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[1THING] Blog: Archive for August, 2012

[ Helix Collapse Fails to Crush Hope for Vertical Wind Turbines ]

The failure of “rooftop” wind energy’s most trumpeted start-up underscores the technology’s challenges, but believers insist vertical turbines have their place.


[ Befriending the Wild in Outdoor Survival Class ]

Befriending the Wild in Outdoor Survival Class

Text and Photos by Erica Flock, EarthShare Online Manager


If you found yourself lost in the wilderness without a phone or water or food, could you survive? Would you know how to keep yourself warm and avoid illness? Despite the sense of superiority conferred to us by our many modern gadgets, most Americans (myself included) would be sorely ill-equipped to tough it out in the woods the way Native Americans did for thousands of years.

Luckily, city slickers can empower themselves with fundamental survival skills by taking courses from one of the many wilderness schools around the country. I signed up for Earth Connection’s “Primitive Survival Crash Course” in rural Virginia and showed up a few weeks later in barely used hiking boots and ratty Dockers to see if I could learn to feel more “at home” in the outdoors.

When I arrived, a handful of students were gathered around instructor Tim MacWelch as he went over the basics of survival and the importance of having a positive mentality in difficult situations. I was quickly struck by Tim’s geniality, humor, and his almost encyclopedic knowledge of nature, history and wilderness medicine. He knows the name of every tree and bush on his property, how the human body responds to various kinds of hardship, which plants and animals are edible and which are best avoided.


Tim demonstrates how to make a dogbane rope

We started the day by breaking into groups and building twig and leaf shelters capable of housing one person. Some students would be staying overnight in these shelters, but as I was only taking the “crash course,” I wouldn’t have the honor this time. The huts were easy to construct and surprisingly warm when you slipped inside. It can get really cold in the mountains at night, even in the summer, so staying warm is vital.

In the afternoon, we learned how to chip rocks into various shapes to use as tools. The youngest student found a little ring neck snake and wolf spider and carried them around on his arms while the class took target practice at a stuffed squirrel Tim had dubbed “Rocky II”. Only one person managed to knock Rocky II over at a distance using thick, short branches.

Tim led us into a patch of Dogbane to harvest for making rope. We peeled the reddish-brown stems into long threads and twisted them together in a way that reminded me vaguely of knitting until we had a tough little rope we could potentially use to secure tarps, bind bandages or build a trap among other possibilities.


Water is at the top of the list of priorities for survival, but unfiltered water from most surface sources contains potentially harmful pathogens like Giardia. To purify water without the help of a filter or even a metal pot, Tim placed smooth rocks in the fire, carefully removed them with stick tongs and placed them in a wooden bowl filled with water. The rocks were so hot that the water boiled and became safe to drink.

Tim’s point about the importance of having a positive attitude at the beginning of class came into play when it was time to practice building a fire. He showed us how to work the bow and drill until a small ember appeared. The class watched spellbound as he carefully placed the ember in a nest of dry plant material and blew gently on it for several seconds until the nest caught fire.


For the rest of us, starting a fire would prove less straightforward. After my drill popped off the bow for the umpteenth time, my inner voice said simply “you can’t do this.” I was burning up all my calories, which would be a problem were I actually lost in the wilderness. Sweat dripped down my face, my knees were hurting from kneeling on the ground, my language turned colorful.

Finally, after what must have been 40 minutes, two women who had successfully started their own fires came over to provide advice and moral support. It worked: moments later my own drill started smoking and I blew on my nested ember, giggling happily as it burst into flame. I made a mental note that ignoring the “I can’t” voice might be useful not just in survival situations, but life in general.

Enclosed in our temperature-controlled buildings day after day, it’s easy to forget that the basic necessities of life still come from the ground beneath our feet, the water falling from the sky and surging in our rivers, the precise chemical composition of the air we breathe. Getting out in the woods for a while is a great way to reconnect with that reality.

EarthShare member organizations can help you get outside too. Here are some resources to get you started:

The Leave No Trace Seven Principles, Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics*

Serve, The Student Conservation Association*

Get Outside, National Wildlife Federation*

Outings, Sierra Club*

Travel with National Parks Conservation Association, NPCA*



[ Green Quiz: National Parks ]

Green Quiz: National Parks

Harlequin Lake

Flickr / Bill Gracey


The U.S. national park system covers more than 83 million acres and nearly 400 sites around the country and U.S. territories. Since its establishment, the system has inspired similar programs in nations around the world.

Unfortunatly, our national parks are facing serious challenges with cutbacks in funding. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the system, it's become more important than ever to protect these truly global treasures.

Which of the below was the first official U.S. National Park?

A. Grand Teton National Park

B. Yosemite National Park           

C. Great Smokey Mountains National Park

D. Yellowstone National Park


Answer: D. Yellowstone National Park.

From the National Parks Conservation Association:
"Yellowstone National Park is America's first national park. It was established
in 1872. Yellowstone extends through Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.  Within the massive park boundaries, you can
find mountains, rivers, lakes, and some of the most concentrated geothermal
activity in the world. The park has 60% of the world’s geysers as well as many
hot springs and several mud pots. Perhaps the most famous feature of the park
is the geyser Old Faithful."


[ Record Heat, Drought Pose Problems for U.S. Electric Power ]

This summer’s scorching heat and record drought in the United States have pressured the water-dependent electricity system.


[ Snapshot: Chinese Investment in North American Energy in 2012 ]

North American companies are raising both cash and controversy recently in deals with Chinese firms: both American battery maker A123 and Canadian oil and gas firm Nexen have made headlines in recent weeks as some U.S. politicians question the transactions on the basis of national security. China has been ramping up foreign investment in energy as part of its efforts to meet skyrocketing demand and gain knowledge to develop its own resources. Those resources include shale gas, which has seen a boom in the U.S. and Canada thanks to the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Thilo Hanemann of the Rhodium Group, which tracks Chinese direct investment in various sectors of the U.S. economy, sees increased interest from China in North American oil and gas. “More than half of global [merger and acquisition] transactions in oil and gas are happening in North America, so if you want to expand your global assets, you have to be in the game there,” Hanemann said in an e-mail.

Nexen and A123 are just the latest targets in a slew of bids from China this year in the North American energy sector. Below, a list of key deals:


Parties: Sinopec, Devon Energy
Value: $2.5 billion
Status: Deal closed

The deal between China’s second-largest oil company and the Oklahoma-based Devon included $900 billion up front for a stake in five exploratory oil and natural gas projects with an additional $1.6 billion for future drilling. The investment should help China gain valuable knowledge on shale gas exploration as it attempts to develop its own resources at home.

Parties: PetroChina, Athabasca Oil Sands Corp.
Value: $685 million
Status: Deal closed

The Calgary-based Athabasca sold its remaining 40 percent stake in the MacKay River oil sands project to PetroChina after selling it a 60 percent stake last year, giving China’s largest oil and gas producer full ownership.


Parties: China Investment Corp, EIG Global Energy Partners
Value: Not disclosed
Status: Deal closed

The sovereign wealth fund acquired a minority stake in EIG, a $9.5 billion investment fund focused solely on the global energy sector.

Parties: PetroChina, Shell
Value: Not disclosed
Status: Deal closed

PetroChina’s acquisition of a 20 percent stake in the Shell*-owned Groundbirch shale gas project in British Columbia complements the companies’ joint efforts on shale development in China.


Parties: PetroChina, Valero
Value: $350 Million
Status: Talks

PetroChina has expressed interest in an Aruba refinery that Valero shuttered in March of this year. If the deal goes through, the 235,000 barrel-per-day facility would be one of several planned refinery acquisitions by the oil and gas producer. In March, company chairman Jiang Jiemin said Petrochina planned to “buy assets on a large scale” both inside and outside China.

Parties: Wanxiang, GreatPoint Energy

Value: $1.25 billion

Status: Deal closed

The Chinese conglomerate took a minority stake worth $420 million in the Massachusetts-based alternative energy company as part of the deal, which will result in the construction of a facility in Western China to convert coal into natural gas.


Parties: Cnooc, Nexen
Value: $15.1 billion
Status: Approval pending

The China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s bid for the Canadian oil and gas company is subject to approval by regulators in both Canada and the U.S., where Nexen has drilling operations. Some U.S. lawmakers have expressed concerns over the proposed deal. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in an e-mailed statement that national security risks, “combined with China’s closed economy, its prohibition on direct, full investment in Chinese business operations by U.S. firms, and its blatant disregard to U.S. intellectual property rights make this transaction even more concerning.”

Parties: Sinopec, Talisman Energy
Value: $1.5 billion
Status: Deal closed

Sinopec’s investment in the Canadian oil and gas company gives it a 49 percent stake in the latter’s British North Sea business.


Parties: Wanxiang Group, A123 Systems
Value: $450 million
Status: Pending

The struggling car battery maker got a much-needed lifeline with the cash infusion from auto parts maker Wanxiang, which would gain an 80 percent stake in A123. But A123 received a $249 million federal grant in 2009, leading to questions and criticism about the wisdom of the grant and whether the deal should be allowed to go through given the government’s investment in A123.

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge Initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over editorial content.


[ Questioning Authority: A Few Energy Queries for the Candidates ]

It’s a sad fact of modern politics that what politicians don’t say is as significant as what they do.

That certainly seems to be true on energy and climate change in the 2012  campaign, where both sides seem to be ducking the issues as best they can. Unfortunately, that’s not much help to the voters. We’re at a point where, as a nation, we need to make some actual choices – and yet the voters are left to infer what those choices might be from silences, evasions and half-truths.

But sometimes the best answer to an evasion is a better question. We’ve been struck by the work at  The Right Question Institute, where they’ve been exploring the role question-asking plays in helping students (and others) develop critical thinking skills.  Their argument is that “a question can become a sophisticated and potent tool to expand minds, inspire new ideas, and give us surprising power at moments when we might not believe we have any.”

On energy and climate change, we’ve got some basic, fundamental questions we think the candidates need to answer. We don’t pretend they’re comprehensive, and you’ve probably got some of your own. But we do think these set up the crucial choices that the nation has to make.

  • Demand for energy worldwide is expected to jump by a third between now and 2035, mainly due to population growth and booming economies in countries like China, India and the rest of the developing world. In other words, the world needs more energy at the same time that it desperately needs cleaner energy. What should the U.S. do to prepare for this?
  • What kind of cars do you envision Americans driving? Are we sticking with oil? If so, the Energy Department predicts  oil prices  are going to stay volatile  for the next 20 years. Or do you want to encourage a shift to alternatives like natural gas or electricity? If so, should the government play a role here, or should it be left to the private sector?
  • There’s really only a short list of fuels we use to produce electricity, and all of them have serious drawbacks. Coal emits the most global warming gases. Natural gas is cleaner, but our supply depends on using controversial techniques like fracking. Nuclear power doesn’t contribute to global warming, but it requires plenty of cooling water and comes with a waste problem that will last for thousands of years. Alternatives like wind and solar don’t have these same risks, but they’re  more expensive, and right now, they only provide only a fraction of our energy. Where should we place our bets? Should government try to encourage some of these sources, and discourage others? Or, again, should we leave this completely to the private sector?

Because make no mistake about it, we will be placing bets on energy in the next four years. We can do it consciously, or we can let our current bets continue to ride (like our gradual shift to natural gas for electricity). But we’re making bets on our future. And it’ll be much better if all of us understood how candidates think we should make those bets, and how much of our money is likely to be on the table.


[ Record Warm Water in Long Island Sound Shuts Down Connecticut Nuclear Power Plant ]

In a sign of the severity of this summer’s record heat, one of the two reactors at Connecticut’s only nuclear power plant has been shut down due to historically high water temperatures in Long Island Sound, source of the facility’s cooling water.

Unit 2 of Millstone Power Plant near New London was shut down Sunday afternoon after temperatures in the sound exceeded 75 degrees for 24 hours, the maximum temperature at which the nuclear power plant has permits to extract cooling water for the unit, said Ken Holt, spokesman for plant operator Dominion.

The outage in southeastern Connecticut appeared to have no immediate impact on power delivery, as the New England grid operator reported that the system operations were normal. New England was expected to have a buffer of 26 percent more electricity supply than peak demand this summer, according to a national reliability outlook published earlier this year.

But it’s a dramatic development for the water temperature in the sound to close the unit. Holt said company records dating back to 1971 show that this summer’s heat wave has led to the highest recorded water temperatures in the sound.

“It’s not that it’s been hitting 100 every day, but it’s been steady heat,” he said. “We haven’t been getting any breaks. Also we had a very mild winter, so (the sound temperatures) started from a higher point than we traditionally have.”

Holt said that Millstone’s other reactor, Unit 3, pulls water from deeper in the sound than does Unit 2, and so far has not been affected by the warm waters. However, he said the unit has the same temperature limit under which it can operate. “If temperatures continue to rise, Unit 3 will be shut down as well,” he said. (Unit 1 at the southeast Connecticut plant ceased operation in 1998 and is being decommissioned.) Together, the two Millstone reactors produce about 16 million megawatt-hours of electricity per year—enough to power 500,000 homes.

So far this summer, the Millstone unit appears to be the only U.S. nuclear power plant to face shut-down due to the record-breaking weather, the hottest July on record since 1895 and the most wide-reaching drought since 1956. Nuclear and coal power plants rely on cooling water, and past droughts and severe heat waves in the United States have shut down plants—with those located on rivers considered the most vulnerable. In Iowa, this year, authorities have watched closely the water levels in parched Cedar River, cooling water source for that state’s only nuclear power plant, Duane Arnold. Despite the drought, however, the power plant has operated near capacity all summer, except for a 5 percent reduction in output for several hours during the height of the July heat wave.

August is typically the peak month in the United States for nuclear generation, according to the industry trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute. The NEI earlier this summer noted on its blog that more than 90 percent of the nation’s nuclear capacity remained available, despite the heat. The current operating status for all U.S. nuclear power plants can be seen here.


[ Reevaluating the Word ‘Retrofit’ When It Comes to Building Efficiency ]

Is energy efficiency condemned to be an “eat your peas” technology? Matt Wald, The New York Times’ senior energy reporter, remarked during a Scaling Green Communicating Energy Lecture earlier this month that energy efficiency “is like flossing your teeth. It’s a wonderful idea, but it’s hard to get people to do it … Saving energy is no. 11 on people’s top 10 lists of things to do, despite whatever they tell you.”

(Related: “Pictures: Seven Supergeen U.S. Government Buildings” and “Green Design Spree Aims to Trim U.S. Government’s Energy Bill“)

We wanted to put the same question to someone who is professionally invested in the topic. So we asked Jennifer Layke of the Johnson Controls-funded Institute for Building Efficiency (IBE), which recently released its updated, worldwide survey of more than 3,000 global executives and building owners’ attitudes towards energy efficiency and renewable energy in buildings.

The report found that:

  • More than “sixty percent of global respondents said their organizations were investing in energy efficiency and over a third of them reported investing in renewable energy projects.”
  • Over half of respondents said they planned to increase their investments in clean energy next year, with just 9 percent saying they planned to pull back on such investments.

To Layke, the survey shows just how fast the clean energy market is evolving. In her eyes, traditional views toward efficiency are shifting rapidly, in part because information technology solutions are giving building owners and operators a clear vision of what can be done in a much more visible way than before. Software-driven dashboards, for instance, allow building operators to diagnose and engage with building efficiency performance in ways they couldn’t in the past.

(Related: “Outfitting Buildings to Save Energy in China’s Icy North“)

According to Layke, the commercial challenge of energy efficiency today isn’t so much in the industrial sector, where companies like Dow see it as a core, long-term facet of their business. Instead, the biggest challenge is in the commercial building space, with its shorter time horizons and leasing obstacles that hobble efforts to provide cost incentives renters to save energy. Overall, Layke is excited about new financing options for efficiency projects that will enhance their ability to compete against alternative investment options for building owners and reduce payback times as well.

But what about communicating these possibilities in a more exciting way?

Layke thinks the central challenge is shifting the paradigm from “retrofits” to the more accurate label of “upgrades.” According to Layke, this conveys the “sense of progress and forward momentum of energy efficiency” and also “helps frame what the energy efficiency dialogue is all about – improvement.”

Though energy waste in the United States is certainly a problem, Jennifer Layke cautions that communications should be less about waste and more about savings. As LEED standards and other green building ratings systems have taken off in recent years, the market penetration of green buildings is increasing, and consumers are becoming much more savvy about how energy efficiency can benefit the bottom line.

(Related: “National Snow and Ice Data Center Gets a Cool Makeover“)

The IBE survey shows that interest in energy management continues to grow. Globally, the percentage of respondents who said energy management was extremely or very important to their organizations has jumped from 60 to 85 percent in the last two years. Maybe there is a way to make energy efficiency exciting – or at least compelling – for owners of the world’s large buildings.


[ China Drills Into Shale Gas, Targeting Huge Reserves Amid Challenges ]

China launches shale gas exploration, with ambitious goals that will require the right geology, plenty of water, and foreign know-how.


[ A123 Deal Ignites Debate Over China, Energy ]

News that China’s largest auto parts maker is seeking a controlling stake in one of the most heralded U.S. green technology companies, A123 Systems, has quickly ignited into a debate on national security and the energy future.

Of course, the Obama administration, which supported A123 with a $249.1 million grant in 2009, like the Bush administration before it, always argued that energy investments were aimed at strengthening national security. But Chinese deals for U.S. energy companies, an increasingly common feature of the business landscape this year, as we reported, were never meant to be part of that narrative.

A123, a spinoff of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used its federal funds to open factories in Livonia and Romulus, Michigan to produce advanced lithium-ion battery systems for electric and hybrid cars. Energy Secretary Steven Chu visited A123 just one year ago, praising the effort as a model for U.S. technology leadership: “We helped them start a company,” he said in a video on the Energy Department’s blog. “We gave them research dollars so that they could then show that yes, indeed, there’s a chance that this will work.” But A123 was hurt by the slow development of the electric car market, and the struggles of its largest customer, Fisker Automotive. Recently, the company made clear it was running low on cash.

On Wednesday, having racked up second-quarter losses of $83 million, A123 announced a potential lifeline–a $450 million investment from China’s Wanxiang Group, which would amount to a controlling stake. The foreign deal will require U.S. government approval, and debate on that topic began almost immediately.

Blogging at Forbes, Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors, first slams the U.S. government for having invested in a technology before consumers were ready for it. (“The marketplace overwhelmingly voted for the speed, range and lower price of conventional cars.”) Lutz then goes on to slam the idea of allowing a foreign take-over of technology that would give the U.S. a competitive advantage: “If we can’t get our act together soon, the country will ‘go Chinese’ company by company, institution by institution, industry after industry.”

Perhaps Lutz is being hasty in his assessment, since The Wall Street Journal notes that opposition to the deal already is gathering on Capitol Hill. The Journal quotes Florida Republican Cliff Stearns, head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s panel on oversight: “We need to make sure the federal government isn’t an unwitting accomplice to the theft of our own national secrets.”

BloombergBusinessweek also relays Stearns concerns, adding a rejoinder from the White House that a condition of A123′s funding was that it could only be used for U.S. manufacturing operations. “Any changes to the scope of the grant would have to be approved by [the U.S. Department of Energy],” says White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage.

Responding to the 25 percent surge in A123′s stock price after the deal was announced, InvestorPlace warns readers “Don’t Risk an A123 Test Drive,” arguing the injection of Chinese money won’t cure the company’s woes. “Any new energy technology usually faces enormous headwinds because of the huge investments in infrastructure, the uncertainties of the science, and the necessary large-scale marketing to achieve buy-in from consumers,” says blogger Tom Taulli. “In the case of the EV market, many think it could be a decade or more for the technology to really start sticking.”