Renewable Energy Savings Bonds?

January 31, 2009

His isn’t a new idea.  Rather, it’s back to the future again. The notion: U.S. Treasury Savings Bonds earmarked for Renewable Energy  projects.  Michael Shawn Kendall, (an Electronic Technician Chief with 27 years of overseas service in the U.S. Navy,/u== and long-time alternative energy guy, wrote to share what sounds like a good idea pretty much all the way around.

Normally purchased in $25 increments, they’d provide us with a way of putting some money away safely and with a good return on the investment, while providing funds to support a renewable energy project.  They can even be designated for specific purposes (buy a RE-W bond for Wind Turbines, a RE-S bond for Solar, RE-I bond to help fund                                                                                                                                                                        infrastructure, RE-T for bullet trains,  RE-C co-op bonds for small communities needing a few wind turbines, etc.  The bond certificates would have their designation and and an artist’s depiction of that project printed on them, along with the American flag. Great idea, huh?

As one might expect of any sensible idea, government’s bureaucracy is staunchly planted in the way.   How could that be?  After all, U.S. Savings Bonds were sold during WWII, and earmarked to fund a tank, etc.   contacted the US treasury department and was told that the marketing department for savings bonds closed several years ago.  Why would this be a problem now?  The Chief Technician inquired at the Treasury Department, but was told there would be problems because savings bonds are at the federal level while the projects will be at the state and local level.  Such concerns can easily be addressed.  The US RE bonds could fund grants to the state and local level, earmarked for those specific projects.

If given the tools to participate directly, the power of the citizens of the United States to help achieve energy independance is undeniable.  Americans mean well and the Energy Independance Savings bond program will give citizens the power to make it happen. If marketed through a web page, commercials, and to federal employees the word would get out and participation would very likely spread like wildfire.

Especially in these tough economic times where banks are seen as questionable and other investments are shaky, while the Obama administration and Congress struggle to find funds to prime the pump and restart our economy, these bonds could provide a very welcome investment opportunity, while making U.S. energy independence a reality much more rapidly than the government could afford to do by itself.

We applaud this veteran’s ingenuity and efforts, and support the idea. This is a prime example of the kind of involvement and self-help that President Obama was talking about in his inauguration speech.  Now all we need is the Congress to remove the roadblocks and put it in action.

Please voice your support by commenting here, and by writing to Nancy Pelosi, Congresswoman and Speaker of the House, at http://speaker.house.gov/contact/

Thank you!

Refineries claim a Loss? What’s Wrong With This Picture?

January 28, 2009

Valero Energy announced today that it is closing down an entire US refinery this quarter.reducing capital spending to manage the economic slowdown. (It’s just coincidental, I suppose, that this also reduces production, which brings prices back up.) Reportedly the biggest U.S. refiner in the country, Valero would reasonably be expected to be doing very well, yet they’re crying the blues, claiming billions in losses, less than a year after Exxon reported huge profits.

Valero yesterday reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $3.3 billion. What is that based on? Are they counting as a loss all the money they’re not charging, writing it off as advertising and good will gestures?

They’re not stupid. The oil companies see us getting serious about alternative energy. Suddenly, dramatically and drastically, the prices crash from nearly $150 a barrel to $40, and that’s because of supply and demand, too? There’s something wrong with this whole ugly picture. The only thing that’s clear is that we must not be distracted by this dog & pony show. We need to keep on pushing for non-combustion fuel sources. It does’t matter if they start giving the gas away or buying everyone cars to burn the fossil fuel in, we still can’t afford to be at the mercy of these companies any longer, and we definitely cannot afford to be forgetful of the raking over the coals that they gave us less than a year ago.

The great thing about statistics is that they can often be twisted around to fit whatever spin their author wants them to. When gas refineries claim they’re losing billions selling gas, it’s time to get out the hip boots and head for high ground, because the dark smelly loose stuff is getting deep.

As Bush was so fond of suggesting, stay the course, Alternative Energy folk. We’ve got ‘em on the run!

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Mexico Gets Windy

January 25, 2009

On January 22, 2009, Mexico flipped the switch, turning on one of the world’s largest wind farms. Mexico has been relying almost exclusively on petroleum for its energy needs. This demonstrates that Mexico is serious in their hunt for alternative energy sources to replace falling oil production, a drop which caused a 9.2 percent loss. Spanish companies seem to be its first choice for energy partners.

Mexico’s President Filipe Calderon notes that “If we don’t do something about this problem of climate change it probably could become – I’m sure it already is – one of the biggest threats to humanity.”

The new, $550 million project has been placed in an ideal location. Situated on a thin isthmus directly between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, it is certain to get plenty of breezes. In fact, the main town in the area is called “La Ventosa.”

Oddly enough, La Ventosa was in the news earlier this month as well. A Canadian company, Riverside Resources, Inc., purchased over a thousand acres of land which is being mined for gold. Though that may seem impressive, Riverside and an associate investor company will still only be putting in a bit over a million USD into the project per year — a small fraction of the investment Mexico has made in their first large wind turbine project.

We wish our southern neighbors well, and hope that they’ll continue to invest in passive alternative energy resources.

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Zagato’s PRT Pod A Huge Hit at WFES

January 24, 2009

Zagato is much better known for such suave stylings as those made for Maserati, Ferrari and Aston Martin, but it was their Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) pod which seems to have gotten the lion’s share of attention at the World Future Energy Summit (WFES) in Abu Dhabi this year. The PRTs are going to be used to transport students at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology this fall. For now, they’re on display and wowing the attendees.

The WFES has brought together heads of State, auto manufacturers, energy producers, scientists, and all manner of other concerned parties, both to network and to thinktank what our futures will hold. As you may have read, the Middle-east is sinking billions into alternative energies, and clearly taking the next wave of energy into their own hands — including acquiring the PRTs.The PRTs operate by calculating the number of revolutions of the tires, the direction traveled, and calibrating all of that by magnetic sensors which correlate with marked positions on the street. Sensors slow or stop the vehicle if there’s an object blocking the path ahead.

Studies have shown them to be much safer than having a human operator. The pods will travel to pre-determined stops, but will not run unless there are occupants, avoiding the waste of large bus routes which operate at all hours. Seating 4 comfortably (or 6 cramped,) the cost of these pods, once they’re being mass-produced, is expected to be about $40k each, will run on LiOn batteries from China, and will run for 3 hours before they need to be recharged. The pods are expected to play a big part in the zero-carbon city of Marsdar, as there will be 50,000 residents and another 40,0000 workers who arrive in the city every workday, all leaving their cars (if they have them) at the gate.  Similar craft have carried people in Europe already.  

2getthere, the same company which developed the PRT pods, has provided Holland’s Rotterdam with some 300 automated lorries, for example.  They also have developed human transport vehicles for use there in the Netherlands. The comfort and safety of the pods shows us a rather favorable vision of the future.  Ride on cushioned seats, holding hands or facing each other.  Have a conversation, catch up on the morning news.  The car will stop to let you off at your chosen destination.  Chauffeurs for everyone, and Green at that?  That’s our future?  Not bad.  Not bad at all! 

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Tax Issues — Alternative Energy’s Albatross

January 23, 2009

Finally the people and the governments agree that alternative energy is essential, and are willing to put a bit of money where their mouths are. So why are investments in alternative energy sources diminishing, both from corporations and the government? The problems are legion, and one way or the other, it’s all about taxes.

For the established corporations, the government’s facile use of tax deductions has lost a lot of its value of late. In an economic time such as this, with huge layoffs, losses, and folding giants, there just isn’t much profit to shelter, and developments can’t be bankrolled unless the money is coming from SOMEwhere.

Tax break incentives work on the idea that the government will give the money up in arrears, after the funds have been invested, in lieu of taxes that the company would otherwise have been obligated to pay. But those tax obligations are only levied upon profits, so… no profit, no taxes owed, so no incentive after the investment is made. That part is relatively easy to remedy. The government can use grants instead, since it’s out the same amount of money either way. (This is a bit of an oversimplification, in that the government’s income is also down during times of little or no profit, but the initial concept remains valid.)

Using grants adds an advantage: It allows the little guys, start-up companies with great ideas, abilities and know-how, to become involved in alternative energy solutions. Such companies would otherwise pretty much be out of the running under other circumstances, unless they had huge backing from some invest who expected… well… to get the money back from tax incentives…. you see the problem?

The other way that taxes are an issue is a bit less comfortable to ponder. The government gets a LOT of money from taxes on gasoline. With alternative energy aimed at reducing (or ending) the use of fossil fuels, where will that tax money come from? When people generate their own electricity, that tax also goes away. How can the government continue to run and provide services without that income? Obviously, it will need to levy taxes in some other fashion in the long run. Meanwhile, though, taxing alternative energy producers is counterproductive, even if it could be accomplished, the balance between fossil fuel and alternative energy generation is in nearly constant flux (so a fair new system can’t yet be put into place,) and the governments are bleeding tax losses all over the place.

That we’re all finally getting friendly with Going Green is good news. Unfortunately, a river runs through it, as well – a river of tax dollars. Nobody said the transition was going to be entirely trouble-free. Eventually we will shed the albatross around our necks. The savings found in using alternative energy will help ease the change. Meanwhile, we can take good, sound comfort in knowing that we’re not going through these growing pains for no good reason. Petroleum and Europe’s recent gas crisis both prove that, though transitions may not always be easy, there’s still far more sense in Going Green.

Energy Bear’s Rampage Kills 12

January 19, 2009

If this latest deal holds, Russia’s Vladamir Putin and Ukraine’s Yulia V. Tymoshenko will finally have put to bed the natural gas dispute that left 20 of Europe’s countries without heating gas for two weeks during the coldest part of the year, and cost at least a dozen lives as people literally froze to death. Is there a devil in the deal? This objective observer recognizes that Russia is clearly the antagonist, and directly responsible for the suffering and deaths of those who were pawns caught in the geo-political posturing. One certainly can’t blame Ukraine for not capitulating to demands that would have caused an immediate 240% increase in their gas prices, nor can one say that it was strictly business.The entire affair was clearly about that Ukraine left the former USSR and made application to join NATO.

While the rest of the world seems to have accepted the fall and passing of the USSR and moved on to the world of the European Union, Russia, China, and the U.S.A., Russia reminds mostly of a southerner in the U.S. who flies his Confederate flag and truly believes the South will rise again. Their bullying tactics haven’t changed a bit, and for all of their arrogance, their own well-being is as tied to the sale of that gas as are the lives of those who receive the gas from them. Perhaps that is at the crux of the entire situation. The Russians can’t stomach that their success might be contingent upon such peons as Ukraine and European nations.

Whether they like it or not, this is the new world, and we’re all inter-related within it.  The real question, as they (may) conclude their treaties amicably, isn’t about how much more they paid for the gas. In the deal on the table now, the difference is negligible, nearly back where it started from. But for a dozen human beings, the least fortunate of the western world, the difference cost them their lives.  To dismiss their deaths without giving them their fair due would be vulgar sacrilege. Rather, as the flags fly and people come to celebrate the return of the heat that comes from natural gas, they should be flown at half mast for those twelve people who gave their lives in a fight that was neither of their making nor their choosing. A memorial should be dedicated to them, and along with it a firm and renewed commitment to energy independence.
  
It was just three years ago that Russia last cut off the gas supply to Europe. The odds are better than even that they will do so again. The only way people can safeguard against further rampages by the Bear is to achieve energy independence. Look to the sun, the wind, and the tides for our solutions, and seize those opportunities now. Let us not forget these twelve who lost their lives as Ukraine stood fast against the bully. Let their deaths become the impetus that sets our resolve in the fight for freedom from such tyranny. Let us take steps to prevent Russia’s rampages from ever threatening lives again. Read more

Power of Going With The Flow

January 16, 2009

Not a day goes by that some aspect of alternate power isn’t in the news, but it’s nearly always solar and wind turbine generators getting all of the attention. Meanwhile, companies like Verdant Power have quietly been going with the flow — the flow of water, that is. There are several reasons why hydro-generation isn’t getting the attention it deserves. The most obvious one is that it’s not seen. Hydro-electric generation occurs under water, so it’s not in anyone’s view. Other reasons include that government regulations are heavy on waters, especially those classified as Federal Waterways. It can take a lot of bureacratic wrangling to gain permission. Verdant Power had to spend something like two million dollars just to prove that their blades weren’t cutting up fish. (It would seem the fish were smarter than the bureaucrats, at least in this case.) And then there’s the simple reality that things corrode in water.

The rewards still far outway the dampers on hydro-electric generation. One reason is that water’s greater density allows it to generate a lot more electricity with the water’s currents than if the same turbine were in the air — hundreds of times as much. (Think in terms of hydrofoils, and how so small a piece of “wing” can lift a man right on up out of the water, and you’ll begin to see how much more powerful moving water can be.) And then there’s discretion. Situated under water pretty much dispenses of the “not in my back yard” opposition.

No one single alternate source may create enough energy to free us from fossil fuel dependence. It will take every resource we can conceive of to do that, and at least a little bit of redesigning the devices we use to be more efficient in their use of energy. Collectively, though, we can accomplish that independence. Hydro-electric generation most certainly has a much bigger place at that table than we’ve been giving it so far. It may be time to ask our legislators to clear the way for hydro-electric generation which does not involve damming up Federal Waterways. There’s a lot of power in going with the flow.
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The Government’s Green Scammers

January 14, 2009

Kermit the Frog may know better than most that it’s cool to be Green.  Maybe we should look to him for advice on how to avoid being scammed by those who want to make a buck or three off of calling something Green or Alternative.  The problem isn’t just one of unscrupulous or self-serving entrepreneurs selling snake oil either.   Presumably well-intending government officials are getting in on the act now, too. 

It seems no one is above trying to push a product by calling it Green.In Illinois’  Winnebago County, the Soil and Water Conservation District is pitching a 55 gallon rain barrel for $75, and even claiming that the barrels will pay for themselves.  Jessica Vandeboom, representing the county, brags that the barrels ”are made out of recycled food grade plastic, so they were once used to ship food products.”   One small problem: Barrels like this are found all over the country, used once (as law prohibits their being reused, for some reason,)  for $10-20 retail.  To a hydrogen perioxide company, they’re a waste byproduct.  Dialysis fluids are also shipped in the barrels.  A rinse or two, and they’re perfectly safe to drink out of, and certainly just fine for catching run-off.   But if you ship them to a Recycling company, cut and melt them down and reform them into the same 55 gallon capacity barrel, then ship them back out, you can buy these $10 barrels for $75.  What a deal!

Then there’s the snake oil and pseudo snake oil.  Things are just too easy to scam with.  The little gadgets that you put in your car, a resistor, this or that, to supposedly give your car an extra 30 mpg.Most of the time, such scams are pretty obvious, and yet we feel the need to warn people not to trust every person — or government agency — who wants to sell you something they’re calling Green.  Going Green doesn’t really cost any more.  Don’t be deceived. 

You can do plenty to Green up your home or life without spending a dime.  In fact, going Green usually SAVES you money.  Turn off lights when you’re not using them.  Switch to florescent bulbs — they last longer since there is no filament to break.  Same with heat and air.  This winter, consider wearing a sweatshirt or sweater or even warm pajamas and you’ll be able to turn your house down another 5-10 degrees!

When all’s said and done, it’s still keen to be Green!

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Oil Giants Invest in Green Energy

January 13, 2009

A place where people pay 45 cents a gallon for gasoline seems like an unlikely spot to find proponents of alternative energy — especially when that place’s vast wealth comes from selling oil.  Yet the Arabian Gulf countries, with their huge unbridled energy consumption, have a firm grasp on the fact that their oil is going to run out one day; They know that they, too, will need renewable energy sources one day in the not too distant future, and they’re making good use of their current wealth to see to it that they’re at the forefront of the next energy supply. 

That’s a really good thing for them, because their people burn fossil-fuel generated energy like none other.  Public transport is almost non-existent, and when it’s 130 degrees F. outside, it’s understandable that everyone lives in air conditioned housing and drives to air-conditioned shops in air-conditioned Mercedes Benz cars.  They’re going to need alternative energy more than nearly anyone else on the planet, so they’re taking the steps now to procure it. The United Arab Emirates (UAE,) Qatar and Saudi Arabia are working together to be at the heart of solar power.  Their abuntant sun is almost as seemingly limitless as their oil was, so it’s a good idea.  

Billions have flowed from these most wealthy people into Green technologies.  They’re funding research projects at universities all over the world and building research parkes there in the deserts of the Middle-East.  These oil producers aren’t taking any chances.  They’ve invited the world, from pure research to businessmen, to the second annual World Future Energy Summit.  It’s a Who’s Who, and the world is attending.  Tony Blair, Andris Piebalgs, the EU Energy Commissioner, leaders from other desert nations, and executives of hundreds of companies, large and small, will all be there. While other markets flounder, Going Green continues to be steady business.  But the West may not always be in the forefront of alternative energy development.  “The leadership in these breakthrough technologies is a title the U.S. can lose easily,” said Peter Barker-Homek, chief executive of Abu Dhabi’s national energy company.  Citing advantages of low taxes, an educated and youthful population, abundant natural resources and a willingness to invest, he points out that the Gulf nations could easily take the lead, and that they’re planning to do so.  

Mr. Awad of Masdar shares that they’re already involved in field-testing many solar panels, and adds “We know we can’t continue with this carbon footprint,” he said. “We have to change. This is why Abu Dhabi must develop new models — for the planet, of course, but also so as not to jeopardize Abu Dhabi.” The world is now consuming 80 million barrels of oil a day, a figure expected to rise sharply as the population increases.  

Even oil producing nations can’t keep up with anywhere near that demand, and so they’re working feverishly to replace the supply with clean energy sources.  Masdar, a model city designed to generate zero carbon emissions, is but one of the projects being funded with tens of billions of dollars in oil money being reaped now.  Often these plans include working with the best and brightest on the planet, M.I.T., the Imperial College of London, Stanford, Berkeley, Caltech, Cambridge, Cornell, Imperial, La Sapienza, Oxford and Utrecht amongst them.  Qatar invested £150 million, ($220 million) in a low-carbon technology fund within the UK —  far more than the UK itself has afforded for the research. 

In a place where the sun shines intensely literally every day of the year, this may make both dollars and sense, but it’s also showing nobility of intent that some may not have realized the Arab nations were capable of.  The futuristic city of Masdar, for example, is expected to present a model for renewable resource cities all over the world.  The new materials and technologies that will allow 50,000 inhabitants to live and make no carbon footprint will certainly be an inspiring example.  

Masdar will be using a system of subterrainian public transport and no cars, use only 1/4 of the energy of most cities that size, and will generate all of that energy itself, from the sun.  While the rest of the world drags their feet, worrying about cost-effectiveness of Green technologies, the Arab nations have jumped right in, and are providing the much needed impetus, the seed money to make 100% renewable energy sources a solid reality within the next decade.   If this is what they’re doing with the wealth they’ve gained from selling oil the world wants, they may prove to be the Angels that the planet has needed all along.  Meanwhile, it’s time for the West to jump in with both feet as well, in going Green.
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UPDATE: Disasterous TVA Plant Has History of Spills

January 7, 2009

Many of you are probably already aware of the recent massive and devastating coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plant in eastern Tennessee. That spill, which poured some five million cubic yards of toxic coal ash out, flooding the nearby area and spreading into the nearby river, is considered the largest ecological disaster of its kind. The flood of toxic sludge destroyed three homes and damaged several dozen properties. There were no immediate injuries or deaths, but at least one nearby resident is complaining of headaches and chronic sore throat.

Last week Tom Kilgore, CEO of the TVA, admitted to the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee that the plant had suffered two less severe leaks over the past five years, but that the breaches had not been properly or adequately repaired. The confession was made to the Senate’s Environment & Public Works Committee, and was referred to as “noticeable seepage”. Those events occurred in 2003 and 2005, making the problem appear to be regular and cyclic.

Mr. Kilgore begged off that heavy rains and freezing temperatures had probably contributed to the breach. The explanation offered does nothing to explain or justify why such conditions weren’t anticipated and provided for. The TVA plant’s holding ponds are not lined either. While this is not illegal (yet,) it is unwise, takes an unhealthy risk. Concerns remain as to what affect the ash will have once the water dries out, leaving the toxic substances to become airborne where it will be breathed and settle in people’s homes.

Committee chairwoman, Senator Barbara Boxer (D, CA,) was outspokenly critical of the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to declare coal ash a hazardous waste and for refusing to set national standards for its storage and disposal. She cites this disaster as proof of a need for closer oversight and better precautions regarding such toxic wastes. Senator Boxer also claimed to a portion of responsibility for the spill, admiting that she had been chairwoman of the environment panel since 2007 but had paid no attention to the T.V.A.’s hazardous byproducts.

Senator Boxer and other members of the Environment and Public Works Committee said they would press for new coal ash regulations, including a requirement that it be stored in lined pits and dried, rather than just being dropped into the waste pond, to prevent the toxic substances from pouring into towns and rivers as it did in December of 2008.

There are over thirteen-hundred waste ponds in the U.S., amounting to billions of gallons of fly ash. This byproduct of coal-generated electricity contains heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury. which are known to cause cancer, respiratory disease, crippling nervous system disorders and reproductive problems.

All of this serves as further proof that we MUST put aside fossil-fuel based energy technologies and embrace alternative energy sources — the sooner, the better.

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