Japanese banker bets on clean energy, compassion

Bankers – not the most well-respected citizens these days. Deservedly or not, they tend to be seen as fat cats who enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens.

So maybe bankers looking to rehabilitate their image could take a lesson from Tsuyoshi Yoshiwara – a Japanese banker who’s recently made a name for himself as a crusader against nuclear power… and FOR human decency. Catherine Winter reports for The World.

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Rome BURNS: Lord of the Wind

Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Here’s a story about some odd bedfellows: wind mills, solar panels, and the Mafia.

First, some background. Renewable energy is a pretty big deal in Italy. The country ranks third among the G20 – the world’s top industrialized nations — with respect to percentage of electricity deriving from green resources. In 2011, 6.2% of Italy’s overall energy use came from solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and wave. The U.S. ranked seventh, at 2.7 percent.

According to Invitalia, the Italian government’s agency for investments and economic development, a favorable climate is responsible for boosting renewables. Italy is blessed with ample sunshine and abundant breezes.

Invitalia has mapped out Italy’s solar and wind hot spots.

Solar irridationWind speed

Ground zero is the island off the toe of Italy’s boot. That’s Sicily, and it has more sun and wind than any other region of the country. According to ENEL, Italy’s largest utility, the world’s first solar plant was built in Sicily in 1981. Sicily now houses more than 8000 solar facilities. And it is home to thirty wind farms.

sicily windmills“When it rains it pours,” goes the cliché. But in Italy, there’s another meteorological maxim, reserved for renewables: Where the sun really shines and the wind really blows, billions of dollars of government funding will follow. That has made solar and wind lucrative businesses, a magnet for the Sicilian mob.

Teresa Maria Principato, a prosecutor with Sicily’s anti-mafia squad, summed up the problem for The Washington Post earlier this year:

The Cosa Nostra is adapting, acquiring more advanced knowledge in new areas like renewable energy that have become more profitable because of government subsidies. It is casting a shadow over our renewables industry.

Here’s how the Mafia manipulates the renewables industry. A solar company trying to tap into those generous government subsidies will invariably bump up against Italy’s most bountiful natural resource — a mountain of bureaucratic red tape.

The mafia provides “facilitators” to speed up the process, and delivers the goods in a way that only the Mafia can. The fees it demands are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per job. (One researcher put it at $520,000 per megawatt.) The mob also forces companies to hire Cosa Nostra contractors and to launder Cosa Nostra cash.

“Sicily is dotted with these giant windmills and solar panels, all doing nothing but laundering mob money,” said Giacomo Di Girolamo, a journalist who writes on organized crime, in The Mirror Online.

A few weeks ago, in early April, the Italian police struck back, seizing more than 1.3 billion Euro (about $1.7 billion) in assets from Vito Nicastri, a Sicilian green energy business magnate believed to be a mafia frontman. Nicastri controls one of the largest wind and solar conglomerates in Italy. His nickname is “Il Signore del Vento” – Lord of the Wind.

ANTIMAFIA SIGN

The confiscated assets include 43 wind and solar energy companies, plus numerous bank accounts, properties, investment funds, credit cards, cars and boats. It is the biggest ever seizure of mafia holdings, and testament to the breadth of Mafia involvement in renewables.

Nicastri is now under surveillance and has been told to stay put his Sicilian home town. If Nicastri is ever arrested, his fingerprints presumably will be taken with green ink.

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More on last week’s invite-only rising seas meeting

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

After my last post on the Union of Concerned Scientists and the meeting in New York last week about sea level rise, I got a note back from UCS. I was very critical of their closing this meeting to the public and press. The meeting was attended by local officials from New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. Emergency responders, natural resource managers – the people who are going to try to manage the climate changes that are beginning now, and which are certain to grow.

A press person at UCS wrote to say she was disappointed in the blog. Among the things she pointed out: I never said in my blog that UCS had a press conference in the middle of the day, and that they put up a panel of a half-dozen participants and took questions.

UCS is correct. I should have noted that. In fact, I was in New York, and went to the press conference, and found it very useful. I’m taking information and contacts from it for a story that I hope might break through a general numbness to climate reporting – I don’t think it gets the public attention it deserves.

It’s a transformative story in many ways, and the climatic changes are going to make for very difficult times. Those changes are directly tied to our energy use, but not something we take into account in the energy choices we make. Or not seriously. More open discussion of what is coming is better, I think.

So, I have disappointed the Union of Concerned Scientists, and they have disappointed me. We exchanged another series of notes today and agreed to go on talking.

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Today’s Army – the march toward better batteries

REF generators for site

A series of diesel generators on a mini-grid power a Combat Outpost at Ft. Bliss. REF is working on better, lighter ways to bring power to soldiers based around the world. (Alex Chadwick/Burn)

 

The U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force – REF for short – is a little-known agency making big changes in how soldiers fight. It was created after an officer saw a video of soldiers trying to clear an Afghan cave with a rope and grappling hook – why not robots, he wondered?

That was 10 years ago, and as BURN host Alex Chadwick reports, since then REF has become an innovator in many fields, including energy.

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Bill McKibben’s lights-out plan for big oil & gas

Caroline Alden, BURN Contributor

Bill McKibben is a big name in the climate movement, and he’s got a game changing idea.

McKibben is the founder of 350.org, a grassroots organization aimed at stopping fossil fuel extraction (350 is the atmospheric concentration of CO2, in parts per million, above which leading scientists predict global warming may seriously threaten civilization).

 Since 2007, 350.org activists have been going big with their campaigns on behalf of the environment, from forming human chains around the White House, to promoting a global solar panel installation day (for the record, “PutSolarOnIt” predated “put a bird on it”).

Despite the aggressive work of 350 and other organizations, 230 billion more tons of CO2 have been dumped into the atmosphere over the last 6 years, putting us at  397 ppm today.

 McKibben recently teamed up with Naomi Klein to draft a new focus for 350: a campaign for divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. So far, four colleges, one public university, one major city, and potentially one mega church have committed to freezing and ultimately withdrawing investments. The narrative driving this campaign is that investing in the fossil fuel industry promotes global warming.

 McKibben’s rhetoric – including a Rolling Stone piece he wrote last year – suggests he may be attempting to reframe global warming entirely, as a “good vs evil” fight against the fossil fuel industry.

 …[T]he planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. “Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

I got to hear the new McKibben pitch on his “Do The Math” tour in December. He painted a picture of a global society that wants electricity to come out of wall sockets, but doesn’t want to destroy the planet in the process. Standing in the way, to use McKibben’s rhetoric, are fossil fuel industry execs more interested in profit and far less concerned with the environment.

Also on tour were Ira Glass and Josh Fox (the banjo-wielding creator of Gasland), and an elaborate demonstration involving multiple cases of beer and Winona LaDuke drinking them: a witty metaphor for… wait… what was the point of that again? Largely, it seemed, to attract the college-aged demographic.

 But, back to McKibben. By his calculus, framing this global issue as an actionable fight against an antagonistic tyrant may mobilize people – especially young people, who will be most affected by climate change – to demand change from their universities, colleges, churches, and local governments.

 The question of whether the divestment campaign will succeed as a purely economic tool might be secondary to McKibben’s ability to rouse a new generation to take positions – and take action – in the climate debate.

In an interview with Gothamist last summer, McKibben frequently cited the economic success of divestment in ending South Africa’s system of Apartheid. That point is spelled out at gofossilfree.org – a base for McKibben’s investment freeze campaign.

There have been a handful of successful divestment campaigns in recent history, including Darfur, Tobacco and others, but the largest and most impactful one came to a head around the issue of South African Apartheid. By the mid-1980s, 155 campuses — including some of the most famous in the country — had divested from companies doing business in South Africa. 26 state governments, 22 counties, and 90 cities, including some of the nation’s biggest, took their money from multinationals that did business in the country. The South African divestment campaign helped break the back of the Apartheid government, and usher in an era of democracy and equality.

Economists point out that it wasn’t the direct economic instrument of divestment that ended Apartheid, but the combined social and economic pressures that mounted and prevailed, as the global community identified and rejected a moral wrong.

If the rabble gets roused, then we may find that McKibben is indeed onto something.

Caroline Alden is a graduate student at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in the Department of Geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Why you can’t attend a rising seas conference in NY

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

This week, in New York City, the Union of Concerned Scientists is convening a meeting of dozens of public officials from New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida to talk about one of the most serious issues these officials are facing: rising sea levels brought about by global warming, the product of greenhouse gases. Some of these officials dealt with Hurricane Sandy – the one that left parts of Manhattan without power for five days and battered the New Jersey coast. Others, especially in Florida, already see evidence of climate change – not from storms, but simply in the tides. The officials are meeting with one another for conversations, with a few scientists on hand to offer guidance.

They will be there – but the public will not. UCS, which describes itself as a coalition of citizens and scientists working to better public policy and corporate practices, has closed the meeting.

I learned of the event a month ago through one of the participants. I sent UCS a note asking to go, and dropped what I thought would be our best card with this group – we were just recognized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for best radio science reporting. I though of this as an opportunity to meet and listen to the people who are going to be creating the policies and practices that will be of ever greater significance in this country, as more and more lives and enormous swathes of property are at increasing risk.

The response from UCS was that it would be ‘unwieldy’ to allow reporters to observe. And no one from the public, either.

A citizen who might think s/he would like to know more about rising sea levels? No, not this time, they said. Unwieldy.

I’ve known the Union of Concerned Scientists to be public-minded advocates of science-based solutions to all sorts of issues. They’re tough-minded and fearless in their frequent papers and testimony. But when I protested the exclusion of reporters and others from this meeting, a UCS press person said that climate has become so controversial that they worried about hecklers, or trouble-makers – people who would show up for theatrical opposition.

If UCS is going to close a meeting because some nut-job – or even a true skeptic, though many believers doubt there is such a thing – might show up and try to disrupt things, then we are in worse shape than I thought. These are public officials, at a meeting convened by a science organization that boasts of its citizen involvement. And they want to talk just among themselves because an outsider might be argumentative – even disruptive?

A spokeswoman told me a week ago that they’d think about opening the meeting. She’d tested the idea on one official already, and the response was that UCS would be changing ‘the rules’, and thus the official might not attend. Wonderful. If UCS and public officials are doing such a great job getting out the climate message, where is the public consensus about the urgency of doing something?

UCS and public officials have done such a great job getting out the climate message that there is noted consensus about the urgency of doing something. So, okay, maybe we should just leave them alone in a room, talking to each other. But when they close the doors, I hope there’s a flicker of shame somewhere inside there.

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How oil is made

Christopher Johnson, BURN Digital Producer

Americans use a LOT of oil. About 20 million barrels a day. Much of that oil – before it’s turned into products we use in our cars, our homes, and our plastic water bottles – exists in 2 basic forms: light (sweet) crude, and heavy crude.

heavy vs light crude

Heavy (left) vs light crude oil.

Light crude is the most desirable because it’s low in sulfur – an element that must be processed out of oil. That means companies have to spend less time and energy turning light crude into useful products.

That low sulfur content is also why it’s sometimes called “sweet.” Early prospectors used to taste the oil, to know what they had on their hands.

Light crude is found largely in the US Gulf states and Nigeria. Canada also has large sweet crude deposits.

In Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Iraq, heavy crude is most common. “Heavy” because it has a lot of impurities – including wax – that have to be removed through costly processing.

SWEET & SOUR PROCESSING

Liquid petroleum pumped up out of the ground needs refining. Once the sulfur and other impurities are removed, it goes through a distillation process that Michael Poehl – who teaches about oil refining at The University of Texas at Austin – says isn’t unlike making your own liquor.

Knowing what you’ve got on the other side of the refining process takes some chemistry. Here are a few basics.

hydrocarbon chains

Hydrocarbon chains of varying lengths lead to different petroleum products. (chemistryland.com)

Petroleum is made up of compounds that include hydrogen atoms and carbon atoms. They bind to form hydrocarbon molecules.

Each of those hydrocarbons is like a chain link. When just a few hydrocarbons are linked together, you get a very light petroleum product – like methane and propane gases. Several dozen hydrocarbon links locked together means heavier stuff – lubricating or heavy fuel oil.

So, a company pours a drum of crude oil into a refinery. The refining process breaks up the oil’s hydrocarbon chains into various lengths, so that out comes a bunch of different products.

The most valuable is gasoline. About 40% of the crude that goes into a refinery comes out as gasoline.

Refinery components

Components and outputs of a typical refinery.

There are different kinds of refineries. Those built mainly to process light crude are focused on creating gasoline. Heavy crude refineries are designed to first get the impurities out, and then process the oil. Poehl says that the key to refinery economics is to optimize whichever crude strain is being processed. That means finding the cheapest, fastest, most efficient ways to get as much product as possible out of the crude that goes in.

TAR SANDS

Another oil source is tar sands – loose sand or sandstone saturated by a kind of thick, goopy petroleum called bitumen. Tar sands are especially plentiful in Northwestern Canada.

Tar sand hands

They are tough to work with because the petroleum is so heavy. In these deposits, the natural oil/sand mixture has to be heated in order to extract the petroleum. Refiners may have to process a ton of sand to get a barrel of oil, Poehl explains. Still, a lot of oil people are betting on tar.

One major tar sands project is the proposed 1,700- mile Keystone XL Pipeline, which would run from western Canada through the central United States and down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Keystone_Pipeline_System

The plan has sparked a lot of debate, and opposition from farmers and environmental groups that say the tar sands are especially corrosive and thick, and therefore prone to leaking from the pipeline and onto farm land.

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Rome BURNS: Italy’s power grid, taken by storni

Robert Rand, BURN Editor 

Not long ago, as Rome passed through the final weeks of winter, a swirling black cloud flew in from the hills outside the city just before sunset. It whorled in the skies over my neighborhood, elegantly dancing to and fro and inside out. I’d never seen anything like it. My daughter thought it was a tornado. I was mesmerized. The whole thing seemed extraterrestrial.

The show took place every day in the late afternoon for more than a week. The performers were flocks of European starlings — gli storni – come to roost in Rome and elsewhere in Italy by the many, many thousands.

Despite the beauty of their aerobatics, the starlings are not particularly welcomed here.

There are some obvious reasons.

starlings-italy

A more subtle and serious effect is the occasional blackout caused by way too many birds perching on electric power lines all at the same time. In the town of Brindisi, in the heel of southern Italy, outages once resulted when an army of starlings simultaneously took flight from their power line roost, triggering oscillations that interrupted the flow of electricity.

In Fasano, about a hundred miles north of Brindisi, the combined weight of the starlings caused high tension wires – in the words of a local newspaper – to be “sent into a tailspin.” In the Tuscan town of Montecarlo, a newspaper reported frequent blackouts and called the starlings “a scourge.” The city urged hunters to take up arms.

I checked with Terna, the Italian transmission grid operator, and was told that Rome did not experience any starling-induced blackouts this year. The city has used loudspeakers and light projectors to repel the birds with some success. A Terna spokesperson did point out that the company works with environmental groups to study the interaction between high-voltage lines and birds. One objective is to minimize avian collisions.

More than 9,000 special noise-making “dissuaders” – like this one – have been installed on the Italian grid to make power lines easier to see by birds in flight.

Bird grid dissuader

 

Here is Terna’s 2011 “Sustainability Report.”

By the way, “murmuration” is the word used to describe an airborne starling ballet. Daniel Butler, a writer for the Telegraph, described the science behind it this way:

Each bird strives to fly as close to its neighbours as possible, instantly copying any changes in speed or direction. As a result, tiny deviations by one bird are magnified and distorted by those surrounding it, creating rippling, swirling patterns. In other words, this is a classic case of mathematical chaos (larger shapes composed of infinitely varied smaller patterns). Whatever the science, however, it is difficult for the observer to think of it as anything other than some vast living entity.

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Global warming’s day at the beach

Alex Chadwick, BURN Host

If energy-induced global warming truly is global, how come it’s not showing up in my neighborhood?

Actually, it is in my neighborhood. I live around Venice Beach in Los Angeles. A couple of months ago, I noticed new flood gates on the Venice canals. The agency putting them in called them tidal gates – but the canals have been here for more than 100 years, and they never had gates until fairly recently.

Here’s another sign: you can get in the water. Without wet suits. And it’s barely April.

I grew up near New England beaches. I’m used to water that’s too cold for most people. I usually start swimming here in late April or May. There’s a big difference in water that’s 58º or 60º. Late March/early April is a little too cold.

Except now, it’s not. It’s tolerable, at least wading out knee-deep. And I saw little kids getting in in the last week. I would guess the ocean is about a month ahead of itself in terms of water temperature. It should be 57º right now.

But I checked with two lifeguards. They have boats out everyday, and they sample water temperature daily just off from where I go in. Their readings these days are running at least 60º. Yes, they said. Warmer than normal.

It’s been overcast here. The subject of another posting to come. But if we get a warm day, I’m going in for further data collection. And a good wave or two.

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MAP: How much energy is the world using?

It may come as no surprise that large, energy-rich countries like the United States use the most energy, but how much per person? And which countries are using the least?

This map includes energy consumption data from the International Energy Agency and includes electricity, as well as fossil and gathered fuels. The numbers are from 2010 – the last year for which complete numbers are available.

For a larger view, click the map below, or click here.

 

WorldMap - Energy Consumption Per Capita 2010

 

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