Saturday, February 25, 2012

Latest from: CleanTechnica

Latest from: CleanTechnica

Link to CleanTechnica

Tobacco Goes from Dark Side Villain to Biofuel Hero

Posted: 25 Feb 2012 06:45 AM PST

Berkeley lab develops biofuel from tobaccoTobacco is about to take center stage as a renewable biofuel crop if new research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory pans out. That would be quite a turnaround for tobacco, which according to the Centers for Disease Control is responsible for one in every five deaths in the U.S. each year. But hey, if even Darth Vader is capable of redemption, maybe there is hope for tobacco after all.

The Berkeley biofuel breakthrough

Microbial fermentation is a promising new area of research in the field of biofuels, but the Berkeley team is aiming even higher. Biochemist Christer Jansson explains that the Berkeley team’s goal is to skip a few steps by converting the hydrocarbon molecules from tobacco directly into a fuel that is practically ready to use as a drop-in substitute for petroleum fuels:

"We want to bypass downstream processes like fermentation and produce fuels directly in the crop," says Jansson. "After the biomass is crushed, we could extract the hydrocarbon molecules, and crack them into shorter molecules, creating gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel."

Super-tobacco for biofuel

In order for the process to be cost-effective, the team needs to come up with a strain of tobacco that is highly efficient at harvesting sunlight and converting carbon dioxide to hydrocarbon molecules. They are looking to enhance tobacco with genes from cyanobacteria, a microbe that already has a solid reputation as an energy harvester in the alternative fuels field.

More biofuel research on the tobacco bandwagon

Tobacco has attracted a fair amount of attention of its own among biofuel researchers. The University of Maryland is looking into a tobacco-hosted virus for fuel cells and batteries, for example. Another angle of investigation comes from the University of Central Florida where researcher Henry Daniell is working on a tobacco enzyme to help convert woody biomass to ethanol. The goal is to develop a process that would work on a wide variety of feedstocks, enabling refineries to take advantage of local resources such as orange crop waste in Florida.

A place in the sun for tobacco biofuel

As a non-food biofuel crop, tobacco fits in nicely with President Obama’s national biofuel initiative announced last summer, which involves partnering the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Navy, and the Department of Energy in a push to get more non-food biofuel crops into production.

Tobacco also has a potential advantage over other non-food biofuel crops like miscanthus, switchgrass and camelina. Since a fairly large amount of land is already dedicated to tobacco farming, there would be no need to put new land into production to grow tobacco for biofuel. Though the aforementioned crops are hardy and can be grown on lands not fit for food crops, the farming of new (albeit marginal) land involves issues that need to be addressed including habitat loss, soil loss, and transportation infrastructure.

As far as agricultural land use goes there would be no loss of existing acreage for food production, if mass quantities of tobacco were diverted from the drying shed to the biofuel refinery. Of course, the price of cigarettes would probably skyrocket as a result of diminished domestic supply, but at least that would give the folks at the Centers for Disease Control something to smile about.

Image: Cigarette. License Attribution Some rights reserved by Fried Dough.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

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SolarCity & Shea Homes Bring You the “No Electricity Bill” Home

Posted: 24 Feb 2012 06:10 PM PST

shea homes trilogy home orlando

Net-zero homes and production homes that come with solar panels are becoming more and more common. Now, SolarCity, one of the nation’s leading solar providers, and Shea Homes, one of the largest prvaitely-held homebuilders in the U.S., are the latest to team up and offer a “no electricity bill” home.

“No Electricity Bill” Solar Homes

The homes are to be available “in all Shea Homes Active Lifestyle® and Trilogy® communities in Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada and Washington,” SolarCity reports.

“Branded as SheaXero the no electric bill home™, the partnership with SolarCity will make net-zero the standard offering at all ten of Shea's Active Lifestyle and Trilogy Communities. SheaXero homes aim to achieve net-zero electric bills by generating as much electricity as they consume1 through a blend of energy-efficient features and a solar power system that is included in the home's purchase price.”

SolarCity Continues Growth in Midst of Lawsuit

SolarCity is the top residential solar installer in the U.S., holding 14% of the market share in Q1-Q3 of 2011.

“Shea's partnership with SolarCity is expected to be one of the largest net-zero electric home projects in the U.S. when completed. The partnership allows SolarCity to provide solar services to homeowners in Florida and Nevada for the first time.”

With homeowners paying thousands of dollars a year in energy costs, you know that a “no electricity bill” home is an attractive buy. I know I’d buy one if I had the opportunity.

KB Home, a large, national home builder, recently started offering net-zero homes in California, Las Vegas, and elsewhere. KB Home, however, has teamed up with SunPower to offer its net-zero homes. SunPower, one of the largest solar companies in the world, recently sued SolarCity over ex-employees taking confidential data from the company before moving to SolarCity.

Trilogy Home via Shea Homes

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Imagine Electricity-Generating Clothes,… but Without Solar Panels on Them

Posted: 24 Feb 2012 05:30 PM PST

Corey Hewitt Holding Power Felt Material

Researchers from Wake Forest’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials announced this week that they have manufactured a material that can generate electricity using your body heat.

The material, Power Felt, uses carbon nanotubes (it is, after all, a nanotechnology research institution), which have, in the recent past, been used to demonstrate some of the most amazing technologies ever to exist. One such technology is graphene transistors, which are the fastest in the world, from IBM. But, back to Power Felt….

The Technology: Power Felt

Power Felt is a thermoelectric material, meaning that it uses a temperature difference between both of its sides to generate electricity. Thermoelectric materials also generate heat when supplied with electricity.

Thermoelectric devices are usually rigid, brittle (although flexible versions have been invented recently), and are composed of bismuth telluride. But Power Felt avoids that drawback.

“Comprised of tiny carbon nanotubes locked up in flexible plastic fibers and made to feel like fabric, Power Felt uses temperature differences – room temperature versus body temperature, for instance – to create a charge,” Katie Neal of Wake Forest University writes.

All generators that produce electricity using heat are very inefficient. Despite this poor efficiency, however, heat is abundant almost everywhere and is generated by all appliances (even the human body), making thermoelectric generators, which contain no moving parts and can last hundreds of thousands of hours, well worth developing. Or, at the least, they deserve further research and development.

If an energy source is abundant and can cost as little as nothing, such as the waste heat produced by engines, solar energy, or wind energy, then even a low efficiency may be practical.

"We waste a lot of energy in the form of heat. For example, recapturing a car's energy waste could help improve fuel mileage and power the radio, air conditioning or navigation system," Corey Hewitt, a PhD student working on the technology, says. "Generally thermoelectrics are an underdeveloped technology for harvesting energy, yet there is so much opportunity."

How Power Felt Can be Used

“Since these fabrics have the potential to be cheaper, lighter, and more easily processed than the commonly used thermoelectric bismuth telluride, the overall performance of the fabric shows promise as a realistic alternative in a number of applications such as portable lightweight electronics,” the researchers noted in the research paper.

Potential applications of the Power Felt technology include charging mp3 players, cell phones, and powering medical monitoring equipment. It would be great if it could power electronic implants too, but that depends on how the body’s immune system reacts to it.

"Imagine it in an emergency kit, wrapped around a flashlight, powering a weather radio, charging a prepaid cell phone," says David Carroll, director of the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials and head of the team leading this research.

Clearly, there are many potential applications.

Wake Forest may move to have Power Felt developed commercially and is currently in talks with investors about this.

The research has just been published in Nano Letters, a leading journal in nanotechnology, if you’d like to learn more.

Photo Source: Wake Forest University

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Shooting with Blanks at the OK Corral

Posted: 24 Feb 2012 05:01 PM PST

shooting blanks

by David Doniger of the NRDC

Next week a rogues' gallery of science-denying industry associations, right-wing advocacy groups, Tea Party backers, and ultra-conservative elected officials get their day in court – two days, actually – to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency's "endangerment finding" and its other actions under the Clean Air Act to start curbing the carbon pollution that drives dangerous climate change.

A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Washington (Chief Judge David Sentelle, Judge David Tatel, and Judge Judith Rogers) will hear oral arguments on February 28th and 29th in a collection of cases seeking to overturn EPA's scientific finding, its landmark clean car standards, and its first steps to cut the emissions of big new industrial polluters.

The challengers have come gunning for EPA, but they are just shooting with blanks.

EPA took these actions in response to the Supreme Court's landmark 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA.  There the High Court held that it's EPA's job under the Clean Air Act to protect us from dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our health and drives our increasingly extreme weather.  The Court unanimously reaffirmed Massachusetts last year in a second case, American Electric Power v. Connecticutconcerning power plants.

So here's a rundown on the coming shoot-out.

Who are these guys?

Dozens of lawsuits have been joined together under the name Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA.  A partial list of the petitioners speaks volumes:

  • Coal companies and trade associations, including the National Mining Association, Peabody Energy, and Arch Coal (new owner of the former Massey Energy)
  • Coal-burning utilities, including Southern Company and American Electric Power operating through their litigation arm, the Utility Air Regulatory Group
  • Oil companies, through the American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the Western States Petroleum Association
  • Steel, cement, and other trade groups, including the American Iron and Steel Institute, the Portland Cement Association, and the National Association of Homebuilders 
  • Agribusiness interests, such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation
  • Right-wing climate science deniers including the Koch-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute and FreedomWorks Foundation
  • Tea-party politicians, including Texas Governor Rick Perry, Virginia Attorney-General Ken Cuccinelli, and a dozen Republican members of Congress such as Michelle Bachmann and Joe Barton

NRDC has joined with other environmental organizations and state and local governments that have intervened to help defend EPA.

Do they have a case?

The raft of lawsuits is, first and foremost, part of a broader political attack on climate science and EPA that has been building since the Supreme Court's 2007 ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA.  The Court held in that case that when Congress passed the Clean Air Act it gave EPA the responsibility to act when science shows that new pollutants endanger our health or welfare.  Carbon dioxide, the Court held, is an air pollutant just like any other substance emitted into the air from our cars or factories.  Thus, it was EPA's job to make a science-based determination whether carbon pollution is dangerous, and to set emission limits if the answer is "yes."

Flush with support from the same industries and ideological conservatives that have brought these cases, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has repeatedly voted to overturn the Supreme Court's decision, repeal EPA's authority over carbon pollution, and undo the endangerment finding and follow-on actions.  (For a list of the House's many climate change votes, go here and click on the links for "search by topic" and "climate change".)  The president promised to veto these measures, and the Democratic-led Senate voted them down.

While there are still loud voices of denial, the public strongly backs EPA.  And while the usual suspects in the House of Representatives can still be counted on to attack EPA, their legislation is unlikely to make it through the full Congress.

As lawsuits themselves, these cases aren't much of a threat.  In late 2011, the D.C. Circuit and the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit denied three separate requests for a "stay" (the equivalent of a preliminary injunction).  The D.C. Circuit found that the challengers had failed even to show that they had been harmed:  "Specifically, with regard to each of the challenged rules, petitioners have not shown that the harms they allege are certain, rather than speculative, or that the alleged harms will directly result from the actions which the movants seek to enjoin."

So now, after a year of further briefing, the cases have arrived at their final stop.  Here's the lowdown on each one.

The "endangerment" finding

You would be hard pressed to find an independent legal expert who thinks the challenge to EPA's science-based endangerment finding has a ghost of a chance.  EPA is plainly following the Clean Air Act and the Supreme Court's decision in Massachusetts v. EPA.  You could not ask for a stronger record to back EPA's decision, or a more transparent and thorough process.

The endangerment finding stands atop an enormous, multi-layered pyramid of peer-reviewed scientific research and assessment developed over decades.  At the base of the pyramid are tens of thousands of scientific publications, each one peer-reviewed before acceptance in a scientific journal.

This immense body of climate change research was then synthesized in multiple, independent scientific assessments.  The three main assessments were performed by the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Global Climate Research Program, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.  They involved thousands of scientists trained in pertinent fields.  Each assessment was subject to rigorous peer-review.

On this base, EPA prepared a detailed summary of these peer-reviewed assessments and the underlying peer-reviewed scientific literature.  EPA then subjected its own summary to review by a dozen top federal climate science experts – not once, not twice, but three times.  The final endangerment finding stands at the very top of the pyramid.

In this thorough scientific process, no alternative theory – from sunspots, to clouds, to cosmic rays – has gone uninvestigated.  And every wild charge of scientific fraud – aka, Climate-gate – has been examined and refuted.  The challengers' briefs throw some of this spaghetti at the wall once more, but none of it will stick.  The Massachusetts decision and the D.C. Circuit's own precedents will lead it to uphold EPA's endangerment finding.

The clean car standards

In May 2009, President Obama announced the first of three landmark agreements with the automobile industry, auto workers, states, and environmental organizations to set combined carbon pollution and fuel economy standards under the Clean Air Act and the Energy Independence and Security Act.  The standards cover model years 2012-16 and, by the fifth year, will cut carbon pollution by 30 percent while saving consumers up to $3,000 over the life of the car.  Subsequent agreements have covered heavy trucks and established a second round of money-saving standards for cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickups, doubling miles per gallon and cutting carbon pollution in half by 2025.

The lawsuits next week challenge the first set of clean car standards, claiming the administration should not have set Clean Air Act standards at all and should have relied on the fuel economy standards alone.  In that way, the challengers argue, EPA could have avoided triggering pollution limits for new industrial facilities (see below).  EPA – joined by both the auto industry and the environmental intervenors – shows that its clean air standards actually result in much greater clean-up and larger consumer savings than the fuel economy standards alone.  Further, the Supreme Court already ruled inMassachusetts that the fuel economy law does not trump the Clean Air Act, which requires EPA to set emission standards if carbon pollution is dangerous.

So this case is going nowhere either.

Pollution Limits for New Power Plants and Factories

While the ideological challengers want to tear EPA's entire house down, the goal of the slightly less radical industry litigants is to block requirements for big new or expanded industrial facilities to obtain permits before construction showing that they will use the best available control technology (BACT).

The pre-construction permit requirement – known as "Prevention of Significant Deterioration" or "New Source Review" – is 35 years old, dating from the 1977 Clean Air Act amendments.  The law states that each new or modified source that emits large amounts of pollution needs a permit with limits reflecting BACT for each regulated pollutant.  Since 1977, these permit requirements have extended automatically to new pollutants that become subject to health and safety standards under other parts of the Act.

The regulation actually under review is called the "Tailoring Rule," because in it EPA responded to one anomaly in the operation of the permit requirements.  Those requirements nominally apply to each new source that emits at least 250 tons per year of a regulated pollutant.  The committee reports on the 1977 legislation show that Congress chose this amount to distinguish between big sources and small ones.  Big industrial sources, Congress determined, could and should bear the cost of the permit review and using state-of-the-art pollution controls.  Carbon dioxide, however, is emitted in much larger amounts than any other pollutant.  EPA found that if the 250-ton cut-off were applied to carbon pollution, it would sweep in much smaller sources than the industrial projects Congress intended to be covered by permitting, and it would overload permitting agencies with thousands more applications  than they could handle.

So EPA "tailored" the permit requirements by devising higher cut-offs to use for carbon pollution sources, at least for an initial period.  At present, a new source needs a PSD permit for carbon dioxide only if it emits at least 100,000 tons per year; an expanded source needs a permit if its annual CO2 emissions will rise by at least 75,000 tons.  At those levels, the permit requirements capture the sources responsible for an estimated 86 percent of all industrial carbon emissions increases.  Contrary to the challengers' claims that millions of tiny industrial, commercial, and even residential facilities will be drawn into the program, the permit requirements remain focused on a few hundred to a few thousand projects at power plants and other really big industrial sources.

The challengers have three big obstacles to overcome.  First, they lack "standing."  In order to challenge government action, you have to show that you, or your members, arehurt by that action, and would be helped by the court's blocking that action.  By raising the cut-offs from 250 tons to 75,000 or 100,000 tons, all EPA has done is help industry and state permitting agencies by narrowing the coverage of the permit requirements.  They would be hurt, not helped, if their lawsuit succeeded in striking down the change from 250 tons to the higher amounts.

Second, to the extent they are complaining that EPA's long-standing regulations violate the Clean Air Act by applying the permit requirements to new sources emitting all regulated pollutants, their suit is more than 30 years too late.  The Clean Air Act requires petitioners to sue over a regulation within 60 days after it is announced.  In fact, industry groups did challenge that specific regulation in 1978 and lost, in case called Alabama Power v. Costle.  There are special circumstances permitting suits after that 60-day deadline, but they are not present here.  In short, it's way too late to challenge these regulations.

Finally, if the court reaches the merits, it will find that those 30-year-old regulations merely follow the requirements of the Clean Air Act itself.  As this court found in Alabama Power, the law itself provides that the permit requirements apply to new and modified sources emitting each regulated pollutant.

What happens next?

Decisions in these cases are likely by summer.  If the appeals court upholds EPA, it's likely that at least some of the challengers will ask the Supreme Court for review.  It's unlikely the High Court will be interested.  As I noted, the Court unanimously affirmed its 2007 Massachusetts decision just last June, holding in American Electric Power that it's EPA's responsibility to address power plant carbon pollution, and specifically taking note of EPA's tailoring rule.  The Court is not likely to want to review the appeals court's decisions on steps that merely implement its prior holdings.

Hopefully, EPA will soon take further actions to protect us from dangerous carbon pollution.  After years of delay, EPA is on the verge of issuing the first national limits on carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants to be built over the next decade.  Then the agency needs to move on to existing power plants, which put a massive 2.3 billion tons of CO2 into our air each year.  On top of the endangerment determination and the clean car standards, those would be big achievements indeed.

David Doniger is the policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Climate and Clean Air Program, and its chief global warming lawyer. Doniger rejoined NRDC in March 2001 after serving for eight years in the Clinton administration, where he was director of climate change policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and, before that, counsel to the head of the EPA’s clean air program. Doniger also served for a year at the Council on Environmental Quality. This is his second stint at NRDC — he first started there in 1978 and worked on clean air issues for the following 14 years, helping to win the Montreal Protocol to stop depletion of the ozone layer and the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.  Now NRDC’s working to cut the pollution that causes global warming here at home, and to reach agreement on global emission cuts.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard.

Cowboy & cowgirl couple via shutterstock

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Bricked Tesla Roadsters Explained

Posted: 24 Feb 2012 01:06 PM PST

I guess there’s a bit of a pseudo-scandal right now regarding ‘bricked’ Tesla Roadsters (yes, another one). Well, actually, it’s mostly about one Tesla Roadster. For some explanation and history on this story/issue, here’s a Gas2 repost by Chris DeMorro:

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Eco-Conscious Porsche Sports Cars (May Be) Coming Soon

Posted: 24 Feb 2012 12:59 PM PST

Porsche is one of the last automakers I’d expect to see start worrying about fuel efficiency and carbon dioxide emissions; after all, their customers typically just want something loud that goes really, really fast (in straight lines and around corners). Imagine my (pleased) surprise when I learned they were actually looking at the greener side of building cars.

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Pay-As-You-Go Solar Power for Customers Off the Grid in World’s Youngest Country

Posted: 24 Feb 2012 12:50 PM PST

819 Pay As You Go Solar

UK start-up Eight19 is trying to make a name for itself installing pay-as-you-go solar systems across Africa. Their first venture was in Kenya, and their latest is in the world's youngest nation of South Sudan.

Eight Minutes, Nineteen Seconds

Eight19 is so named because light from the sun takes 8 minutes, 19 seconds to reach the Earth. The Cambridge-based solar power company has stated its goal as bringing electricity to the 1.7 billion people on the planet living off the grid (as in, no access, not the ones who leave the grid on purpose), and that electricity will be from 100% renewable sources. An investment fund launched last month is expected to expand the roll-out of their primary product, IndiGo.

Chief Executive Simon Bransfield Garth celebrated the company's successes so far, as reported by Business Green:

“The positive response and widespread interest in IndiGo since we launched it in Kenya six months ago has been fantastic and is fuelling our expansion. We are working hard to deploy our units fast enough to keep up with the demand to further stimulate economic development in the world’s youngest country.”

Six Months

Eight19 hopes to install 1,000 of their IndiGo systems in the super-new nation of South Sudan (which declared itself a country and made it stick only last July). The IndiGo system includes a battery, a solar panel, lights, and a phone charging device. Users pay for the equipment each week using scratchcards, which they validate through text messages.

The IndiGo system replaces kerosene lamps, at what Eight19 claims is half the cost (not to mention much cleaner). The solar panel can be used to power lights (those in the kit or others), internet connections, and consumer electronics. Thomas Bell, South Sudan director of projects at WorldVenture, embraced the introduction of small localized solar arrays:

“Pay-as-you-go solar is a grass root solution, which is particularly important in South Sudan, where there is a complete lack of infrastructure. IndiGo has the potential to transform the energy market by enabling local energy production meaning that many people can access power without having to wait for the grid.”

Comments or questions? Feel free to let us know below.

Source: Business Green | Image: Eight19

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