlantic sea scallops have recovered from previous declines, after the U.S. government began enforcing parts of federal fisheries conservation legislation in the 1990s, says Ray Hilborn, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington.
As wild fisheries are unlikely to be able to meet the world's growing seafood demands, aquaculture—or raising seafood in enclosed, controlled environments—is one way to make up the shortfall.
But aquaculture has its own set of challenges. Farm-raised fish need more pesticides and antibiotics in captivity, and some fish, like salmon, have to be fed dye additives to give their flesh the orange hue consumers expect. Meanwhile farm-raised fish can have an indirect effect on their wild cousins because they consume feed that comes from the sea, which depletes the wild supply.
Darden works with the nonprofit Global Aquaculture Alliance on global standards for sustainable aquaculture. Darden also is pioneering new practices, including incorporating more grains into the diets of captive fish to reduce their reliance on seafood-based feed.
Greenpeace says that while restaurants and other large seafood buyers have become more mindful of the environmental impacts of their purchases, some are still looking too narrowly at sustainability.
For instance, large-scale harvesting of the Alaskan pollock, one of the fish McDonald's uses, affects the food supply of Steller sea lions and fur seals, says John Hocevar, Greenpeace's ocean-campaigns director. He encourages the large chains to invest in new methods of aquaculture that don't upset the environment.
McDonald's says it buys only Alaskan pollock that comes from sources certified by third parties as sustainable.
"The state of global fisheries is such," Mr. Hocevar says, that the big chains "don't have a sustainable source. They've just found a less bad source."
Write to Paul Ziobro at

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Consumption is the "Driver": China Fears Consumer Impact on Global Warming

July 4, 2010

By KEITH BRADSHER,  New York Times

GUANGZHOU, China — Premier Wen Jiabao has promised to use an “iron hand” this summer to make his nation more energy efficient. The central government has ordered cities to close inefficient factories by September, like the vast Guangzhou Steel mill here, where most of the 6,000 workers will be laid off or pushed into early retirement.

Already, in the last three years, China has shut down more than a thousand older coal-fired power plants that used technology of the sort still common in the United States. China has also surpassed the rest of the world as the biggest investor in wind turbines and other clean energy technology. And it has dictated tough new energy standards for lighting and gas mileage for cars.
But even as Beijing imposes the world’s most rigorous national energy campaign, the effort is being overwhelmed by the billionfold demands of Chinese consumers.
Chinese and Western energy experts worry that China’s energy challenge could become the world’s problem — possibly dooming any international efforts to place meaningful limits on global warming.
If China cannot meet its own energy-efficiency targets, the chances of avoiding widespread environmental damage from rising temperatures “are very close to zero,” said Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency in Paris.
Aspiring to a more Western standard of living, in many cases with the government’s encouragement, China’s population, 1.3 billion strong, is clamoring for more and bigger cars, for electricity-dependent home appliances and for more creature comforts like air-conditioned shopping malls.
As a result, China is actually becoming even less energy efficient. And because most of its energy is still produced by burning fossil fuels, China’s emission of carbon dioxide — a so-called greenhouse gas — is growing worse. This past winter and spring showed the largest six-month increase in tonnage ever by a single country.
Until recently, projections by both the International Energy Agency and the Energy Information Administration in Washington had assumed that, even without an international energy agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, China would achieve rapid improvements in energy efficiency through 2020.
But now China is struggling to limit emissions even to the “business as usual” levels that climate models assume if the world does little to address global warming.
“We really have an arduous task” even to reach China’s existing energy-efficiency goals, said Gao Shixian, an energy official at the National Development and Reform Commission, in a speech at the Clean Energy Expo China in late June in Beijing.
China’s goal has been to reduce energy consumption per unit of economic output by 20 percent this year compared with 2005, and to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases per unit of economic output by 40 to 45 percent in 2020 compared with 2005.
But even if China can make the promised improvements, the International Energy Agency now projects that China’s emissions of energy-related greenhouse gases will grow more than the rest of the world’s combined increase by 2020. China, with one-fifth of the world’s population, is now on track to represent more than a quarter of humanity’s energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions.
Industry by industry, energy demand in China is increasing so fast that the broader efficiency targets are becoming harder to hit.
¶Although China has passed the United States in the average efficiency of its coal-fired power plants, demand for electricity is so voracious that China last year built new coal-fired plants with a total capacity greater than all existing power plants in New York State.
¶While China has imposed lighting efficiency standards on new buildings and is drafting similar standards for household appliances, construction of apartment and office buildings proceeds at a frenzied pace. And rural sales of refrigerators, washing machines and other large household appliances more than doubled in the past year in response to government subsidies aimed at helping 700 million peasants afford modern amenities.
¶As the economy becomes more reliant on domestic demand instead of exports, growth is shifting toward energy-hungry steel and cement production and away from light industries like toys and apparel.
¶Chinese cars get 40 percent better gas mileage on average than American cars because they tend to be much smaller and have weaker engines. And China is drafting regulations that would require cars within each size category to improve their mileage by 18 percent over the next five years. But China’s auto market soared 48 percent in 2009, surpassing the American market for the first time, and car sales are rising almost as rapidly again this year.
One of the newest factors in China’s energy use has emerged beyond the planning purview of policy makers in Beijing, in the form of labor unrest at factories across the country.
An older generation of low-wage migrant workers accepted hot dormitories and factories with barely a fan to keep them cool, one of many reasons Chinese emissions per person are still a third of American emissions per person. Besides higher pay, young Chinese are now demanding their own 100-square-foot studio apartments, with air-conditioning at home and in factories. Indeed, one of the demands by workers who went on strike in May at a Honda transmission factory in Foshan was that the air-conditioning thermostats be set lower.
Chinese regulations still mandate that the air-conditioning in most places be set no cooler than 79 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. But upscale shopping malls have long been exempt from the thermostat controls and have maintained much cooler temperatures through the summers. Now, as the consumer economy takes root, those malls are proliferating in cities across China.
Premier Wen acknowledged in a statement after a cabinet meeting in May that the efficiency gains had started to reverse and actually deteriorated by 3.2 percent in the first quarter of this year. He cited a lack of controls on energy-intensive industries, although the economic rebound from the global financial crisis may have also played a role.
Global climate discussions, in pinning hopes on China’s ability to vastly improve its efficient use of energy, have tended to cite International Energy Agency data showing that China uses twice as much energy per dollar of output as the United States and three times as much as theEuropean Union. The implicit assumption is that China can greatly improve efficiency because it must still be relying mainly on wasteful, aging boilers and outmoded power plants.
But David Fridley, a longtime specialist in China’s energy at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said that the comparison to the United States and the European Union was misleading.
Manufacturing makes up three times as much of the Chinese economy as it does the American economy, and it is energy-intensive. If the United States had much more manufacturing, Mr. Fridley said, it would also use considerably more energy per dollar of output.
“China has been trying to grab the low-lying fruit — to find those opportunities where increased efficiency can save money and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions,” said Ken Caldeira, a climate change specialist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, Calif. “It is starting to look like it might not be that easy to find and grab this fruit.”