Long-banned chemical continues to kill

Fifty-three years after Rachel Carson, in her book Silent Spring, first raised concerns about the safety of the pesticide DDT, the chemical once again is in the news.

Public health researchers in California have published findings that connect maternal exposure to DDT during pregnancy to breast cancer—not in the exposed mothers but rather, 40 or 50 years later, in offspring exposed in utero. The article was published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. In it, the authors looked at the rates of breast cancer in a group of 9,300 women born between 1959 and 1967. Of these, 118 developed breast cancer…

The authors used a well-established study approach called case-control: the 118 daughters with breast cancer (cases) were paired with 354 breast cancer-free daughters born at the same time (controls) and standard clinical variables extracted from each group. In this way, variables like race, maternal weight, lipid profiles, and breast-feeding history could be eliminated as likely causes of any difference in breast cancer rates.

By this analysis, the mothers with high rates of detectable DDT during pregnancy produced daughters who, 50+ years on, had three or four times more breast cancer than daughters of Moms with substantially lower DDT levels. A potentially very big deal for sure.

There is a large and important caveat in the analysis however. The investigators also examined the frequency of breast cancer in mothers, comparing the rate between cases and controls. Here, there was a large and very strong tilt: About 20 percent of daughters with breast cancer had a mom with the disease; in the controls, only 4 percent had a mother with breast cancer. Thus, some and perhaps most of the risk of breast cancer might be explained not by DDT exposure but genetic predisposition.

Which does not exclude DDT as an amplifying effect on genetic risk—but it does deflate some of the headline grabbing excitement the article already has claimed.

The Daily Beast further classifies divergent opinions of the results into Right vs Left instead of the fact that conservative denial is almost wholly grounded in ideology. The counterpoint being individuals and groups dedicated to science and scientific method for progress – a truly conservative style.

That the Daily Beast sees only the conflict between political entities is a reflection of their own tidy journalistic ideology. Historically, properly termed sophistry – that truth lies only safely between opposing contradictions.

Coal-fired electricity being killed in the US — the war on coal is being won


This photo is from Sweden – from a worldwide series on coal

The war on coal is not just political rhetoric, or a paranoid fantasy concocted by rapacious polluters. It’s real and it’s relentless. Over the past five years, it has killed a coal-fired power plant every 10 days. It has quietly transformed the US electric grid and the global climate debate.

The industry and its supporters use “war on coal” as shorthand for a ferocious assault by a hostile White House, but the real war on coal is not primarily an Obama war, or even a Washington war. It’s a guerrilla war. The front lines are not at the Environmental Protection Agency or the Supreme Court. If you want to see how the fossil fuel that once powered most of the country is being battered by enemy forces, you have to watch state and local hearings where utility commissions and other obscure governing bodies debate individual coal plants. You probably won’t find much drama. You’ll definitely find lawyers from the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the boots on the ground in the war on coal.

Beyond Coal is the most extensive, expensive and effective campaign in the Club’s 123-year history, and maybe the history of the environmental movement. It’s gone largely unnoticed amid the furor over the Keystone pipeline and President Barack Obama’s efforts to regulate carbon, but it’s helped retire more than one third of America’s coal plants since its launch in 2010, one dull hearing at a time. With a vast war chest donated by Michael Bloomberg, unlikely allies from the business world, and a strategy that relies more on economics than ecology, its team of nearly 200 litigators and organizers has won battles in the Midwestern and Appalachian coal belts, in the reddest of red states, in almost every state that burns coal…

Coal still helps keep our lights on, generating nearly 40 percent of US power. But it generated more than 50 percent just over a decade ago, and the big question now is how rapidly its decline will continue. Almost every watt of new generating capacity is coming from natural gas, wind or solar; the coal industry now employs fewer workers than the solar industry, which barely existed in 2010. Utilities no longer even bother to propose new coal plants to replace the old ones they retire. Coal industry stocks are tanking, and analysts are predicting a new wave of coal bankruptcies…

This is a big deal, because coal is America’s top source of greenhouse gases, and coal retirements are the main reason US carbon emissions have declined 10 percent in a decade. Coal is also America’s top source of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other toxic air pollutants, so fewer coal plants also means less asthma and lung disease — not to mention fewer coal-ash spills and coal-mining disasters. The shift toward cleaner-burning gas and zero-emissions renewables is the most important change in our electricity mix in decades, and while Obama has been an ally in the war on coal — not always as aggressive an ally as the industry claims — the Sierra Club is in the trenches. The US had 523 coal-fired power plants when Beyond Coal began targeting them; just last week, it celebrated the 190th retirement of its campaign in Asheville, N.C., culminating a three-year fight that had been featured in the climate documentary “Years of Living Dangerously.”

RTFA. Long, detailed, about as close to neutral as Politico ever gets. You won’t find any greedy, corporate Republicans; but, they shy away from defining the Sierra Club as the radical organization the Koch Bros think it is.

Recognition of success [and continuing] you’ll rarely see inside the Beltway.

New NatGas power plant will integrate renewable energy power plants into grid

GE just announced the largest debt financing this year for a thermal power plant in the US. Located in Riverside County, California, the massive 800 MW Sentinel Facility will help facilitate the integration of renewable energy into the power grid. The plan is being funded by a union of mega companies including GE Energy Financial Services, Diamond Generating Corporation and Competitve Power Ventures, and when it is completed it will produce enough power for 239,000 homes.

The thermal plant is part of California’s program to derive 33% of its power from renewable energy by the year 2020. In addition to the CPV Sentinel Facility, Riverside will welcome the Blythe Solar Project, a 968 megawatt solar power plant, driving the state even further toward their goal.

Aside from generating power, the $2 billion project will also give way to 300 construction jobs and 400 employment jobs — expected to inject $55 million into the local economy. Sales tax alone from the project will bring $30 million, and property taxes will provide the county with an additional $6.4 million.

And it ain’t going to buy coal from the Four Corners and PNM.

Oh yeah – that’s more post-construction direct permanent jobs than the whole Keystone XL pipeline.

Thanks, Mike

Fuel cell could turn wastewater plant into electricity producer


Research at Oregon State University by engineer Hong Liu

In the latest green energy – or perhaps that should be brown energy – news, a team of engineers from Oregon State University (OSU) has developed new technology they claim significantly improves the performance of microbial fuel cells (MFCs) that can be used to produce electricity directly from wastewater. With the promise of producing 10 to 50 times the electricity, per volume, than comparable approaches, the researchers say the technology could see waste treatment plants not only powering themselves, but also feeding excess electricity back to the grid.

The electricity-generating potential of microbes has been known for decades, however, it is only in recent years that efforts to increase the amount of electricity generated to commercially viable levels has started to bear fruit. In MFCs, bacteria are used to oxidize organic matter – be it in wastewater, grass straw, animal waste, and byproducts from such operations as the wine, beer or dairy industries – which produces electrons that run from the anode to the cathode within the fuel cell to create an electrical current.

By adopting a number of new concepts, including reducing the anode-cathode spacing, and using evolved microbes and new separator materials, the researchers say they have been able to produce MFCs that produce more than two kilowatts per cubic meter of liquid reactor volume. The researchers point out this power density is much higher than has been achieved previously and could see the new technology replacing the widely used “activated sludge” process that has been used for almost a century…

The team has proven the system “at a substantial scale in the laboratory” and is now seeking funding to scale things up with a pilot study. A contained system that produces a steady supply of certain types of wastewater that would provide significant amounts of electricity, such as a food processing plant, is seen as an ideal candidate for such a test…

If this technology works on a commercial scale the way we believe it will, the treatment of wastewater could be a huge energy producer, not a huge energy cost,” said Hong Liu, an associate professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering. “This could have an impact around the world, save a great deal of money, provide better water treatment and promote energy sustainability.”

Bravo! I have to track down the email address for Santa Fe’s wastewater treatment plant up north of us on county road 56. They’re already powering basic needs with solar panels; but, I’m willing to bet they’d be interested in something like this.

Renewables exceed 20% of Germany’s energy production

In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, tens of thousands of German citizens took to the streets calling for the phase out of atomic energy. In May, the German government bowed to public pressure and unveiled its plan to shut down the country’s 17 nuclear power plants by 2021 – with the possibility that three will continue operating until 2022 if the transition to renewable energy doesn’t go as quickly as hoped.

Providing some hope that Germany will achieve its ambitious goals, Spiegel Online International has quoted a newly released…report that says, for the first time, renewable sources accounted for more than 20 percent of the country’s electricity generation…

According to the report, renewable energy sources provided 18.3 percent of total demand in 2010, but the first six months of 2011 saw that figure rise to 20.8 percent, while Germany’s total usage remained steady from 2010 at 275.5 billion kilowatt hours…

Of the 57.3 billion kWh provided by renewable sources in the first six months of 2011, wind power was the dominant source supplying 20.7 billion kWh (7.5 percent of total production), followed by biomass with 15.4 billion kWh (5.6 percent), photovoltaic solar with 9.6 billion kWh (3.5 percent), hydroelectric with 9.1 billion kWh (3.3 percent, and waste and other sources providing 2.2 billion kWh (0.8 percent).

Solar power saw the biggest jump, increasing by 76 percent over 2010 with the BDEW citing the reduction in the price of photovoltaic installations as a result of increased competition and the decision of the federal government not to cut subsidies for private solar-power generation as initially planned as the main reasons for the increase.

“Because of the volume of new photovoltaic installations and the amount of sun during the spring, solar energy knocked hydroelectric from third place for the first time,” said the BDEW.

Two points worth making. First – the economies of scale really play well with photo-voltaics. It’s a technology where small but noticeable advances are being made in both cost of production and efficiencies of energy production. Second – German voters are already sophisticated enough to ignore the hypocrisy of fossil fuel facility builders who whine about continued subsidies. Fact is – all fossil fuel plants rely on taxpayer subsidy for construction. There’s little difference in passing along subsidies to consumers with home installations.

I spent most of the past half-century as an advocate for nuclear power generation. From early days working in the field, it was clear that properly-run there was no need for safety concerns. Over that time the only disasters which have occurred were the result of bureaucratic malingering. Which can happen in any industry. The difference being that falling-down stupid about safety with nuclear power can be fatal on a large scale.

More important, we’ve just about reached the point where the cost of production of electricity via photo-voltaics matches the cost of construction and production of nuclear facilities. That will continue to diminish while the opposite happens with nuclear projects. And there will never be shutdown dangers associated with natural disasters using photo-voltaics.

Solar Roadways gets grant to build prototype solar parking lot

What do you need to generate a lot of electricity from photoelectric solar cells? A lot of surface area. What is a lot of the surface of the United States covered in? Roads. Put those two ideas together, and the idea of turning the nation’s highways into solar farms doesn’t sound too odd, does it? Well, maybe it doesn’t until you consider that you’re talking about taking electronics – electronics that are typically somewhat delicate and rather expensive – and purposely putting them on the ground where heavy vehicles will zoom over them at high speed…

Replacing crushed stone and tar with LEDs and capacitors seems so unlikely that when Solar Roadways was awarded $100,000 to construct a small, 12′ by 12′ prototype system in 2009, infrastructure blog The Infrastructionist gave the effort its “Dubious Green Scheme” award and labeled Solar Roadways not just “harebrained” but “totally batshit crazy.”

As it turns out, that initial panel impressed the Department of Transportation enough that Solar Roadways has now been given $750,000 to take it to the next step: a solar parking lot. Constructed out of multiple 12′ x 12′ panels, the smart parking lot will do more than the asphalt alternative. It will warm itself in cold weather to melt away snow and ice. A layer of embedded LEDs can be used create traffic warnings or crosswalks. Electricity leftover from those tasks could be used to charge electric vehicles or routed into the power grid. The electrical components will be embedded between layers of hardened, textured glass – this may sound fragile, but is already tough enough that some areas use the material for sidewalks.

Parking lots, driveways, and eventually highways are all targets for the panels. If the nation’s system of interstate highways was surfaced with Solar Roadways panels, the results would be more than three times the amount of electricity currently consumed. Of course, at $100,000 per 12′, costs would need to come down significant bit before that could happen.

Obviously, the editors never compared the cost of building solar roadways to typical American highway boondoggles. The record is held by a project near and dear to my heart – Boston’s Big Dig. A three-and-a-half mile tunnel that ended up costing over $14 billion.

Plus he’s extrapolating from the first 12′ x 12′ panel. The parking lot project will reduce square foot cost as will further ramping up towards capacity production. All of which he doubtless knows. 🙂

India can’t seem to find a good professional hangman


Mammu Singh – one of the last and best – retired, now deceased

India has 1.2 billion people, among them bankers, gurus, rag pickers, billionaires, snake charmers, software engineers, lentil farmers, rickshaw drivers, Maoist rebels, Bollywood movie stars and Vedic scholars, to name a few. Humanity runneth over. Except in one profession: India is searching for a hangman.

Usually, India would not need one, given the rarity of executions. The last was in 2004. But in May, India’s president unexpectedly rejected a last-chance mercy petition from a convicted murderer in the Himalayan state of Assam. Prison officials, compelled to act, issued a call for a hangman…

The nation’s handful of known hangmen had either died, retired or disappeared. The situation was not too surprising, given the ambivalence within the Indian criminal justice system about executions. Capital punishment was codified during British rule, with hanging as the chosen method, but recent decades of litigating and legislating limited the actual practice to “the rarest of rare cases.”

Today, even prison officials encourage death row inmates to draft appeals. “At times, we also help the person draft the petition,” said K. V. Reddy, president of the All-India Prison Officers Association, who opposes capital punishment. “Normally, everybody sympathizes with a person who has spent a number of years in prison…”

It seemed the search had reached a dead end, at least figuratively. Then Mammu Singh’s eldest son, Pawan Kumar, decided to enter the family business. Ten days after his father’s death, Mr. Kumar applied for government certification as a hangman.

“I just want to continue the family legacy,” Mr. Kumar said recently, inside the tiny room where he lives inside a low-income housing complex. “I’m the fourth generation. You don’t see many volunteers coming forward. I’m serving my country.”

The pay is not very good for hangmen, partly because of the paucity of hangings, but also because the job is considered contract work. Still, Mr. Kumar works as a hawker, selling clothes from the back of his bicycle, and he welcomed the possibility of a $75 monthly retainer for being a hangman.

The workload could increase in the future. India has put to death at least 50 convicts since becoming an independent nation in 1947. And the trends suggest that the number of people convicted on capital charges could rise. Nationally, India had 345 people on death row by the end of 2008, according to national crime statistics…

Mr. Kumar…has been invited for an interview with prison officials this month.

My feelings are always mixed over capital punishment. Years ago it was demonstrated that it served little to deter capital crimes. And it costs more – generally – to deal with the sum of appeals generated by a death penalty. But, I can’t help feeling it is just compensation to the body politic for some crimes.

Bingaman backs nuclear in new clean energy standard

The White House on Monday won a key endorsement for its proposal to boost U.S. electricity generation by clean energy sources as the head of the Senate’s energy panel said he could back the idea of including nuclear power in the fuel mix.

In his State of the Union speech to Congress last week, President Barack Obama proposed the United States produce 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources, such as wind, solar, “clean” coal and nuclear, by 2035.

Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he supports including nuclear power in the White House’s clean energy standard as long as renewable energy sources like wind and solar also benefit.

“If we can develop a workable clean energy standard that actually continues to provide an incentive for renewable energy projects to move forward, and provide an additional incentive for some of the other clean energy technologies, nuclear being one, I would like to see that happen,” Senator Jeff Bingaman told reporters…

Bingaman said he has been in discussions with the White House over the last week on how to come up with a legislative proposal that would win bipartisan support in the Senate

Such a bill would have a more difficult time clearing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives…

Analyst Christine Tezak said the best way for a clean energy standard to pass Congress is for the president to address some of the energy concerns of Republican lawmakers, such as expanding oil drilling and speeding up government approval of permits for energy exploration…

Yes, let’s don’t forget the traditional bosses of the Republican Party. Take your history all the way back to Standard Oil, watch the oil barons nudge their buddies from Wall Street finance aside while they exercise royal prerogative and demand opposition to any alternatives to fossil fuel profits.

Public support for nuclear power continues to grow

The majority of Americans who favor nuclear-generated electricity hit a new high this year, according to a poll that now suggests growing support for President Barack Obama’s aid to the nuclear industry.

Sixty-two percent of 1,014 U.S. adults, who were surveyed March 4-7 by Gallup, said they favored nuclear energy as one way to meet national electricity needs.

Though a majority of Americans has long supported nuclear power, Gallup said the latest rating is the highest since it began polling on the issue in 1994.

Hoping to advance climate legislation in Congress, Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for new plant construction in February. The guarantees will help build the first new U.S. nuclear power facilities in nearly three decades.

Gallup’s latest findings show Republican support for nuclear power a new high of 74 percent this year, up from 71 percent a year ago.

Democratic support stands at a bare majority of 51 percent, down slightly from 52 percent in 2009, the poll showed.

Let me give you my cynical analysis of this breakout.

The Dem wobbles are about right for a party with little core recognition for Green issues. Even Al Gore steps outside the Democrat Party’s purview for most of his politicizing. Green voters – like me – often reject the boring, tedious, cowardly pace of traditional party politics.

Republicans mostly add support because [a] corporate barons will profit instead of Green start-ups – and Republicans will kiss corporate butt even when they’re nothing more than water-carriers; and [b] it’s an alternative to the capital-A Alternatives favored by liberals and progressives, Green activists. Response rules rather than being a proponent.

Nuclear power’s time has come!

For decades, pioneering environmentalist Stewart Brand, the founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, opposed the use of nuclear power. Now he sees it as vital to efforts to combat climate change.

Earlier this month, Brand made the case for nuclear power in a debate with Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California. (TED is a nonprofit that stands for technology, information and design and is dedicated to “Ideas worth spreading.”)

His outspoken support for nuclear power comes as the White House has been pushing for the first new nuclear plants in the United States in three decades…

Brand says his turnabout began in 2002, when the Global Business Network, a consulting organization he co-founded, did a project on climate change for the U.S. Secretary of Defense. In an interview with CNN.com, Brand said the project showed him that the globe’s climate can change abruptly: “It goes over some tipping point and suddenly you’re in a situation that you don’t like and you can’t go back. That got me way more concerned about climate as a clear and present danger than I had been.”

Looking for a surefire way to cut greenhouse gases, Brand said the alternative to burning coal became clear: “We already had a very good supplier of …electricity. It worked like mad and was as clean as it could be — and that was nuclear.

“Looking at nuclear more closely made me look at coal more closely and I got to realizing what a horror it was across the board, and as I learned more about nuclear, I started learning all this stuff that my fellow environmentalists had been careful not to let me know about.”

Brand spoke to CNN.com Wednesday. Halfway down the page is the edited transcript.

Working days while studying engineering at night school, I was a technician in an R&D lab for a key vendor to builders of nuclear power plants starting back in the 1950’s.

I never had a problem with the science or safety solutions we were capable of within the nuclear power industry. Cripes, I still get checked-on every decade or so because the building I worked in had been the pilot plant for cladding uranium power rods. Never a peep after more than a half-century.

What turned me from support for the industry was the overwhelming corruption of cost-plus budgeting from Uncle Sugar. Guaranteed padding the cost of construction, manufacture, production – with diminished concern for quality control or modernizing design. It was a cash cow, a welfare plan for companies like Westinghouse.

But, knowledge and science advance even if politicians don’t. Other countries like France continued with new generations of design and fiscal oversight, kept the wheel turning. I’m pleased to see Stewart Brand never stopped learning.