Monday, January 23, 2012

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“No Evidence” that Wind Turbine Syndrome Actually Exists

Posted: 23 Jan 2012 03:23 AM PST

This is a Climate Progress repost. The article has been republished with permission.

wind turbines in snowby Zachary Rybarczyk and Stephen Lacey

If we want wind to continue growing, more turbines will need to be placed in our communities and close to our backyards. And that will inevitably cause more social friction.

Wind supporters cannot discount concerns from local residents about noise and visual impact. With proper communication between developers and communities, many of the potential conflicts can be mitigated or avoided.

But there's a huge difference between concerns of neighbors to wind projects and the faux medical conditions pushed by advocates who claim turbines are a serious threat to human health.

Although no conclusive research has shown that wind farms cause health problems, many anti-wind groups have pushed the idea that "Wind Turbine Syndrome" is a widespread problem – elevating legitimate siting concerns to scare tactics.

A new study released this week by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection finds that "there is no evidence for a set of health effects…that could be characterized as 'Wind Turbine Syndrome.'" The supposed health impacts pushed by wind opponents include mental health problems, heart disease and vertigo.

The Department's Panel was comprised of independent experts in a range of fields associated with the possible health impact of exposure to wind turbines. They explored scientific literature, reports, popular media and public comments and concluded that there was no scientific basis for claims about Wind Turbine Syndrome:

Chart courtesy of Plymouth Daily News

While the panel recommended more research on the impact of "very loud turbines" that could disrupt sleep patterns of some individuals (even though they write that a "'very quiet wind turbine' would not likely disrupt even 'the lightest of sleepers' at that same distance"), the researchers debunk the broad-based claims about Wind Turbine Syndrome:

There is insufficient evidence that the noise from wind turbines is directly… causing health problems or disease.  Claims that infrasound from wind turbines directly impacts the vestibular system have not been demonstrated scientifically. Available evidence shows that the infrasound levels near wind turbines cannot impact the vestibular system.

The study failed to produce any concrete evidence that "flicker" caused by the shadows of rotating blades causes epileptic seizure, or that turbines cause "pain and stiffness, diabetes, high blood pressure, tinnitus, hearing impairment, cardiovascular disease, [or] headache/migraine."

The researchers concluded that the most dangerous problem in Massachusetts was from ice falling off turbines.

Zachary Rybarczyk is an intern on the energy team at the Center for American Progress. Stephen Lacey is a writer with Climate Progress.

Wind turbines via shutterstock

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The UK Feed-In Tariff Saga Continues…

Posted: 23 Jan 2012 03:07 AM PST

Solar panels in the UK set to increase 5x this year, 30x by 2015.

This is a special guest post from Martin Breeman of Intelligent Energy Solutions, a regular reader of our site. Enjoy his useful perspective on the crazy story (as it now stands) regarding the UK’s solar feed-in-tariff scheme:

by Martin Breeman

At a time when unemployment is reaching record levels in the UK, people could be forgiven for asking why the government insists on cutting the feed-in tariff rates for solar power in such a drastic manner, when they have been driving growth in the sector, creating much-needed jobs, and generating tax revenue. The main issue behind the government's actions is that the feed-in tariff scheme is in danger of exceeding its budget, but the decision to cut the rate before the consultation period had finished simply didn't make sense, which is why the High Court deemed it to be illegal.

Similarly, the government's choice to appeal this decision doesn't seem to make much sense either, and it has only served to cast a shadow of uncertainty over the UK solar power industry. It's clear that the economy is stuttering with several growth forecasts downgraded over the course of 2011, and it's quite hard to see where the recovery might come from, with many experts predicting more trouble for Europe in 2012. This is why it is important for the UK to generate its own domestic demand without relying on export-led growth from Europe and the solar power industry, one area which has been thriving from the government support in the form of feed-in tariffs.

Many academics and experts in economics often discuss ways to stimulate an economic recovery, and their focus often includes government investment in infrastructure projects, which create much-needed jobs. This includes areas such as transport, housing, and energy, which is why the decision to halve the feed-in tariff for solar panels with such a short notice period has been criticised by many supporters of clean energy.

With the scheme in danger of surpassing its budget, action needs to be taken, which includes either reducing the feed-in tariff or extending the budget. If the government chooses to reduce the tariff, this should be carried out in small steps over a long period to reduce the impact on an industry that has experienced a recent and rapid expansion. The alternative is to extend the budget to support the 4,000 solar businesses operating across the UK, but there appears to be very little discussion on this choice, which may show that the government doesn't even consider it an option.

The UK government's commitment to clean energy will be closely examined in the coming months and the manner in which it chooses to reduce feed-in tariff rates will have a significant impact on one of the only industries helping to stimulate growth and create jobs in the UK.

For those looking to install a solar PV system this year, Intelligent Energy Solutions suggests you make sure that the installation is completed and registered before the 31st of March 2012, to give you the best chance of receiving the original feed-in tariff.

Image Credit: telex4 (CC BY 2.0 license)

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Video Stories Demonstrate Energy Efficiency’s Economic Benefits

Posted: 23 Jan 2012 03:00 AM PST

Climate Solutions, a Northwest-based nonprofit focused on creating a clean energy economy, has created several videos of companies’, organizations’, and communities’ inspiring stories of energy efficiency.

They are also spearheading the Solutions Stories project, which aims to communicate clean energy economy successes in the Northwest.

“These stories demonstrate the reality that energy efficiency and building the economy go hand in hand,” said Gregg Small, executive director for Climate Solutions. “We are seeing businesses, individuals, and communities doing what’s needed to build the clean-energy economy, with real solutions on the ground every day.”

“We applaud companies such as Formula Fabrication and Bentall Kennedy, who are taking steps to reduce energy usage and are pleased to help tell their stories,” said Phill Guay, senior manager of NEEA, a founding sponsor of Solutions Stories.

“Not only do these new videos illustrate NEEA’s commitment to energy efficiency, they also demonstrate the real impact in the Northwest that business owners and organizations can have when they employ energy-efficient solutions and initiatives.”

Libby, Montana

Formula Fabrication, based in Libby, Mont., a small, struggling town, was on the verge of closing its doors a few years ago. With trainings offered by the region’s utilities and Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) through the Northwest Ductless Heat Pump Project, the company learned about the benefits of ductless heat pumps (DHPs). DHPs allowed Formula Fabrication to offer its customers a product that delivers more comfort than traditional heating systems and saves them 25 to 35 percent on heating bills through incentives offered by the local utility, Flathead Electric Cooperative. Business is now booming for the company and Libby residents are seeing returns on their bills with the energy saved.

Bellevue, Washington

In Bellevue, Wash., commercial buildings need to innovate to compete in a challenging market. The Kilowatt Crackdown, a benchmarking competition that NEEA sponsors with Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) and local utilities, challenges building owners and managers to reduce energy usage by tapping into the inherent “competitive nature” of the commercial real estate industry. Bentall Kennedy, building owners of One Newport, entered the Kilowatt Crackdown and won first place for the Highest Performing Small Building and is seeing great results in both energy and dollars saved.

Bainbridge Island, Washington

Bainbridge Island, Wash. residents–when faced with the construction of a new substation–came together to increase energy efficiency and reduce energy use as a community. RePower Bainbridge, which is sponsored in part by the City of Bainbridge Island and U.S. Department of Energy, and funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, took a one-stop-shop approach in order to make it easier for homeowners to achieve their energy efficiency goals, reduce energy costs, and experience greater comfort in their homes.

To do this RePower Bainbridge started offering in-home energy assessments for homeowners in order to create a baseline of their current energy use and costs, as well as cash-back incentives for qualifying improvements, access to Kitsap Credit Union’s Energy Efficiency Loan Program, and help connecting homeowners to a local, skilled workforce of contractors through the RePower Trade Ally Network. As a result, Bainbridge Island residents came together and significantly lowered their energy use, thereby not needing the new substation, becoming a model for community energy-efficiency efforts. Similar initiatives are being adopted nationwide.

All in all, RePower Bainbridge and The City of Bainbridge Island came together with Conservation Services Group, Puget Sound Energy, Kitsap Credit Union, and other community groups to implement RePower Bainbridge, an energy efficiency initiative which helps residents save energy, reduce costs, and increase the comfort of their homes.

“Our success on Bainbridge is in large part the result of our community’s engagement from the beginning,” said Hilary Franz, RePower Bainbridge representative and former City Council Member.

“Our energy solutions originated from a sense of urgency–an insistence by the community to look at our energy use differently. We came together to understand our energy challenges, to ask ‘what’s possible?’, and to develop a plan for action. Because our community was empowered to design, develop, and implement, we are committed to its success. Our program serves as a model for other communities that by working together, we can all be the solution.”

Source: Energy Central

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Helping Plug-in Cars Handle Harsh Winters

Posted: 23 Jan 2012 02:49 AM PST

This is a full repost of a Midwest Energy News story that has been reposted with permission. Enjoy! (See licensing on the bottom of the page.)

Story by Kevin Clemens
Video by Rick Fuentes

For gas-electric hybrids, cold weather can have a major impact on fuel economy. (Photo by Chad Kainz via Creative Commons)

Decades ago, plug-in cars were common in Minnesota.

For cars poorly suited for the upper Midwest's frigid winters, a block heater plugged in overnight could keep the engine warm enough to start the next morning. Cars and trucks with electrical cords protruding from their grills were a frequent sight.

New technologies such as fuel injection, direct ignition, superior motor oils and better batteries have largely relegated that custom to history in all but the most frigid regions of the world. But with more than a dozen electric and plug-in car models due on the U.S. market in 2012, some Minnesotans will find themselves reviving the practice.

Shayna Berkowitz has some pretty strong opinions about how electric vehicles perform in Minnesota winters.

"Winter is very hard on this technology," she said. "Batteries in winter do not equal success."

Berkowitz knows something about the subject. Her company, ReGo Electric in Minneapolis, specializes in plug-in conversions for hybrid cars, adding additional battery packs to improve fuel economy while improving their all-electric range capabilities.

"To have an all-electric vehicle here in this climate is pretty radical," Berkowitz says. "It's a pretty dramatic thing to be able to do."

However, there are some solutions that can make electric vehicles practical in cold climates.

Why cold weather is hard on batteries

There are several reasons why electric vehicles have special needs when it comes to operating in cold climates.

Batteries produce electricity through chemical reactions and these reactions slow as the temperature falls. A lead acid battery, like that used to start a normal gasoline engine, can lose almost 40 percent of its capacity as the temperature drops below zero.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in 2006 found nickel metal hydride and lithium ion batteries used in electric cars could see a drop of more than 80 percent in capacity(PDF) at temperatures around zero degrees Fahrenheit, compared to 73 degrees.

Conventional cars with block heaters plugged into an outlet in Finland. The practice of plugging in gasoline-powered cars is still common in frigid climates, like Scandinavia and interior Alaska. (Photo by Suvi Korhonen via Creative Commons)

Cold batteries also do not accept charging energy as easily as they do when warm, so the benefits of regenerative braking, which uses the car's drive motor as a generator when slowing down, is much less effective. In addition, an all-electric vehicle must use some of its battery energy to power items like the cabin heater, seat heaters and the defroster.

Consumer Reports has noted the Nissan Leaf's 100-mile range on a charge during the summer months dropped to around 65 miles in cold weather, and Berkowitz says that a Toyota Prius that normally gets 45-55 mpg will only get 35-45 mpg in winter because of diminished battery capacity.

Preparing plug-in cars for winter

ReGo developed ways of dealing with cold weather in its hybrid conversions right from its beginnings four years ago. ReGo's system includes electric resistance heaters and insulation around its battery pack. The heaters are powered through the charging cable that plugs into the electrical socket in the owner's garage.

"Without the winterizing that we do, [the batteries] wouldn't function," note ReGo's Berkowitz.

The same strategy is used by major automakers, as well.

As with ReGo's conversions, the Nissan Leaf uses an electric resistance heater to warm the battery when the car is attached to the home charging circuit. In addition, the Leaf can draw power from its lithium ion battery pack to heat itself, as long as the charge level in the pack is above 30 percent. The heater comes on automatically when the temperature falls below -4°F and shuts off again when the battery temperature rises above 14°F.

The Leaf, as well as the Chevrolet Volt, can pre-heat their cabins and batteries when plugged in overnight. ReGo offers a similar system, not just for hybrids but also for ordinary non-electric vehicles to help cut down on cold-weather idling while the interior comes to temperature.

And while the cold poses day-to-day driving challenges for EV owners in the Midwest, another NREL study showed that a battery pack operating in a cooler climate like that of Minneapolis will last significantly longer (PDF) than one that spends its life in a hotter city like Phoenix.

Car companies who are building electric vehicles do extensive winter testing to fully understand the cars' limitations and adapt for them accordingly. GM, for instance, tested several pre-production Chevy Volts in Kapuskasing, Ontario, where temperatures can drop to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. But only when a significant number of plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles hit Midwest highways will the success of these adaptations be known.

Meanwhile, ReGo's Shayna Berkowitz understands the need to make her company's electric conversions as trouble-free as possible.

"When it comes to transportation, people want reliable, dependable, consistent, easy technology," she said. "Change is hard for people. They don't want their commute to be a science fair project."

Kevin Clemens is a freelance journalist and author who trained as an engineer and environmental educator and has been an editor and contributor at some of the transportation industry's most influential magazines. He lives in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.

Rick Fuentes is a cycling writer and two-wheeled photographer.

Creative Commons License
This work by Midwest Energy News is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

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Fueling India with Corn Husks

Posted: 23 Jan 2012 02:37 AM PST

india corn husks to fuel

This is a full repost from GE’s ecomagination site. It has been reposted with permission.

In Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, 85 percent of people are not connected to the electricity grid. Households use kerosene lamps when they can afford it, and businesses use expensive and dirty diesel generators.

Some view this "energy poverty" as a development problem. Others view it as an environmental problem. The founders of Bihar-based Husk Power Systems view it as an opportunity to build a social enterprise.

Their motto is tamaso ma jyotir gamaya—'from darkness to light.'

The company realized that one waste product in Bihar—rice husks—could be used to power a small biomass gasifier. Along with rice husks, they also use mustard stems, corncobs, grasses, and other agricultural residue. After five months of R&D, they developed a system that could produce 32 kilowatts of power by burning 50 kilograms of rice husk per hour. In the last four years, they've installed over 80 biomass mini-plants across Bihar, bringing power to more than 32,000 rural households.

This is just a fraction of the potential market. According to Salman Zafar, CEO of BioEnergy Consult and a renewable energy expert in India, the potential demand for biomass power generation in India exceeds 30,000 megawatts (MW). This is more than 1,000 times Husk Power's current installed capacity.

Despite the large potential market, Husk has limited competition.

The Technology is Just the Beginning

Though it is not as clean as energy sources such as solar and wind, biomass power generation from rice husks and waste materials is still cleaner than fossil fuels, or biofuels such as ethanol. Each of Husk's mini-plants saves 125 to 150 tons of CO2per year as compared to a fossil-fuel powered plant. What's more, plants become profitable within two to three months after installation.

Husk's biomass generation technology is proprietary, but it is based on a decades-old gasifier system that uses a combination of rice husks and diesel fuel to generate power. These "dual fuel" systems were once used by rice millers to power their mills, but were not economically feasible for household electrification.

Husk co-founder Gyanesh Pandey, working with Dr. S.K. Singh from India's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, reimagined the antiquated system and developed a "single fuel" gasifier that's designed for ease of operation and maintenance. It is "so simple that even a person who cannot read and write can operate it with a little bit of training," says Husk co-founder Ratnesh Kumar.

The simplicity of the gasifier is just one way in which Husk has tailored its operations to address the challenges of profitably providing off-grid power to rural villages.

Now, the company is focused on its biggest challenge yet: "human capital."

Creating a Professional Workforce

Husk has the ambitious goal of reaching 2,500 mini-power plants in the next five years. In order to reach its goal, it will need about 7,000 trained employees who are willing to work in rural India, an area that urban Indians call "the darkness." Their motto is tamaso ma jyotir gamaya—"from darkness to light."

In early 2011, Husk set up Husk Power University in partnership with the Shell Foundation and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). The university is a training program for mechanics and mid-level managers.

A power company does not have a core business to open a university, but it is essential for us to do it.

The university currently offers several different training programs. One three-month program teaches a rural villager with limited schooling how to operate a mini-plant. From this level, an operator can take additional courses to become an engineering mechanic. Promising engineering mechanics can train to become Husk-certified engineers, who oversee the operations of 30 – 40 plants.

Another training program develops cluster managers, who oversee 5 – 6 plants that are in close proximity. Cluster managers need to be able to successfully manage 15 – 20 employees.

Training a talented pool of cluster managers will create a pipeline of upper-level management talent to help the company scale efficiently and rapidly. Husk employs about 360 full-time staff, and plans to grow to nearly 20 times its current size in the next five years.

Funding Rapid Growth

In tandem with the recruitment of thousands of employees, Husk will need to raise about $30 million in debt and equity capital, according to Manoj Sinha, Co-Founder of Husk Power. Says Sinha, "A power company does not have a core business to open a university, but it is essential for us to do it."

Identifying funders who are interested in a social enterprise that serves the rural poor is not easy. In 2009, Husk received a pre-Series A round of financing from Acumen Fund, Bamboo Finance, LGT Philanthropy, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Its ability to reach its five-year target will hinge on its success at attracting new funding sources.

Husk will also have to address the persistent misconception that people at the bottom of the pyramid are not willing to pay for electricity.

To do so, Husk will have to prove that its operating model works just as effectively in East Africa as it does in India.

Husk's founders know Bihar well—one of them grew up in Bihar—but it's unclear whether they will be able to operate successfully in Tanzania and Uganda, two planned expansion countries where they are not familiar with the local context.

Husk will also have to address the persistent misconception that people at the bottom of the pyramid are not willing to pay for electricity and prove that there is reliable demand for their product.

Their current operations have already convinced some investors. "Bihar is the poorest of the poorest states in India. These are the bottom of the bottom of the pyramid consumers. These consumers are not only willing but desperately able to pay for this service," says Simon Desjardins, Program Manager at the Shell Foundation.

Stephanie Hanson is the Director of Policy and Outreach at One Acre Fund. From 2006 to 2009, she covered Africa and Latin America for, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2008, she won a News and Documentary Emmy for Crisis Guide: Darfur.

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35 Wind Towers Bound for Wales and Scotland

Posted: 23 Jan 2012 02:26 AM PST

UK manufacturer of wind turbine towers Mabey Bridge is set to supply 35 towers measuring in at between 65 and 70 metres in length to wind farms in Wales and Scotland.

Production of the turbines will begin in mid-February as part of Mabey Bridge’s new 24-hours-per-day work time at its new wind turbine tower manufacturing facility, a £38-million facility. Approximately 170 staff will be working on the project, including 45 new staff members and 50 that have been transferred in to meet demand from the company’s bridge-building operation.

Moving completed wind turbine tower section at Mabey Bridge Chepstow

Of the 35 towers, 14 will go to a Wales wind farm at the Pant-Y-Wal site near Rhondda in South Wales, marking the first time that turbine towers manufactured by a Welsh company will be installed in Wales.

“Quality and price were obviously key factors in awarding this contract to Mabey Bridge. However, also attractive was the fact that a key part of the wind turbines being installed at these sites will be manufactured in the UK,” said Bryan Grinham, managing director of Nordex UK.

“On site visits to Mabey Bridge we were not only impressed by the scale of the operation there but also the towers already manufactured, delivered and installed in the UK. We are excited about working with Mabey Bridge to deliver these towers on behalf of our clients Pennant Walters and Statkraft.”

Once installed—hopefully by June 2012—the turbines will generate up to 42 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 25,000 homes.

The remaining 21 towers are destined for installation in June of 2012 at the Baillie wind farm—owned by local windfarm developers and Statkraft—near Thurso on the north coast of Scotland. When installed, they will have a capacity of 52.5 megawatts and generate enough electricity to meet the energy needs of 35,000 homes.

“2011 was a challenging year for the wind turbine industry overall, with the latest available figures putting the number of new towers installed onshore in the UK last year at fewer than 25,” Mabey Bridge UK director Alex Smale said.

“Against this backdrop, the signing of a 35-tower deal with Nordex is a real boost for all the staff working at Mabey Bridge. We are very excited by the market currently and expect to make further announcements soon.”

Source: Mabey Bridge
Image Source: Mark Hobbs

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Hawaiʻi’s Largest Solar Project Awarded Go-Ahead

Posted: 23 Jan 2012 02:09 AM PST

Work on the largest Hawai’ian solar project has now been launched by KIUC and REC Solar. The 12-megawatt solar project is to bbe located on Hawai’ian Homelands in Anahola on the northeast side of Kauai.

Originally formed in August of 2011, the partnership between the Homestead Community Development Corporation (HCDC) — the tax exempt development arm of the Anahola Hawaiian Homes Association of Kauai — and KIUC originally explored the feasibility of such a project to see if it would be mutually beneficial to the co-op, the people of Kauai, and the Hawai’ian Home Land Trust.

Apparently, it was determined that it was. December saw REC Solar awarded the contract, which will, upon completion, bring KIUC’s integrated solar capacity to nearly 20 MW and provide the two their second opportunity to work together — perviously, they collaborated on a 1.21-MW system in Kapaa.

“The growth of the solar industry is due in part to the aggressive actions from forward-thinking utilities like KIUC,” said Lee Johnson, CEO of REC Solar. “This coalition demonstrates the innovative spirit and concern for the environment that has made Hawaii home to the nation’s second-highest installed solar capacity per capita, and we are excited to move this project forward. Solar is a bankable, proven way to grow KIUC's renewable generation portfolio and meet the energy needs of Hawaii."

"When the project is successfully developed, KIUC will have more PV concentration than any utility in the U.S.," said David Bissell, KIUC president and CEO.

$68 million was obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service for the project, reallocated from funds previously approved to construct a 10-MW combustion turbine generator often referred to as Gen X or CT2.

"The benefits are significant," said Phil Tacbian, KIUC board chairman. "By using the RUS-approved funds for solar development, the cooperative effectively shelves the combustion turbine plant and moves closer to giving our members the clean, renewable energy they have asked for."

In a release from HCDC, Brad Rockwell, KIUC project manager, described the kick-off meeting as an important starting point "to ensure all of us are working toward common goals, and included the environmental assessment firm, the contractor REC Solar and, of course our KIUC-HCDC team."

Next on the agenda for the project is to conduct an environmental assessment; assemble a cultural assessment team knowledgeable of the Anahola area in place; and map out the plans for a job fair and employment outreach in the months ahead.

Source: REC Solar
Image Source: Brookhaven National Laboratory

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Energy-Efficient Ant-Snake Robots to the Rescue!

Posted: 22 Jan 2012 05:19 PM PST

Georgia Tech studies ants and snakes for energy efficient robotsResearchers from Georgia Tech University are working along two parallel tracks to develop energy-efficient robots based on the teamwork of ants and the movement of snakes. Envisioned for use in developing search-and-rescue robots, the technology could also be adapted to swell the ranks of robots with green jobs, for example in designing and fabricating solar cells, performing environmental monitoring or remediation, or subbing in for humans to perform potentially dangerous work such as wind turbine maintenance.

Snakes, Robots and Energy Efficiency

Robotic snakes are becoming fairly common, at least in the development stages, for use in search and rescue operations as well as surveillance and reconnaissance, and even in art. What they all have in common is a long, snake-like appearance.

The Georgia Tech team, headed by professor David Hu, is focused less on looks and more on energy. The team’s goal is to translate the highly efficient movement of snakes into mechanical energy efficiency. Georgia Tech writer Jason Maderer explains:

"The machine must be flexible enough to move over uneven surfaces, yet not so big that it's restricted from tight spaces. It might also be required to climb slopes of varying inclines. Existing robots can do many of these things, but the majority require large amounts of energy and are prone to overheating."

Energy Efficiency and Rectilinear Motion

So far, the research – which involves studying 20 different kinds of snakes – has resulted in Scalybot 2, a two-link, all-terrain "snake" that looks absolutely nothing at all like a snake. Scalybot 2 was developed by Georgia Tech Ph.D. candidate Hamid Marvi, who focused specifically on the rectilinear motion of snakes. In contrast to lateral wiggling movements, a snake in rectilinear motion travels in a fairly straight line by lifting its scales in a wave-like sequence and literally pulling itself forward.

Robots and Teamwork

As for the ants, the team has been studying the mechanics of fire ant swarms. They cannot swim individually, but a swarm will form a ball that floats easily on water. In combination with robots like Scalybot 2, the result could be swarms of small robots that can navigate tricky terrain and can autonomously assemble into larger formations to overcome obstacles that are beyond the capabilities of an individual.

The Obama Administration and Advanced Robotics

The Georgia Tech research is supported with the help of a grant from the National Science Foundation. Though not explicitly leading to the development of a single ant-snake robot, the overall project is designed to break down biological systems of limbless propulsion into rational, mechanical principles that could be applied universally to robot design.

This dovetails with the robotics component of President Obama's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, which launched last year. The partnership is designed to promote next-generation robotics research with a particular focus on cooperative robotics, leading to "co-robots" that interact closely with humans.

After the Internet, What Next?

In tandem with the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, the National Science Foundation has also teamed up with other federal agencies such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to form the National Robotics Initiative.

It may be a while before a real-life R2-D2 or C-3PO springs off the drawing board, but the National Robotics Initiative is already gearing up for the potential sea change that will come about when co-robots become an everyday part of the modern landscape, similar to the one we've been undergoing with the Internet and microprocessor technologies. The initiative includes an important educational component designed to "gain a better understanding of the long term social, behavioral and economic implications of co-robots across all areas of human activity."

Image: Snake. License Attribution Some rights reserved by benet2006.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

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Dumping Solar: CASM’s Case Against Chinese Subsidies & Manufacturers, Pt. III

Posted: 22 Jan 2012 01:55 PM PST

John Singer Sargent's Apollo in His Chariot with the Hours

The focus of Part II of this series was to begin to establish what, exactly, is legal and what’s illegal when it comes to subsidies and manufacturing in the context of international trade law and CASM’s international trade petitions against China. That continues here in Part III, in which some of the key evidence amassed by CASM, SolarWorld Industries America, and its legal representatives at Wiley, Rein LLP are presented.

Contrasting US, China Silicon Solar PV Subsidies

As Wiley, Rein’s Brightbill pointed out, US solar energy subsidies are focused on stimulating demand for solar energy systems; in large part, they provide incentives for ‘consumers’ to invest in buying and having them installed. That doesn’t provide any advantage to domestic manufacturers of solar energy systems vis-a-vis their overseas competitors. Whether the silicon-solar-PV panel being installed was made by a US or Chinese manufacturer, or a manufacturer in another country, doesn’t factor into such subsidies; hence, no unfair advantage is afforded to domestic manufacturers.

China’s subsidies, in contrast, are overwhelmingly directed at stimulating China’s domestic manufacturers and the manufacturing of silicon-solar-PV cells and panels. Furthermore, CASM asserts in its trade petitions, China’s subsidizing the export of silicon-solar-PV panels to the harm of US industry and businesses. Such subsidies are expressly forbidden by WTO rules and associated member country legislation.

Brightbill referred to the following Department of Energy chart, which illustrates the comparative size of China and US solar subsidies. Intuitively, the larger a country’s subsidies are in relation to another’s, the greater advantage is being conferred on market participants in those countries with the larger subsidy programs. However, again, it’s important to note that it’s the nature of the domestic subsidies that is the essential determinant as to whether or not any subsidy results in harm to counterparts in another WTO member nation.

Any Harm Done?

In order for the ITC and Commerce Dept. to rule in CASM’s favor, the petitioners have to show that that US manufacturers have been harmed as a result of China’s subsidies. The huge difference in comparative size of the US and China’s respective subsidies for silicon solar PV is a reliable indicator that foreign imports may be being dumped in the US market, with resultant harm to US manufacturers. The crux of proving this critical point of their anti-dumping and countervailing duty petitions relies on additional evidence, however.

In support of CASM’s claim that China’s subsidies to manufacturers have harmed — and continue to harm — their US counterparts, Brightbill noted that Chinese exports to the US have shot up 350% from 2008 to year-end 2010. By 2010, Chinese silicon solar PV manufacturers had captured 48% of both the US and global markets, as is illustrated in the graphic below, courtesy of the Washington Post.

Graph courtesy Washington Post

Updating this further, Chinese import growth accelerated significantly in 2011. US imports of Chinese silicon solar PV in the first eight months of 2011 exceeded exports from all of 2010 by 157%. There were instances in 2011 where single-month import totals exceeded those for all of 2010, Brightbill noted.

Moreover, contrary to what might be expected, Chinese manufacturers have stepped up their imports since CASM filed its petitions, Brightbill continued. That’s lead Wiley, Rein to request that any punitive countervailing duties the ITC and Commerce Dept. may levy against Chinese imports be assessed retroactively, back six months to around mid-November 2011.

US Solar Industry Bankruptcies

Another clear indication that damage is being done by Chinese manufacturers dumping product in the US and China’s subsidy program is the growing list of domestic manufacturers that have gone bankrupt or are now operating at substantial losses, Brightbill continued. Though there are at least several more, including Michigan’s Energy Conversion Devices, I’ll mention just two.

A good place to start is Solyndra, the developer of a once-promising concentrated PV technology that declared bankruptcy on Aug. 31, 2011. Infamously, solar and clean-energy opponents here in the US latched on to Solyndra’s bankruptcy filing, attempting to scandalize the Obama administration with allegations that the White House abused and overstepped its authority in the granting of $535 million DOE loan guarantee to the company.

The driving force behind CASM and the ITC and Commerce Dept.’s anti-dumping and CVD petitions, SolarWorld Industries America and its parent company, Germany’s SolarWorld AG, is also hurting as a result of the sharp, steep drop in silicon solar PV prices brought about by a tsunami of cheap, Chinese imports.

SolarWorld Industries America closed down its manufacturing facility in Camarillo, California, but the company is hanging on and doing it’s best to keep a newly built, state-of-the-art, $500-million facility in Hillsoboro, Oregon open, according to Brightbill. This is a facility, he noted, that was built without the benefit of a single dollar in US federal government subsidies.

Additional Evidence: Huge Spike in Imports, Plummeting Prices

There are additional indications that Chinese manufacturers are dumping silicon solar PV panels in the US, and that US manufacturers are being damaged as a result. That can be found in the precipitous and extraordinary price drop of silicon-solar-PV panels — around 50% — that has occurred in just the past year, Brightbill pointed out.

The massive flood of cheap, Chinese, silicon-solar-PV panels, and an extraordinarily sharp, steep price drop is no coincidence, CASM and supporters assert. Nor has it been the result of market-driven demand. It’s the result of China’s centrally planned, coordinated, and controlled subsidy program, subsidies that violate international trade law, they say, a claim that the US ITC and Commerce Dept. are now investigating.

Additional evidence CASM has amassed in support of its international trade petitions will be presented in Part IV of this series. Also to be explored is the broader, longer term economic and social ramifications of China’s subsidy program, particularly as it relates to the future of US manufacturing, economic development, and job creation.

To be continued shortly…

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Dumping Solar: CASM’s Case Against Chinese Manufacturers & Subsidies, Pt. II

Posted: 22 Jan 2012 01:26 PM PST

John Singer Sargent's Apollo in His Chariot with the Hours

Trade tensions with China continue to escalate, and the renewable energy sector is a focal point. On Jan. 20, the Commerce Dept. announced that it’s opening an investigation into claims made by the US-based Wind Tower Trade Coalition, a group of four manufacturers, that Chinese utility-scale wind tower manufacturers operating in both China and Vietnam are benefiting from illegal Chinese government subsidies and dumping their products in the US to the harm of US industry and businesses.

The Commerce Dept.’s findings could result in the levying of countervailing duties on Chinese silicon solar PV imports, marking the second international trade investigation of Chinese government subsidy programs and the dumping of Chinese products in US markets launched by US international trade authorities in the past few months.

On Dec. 20, 2011, the US International Trade Commission (ITC) issued a preliminary ruling in favor of anti-dumping and countervailing duty petitions against Chinese silicon solar photovoltaic (PV) cell and panel manufacturers and the Chinese government that was filed by the Coalition for Solar Manufacturing (CASM), a US trade group lead by SolarWorld Industries America. By CASM’s calculations, Chinese dumping and subsidies have caused some $1 billion in damage to US silicon solar PV manufactures, damage that would be redressed by the imposition of countervailing duties on Chinese imports.

Based on an interview with the lead attorney for SolarWorld in the CASM case, Wiley, Rein’s Tim Brightbill, Part I of this series established the background and foundation for exploring and better understanding the issues associated with CASM’s trade dispute and its filing of anti-dumping and countervailing trade petitions.

This issue begs the question, “Just what is legal and what is illegal when it comes government subsidies and selling prices within the sphere of international trade and manufacturing?” That’s the main topic here in Parts II and III of this series.

Subsidies, Schmubsidies — Every Government Subsidizes

The US market for solar energy continues to exhibit remarkable growth, especially when considered in light of the persistent economic and political headwinds of recent years. A record 449 megawatts (MW) of new solar electric power capacity was installed in the US in this year’s third quarter (3Q). More solar electric power capacity came online in 3Q 2011 than in all of 2009, and year-over-year growth is expected is expected to be higher yet in Q4, according to a mid-December of 2011 report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Subsidies have been vital to the growth and development of renewable energy markets and industry in countries worldwide, including here in the US. They also continue to benefit well-established businesses and sectors of the economy, such as oil, gas, coal, and agriculture. And, though they’re a persistent bugaboo for renewable energy industry participants and political proponents, they are not illegal in the eyes of international trade law, necessarily.

Opponents, detractors and skeptics of renewable energy continue to publicly hammer away on the issue, asserting that the need for subsidies shows that renewable energy is impractical and uneconomic. As has been pointed out in numerous studies, articles and blog posts (including here on Clean Technica), this conveniently ignores the fact that the US energy industry is highly regulated in the first place, and that oil, gas, nuclear, and coal industry subsidies are many times the size of those that have been granted across the entire renewable energy sector.

Still, if the US — as well as Germany, the UK, Spain, Italy, Japan, and a growing number of other governments around the world — are employing subsidies to stimulate development and adoption of renewable energy, why should China be penalized for it? Finding the answer requires delving into the obscure realm of international trade laws and agreements.

The answer turns on two aspects of subsidy programs: their nature and their magnitude. A third, to do with political economy, might also be considered significant: Who owns, or effectively controls, the factors of production — land, labor, resources — within a given system of government?

International Trade and Subsidies: What’s Legal, What’s Illegal?

Every organized system has rules governing what behaviors are considered acceptable and unacceptable. As commercial trade and industry have become increasingly globalized, multinational institutions have sprung up to establish rules governing what’s fair and what’s unfair, what’s legal and illegal, along with some means of enforcing compliance. Preeminent among them is the World Trade Organization, or WTO.

As the lead lawyer for SolarWorld Industries America in CASM’s international trade petitions against China, Wiley, Rein’s Tim Brightbill explained that WTO agreements are akin to international treaties. Individual governments that sign on to WTO treaties agree to enact domestic laws in compliance with them. When private sector businesses find evidence that these laws are being broken, they have legal recourse to domestic institutions — the International Trade Commission and Commerce Dept. here in the US — to enforce them and remedy the situation.

Subsidies, per se, aren’t illegal in the eyes of the WTO, member nations have agreed, but not all subsidies are created equal. Moreover, some types of subsidies are expressly illegal.

Government subsidies that result in damages to markets, industry, and businesses in other WTO member countries are illegal. This is a key point in understanding what distinguishes fair and unfair trade practices under international trade law. The nature of US solar energy subsidies as compared to China’s offer an excellent illustration.

Carry on to Part III

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