Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Weather modification: The rain makers

Whether it is the Chinese firing weapons into the sky to make it rain, or the Thai government setting up a "royal rainmaking project", the science of weather modification has always had a touch of the sci-fi about it. So it is perhaps little surprise that the effectiveness of such an eccentric area of research has always been a little foggy. Indeed, no matter how hard you try – say, through launching silver-iodide particles into clouds to make them rain – it's hard to tell how influential you're actually being as it might have happened anyway.

But now, one of the world's leading weather experts thinks that the wind surrounding weather modification is set to change. Roelof Bruintjes, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, USA, believes that weather-monitoring technology is so hot nowadays that science fiction may soon become science fact. Speaking earlier this week, he said: "Now we can measure clouds so well – even from the inside – we can get many more answers as to what the effects of man-made intervention are, and separate them from what would have happened naturally.
"For the first time, we can discover whether humans have changed weather patterns. It's a whole new opportunity. We are at the most exciting time for weather modification in its history."

Many of the world's driest nations have dabbled in weather modification since its first major lab breakthrough in 1949, when researchers at General Electric in New York discovered that silver-iodide smoke caused the kind of droplets in clouds to turn to ice, a process vital to rain formation. Since then, however, experts came to the conclusion that the processes involved in rain formation were just too complex.

But that hasn't stopped many governments from trying. There are currently 150 weather-modification projects taking place in more than 40 countries. In many of these, researchers are using trials in which some randomly chosen clouds are "seeded" while others are not, and both groups are monitored. Arlen Huggins of the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, USA, is leading one of these studies in Australia's Snowy Mountains, where the snow pack has shrunk in recent decades. Reportedly, their results to date might suggest that seeding works (although there are still two years of the six-year project left to go).

full article

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

How to make your home more energy-efficient in ten easy steps

Replace all light bulbs with energy-efficient ones. They are more expensive than normal bulbs, but they last far longer and are not the glaring and humming glass bricks of yore.
Treat your hot water cylinder to a cosy jacket. An 80mm-thick coat costs about £12 and will save you about £20 per year in heating bills and 160kg a year in emissions.

Set your heating correctly. Your boiler thermostat, time programmer and thermostatic radiator valves should only heat the rooms that you use at the times that you use them.

Bleed radiators to release trapped air. Turn off the heating and cautiously loosen the bleed valve at the top of the radiator: use a rag to catch the drips.

More substantial energy-efficiency measures in the home require a larger initial outlay, but these will be recouped through savings in energy bills over a period of years. There is a range of grants available. See what you are eligible for at:

The big investment to consider is insulation. About half of the heat lost from a typical home is through the walls and roof.

Cavity wall insulation costs about £500 to install and saves you about £90 a year in heating bills and 750kg a year in CO2 emissions. The external walls of many houses consist of two layers with a gap between them. Filling the gap will substantially decrease the amount of lost heat.

Solid walls lose even more heat than cavity walls. They can be covered with a weather-proof insulating treatment which costs about £1,900 and will save you about £300 a year in bills and an annual 2.6 tonnes of CO2.

Timber floors can be insulated by laying mineral wool padding under the boards at a cost of about £90, saving £45 a year and 350 kg of CO2.

If you have no loft insulation (that yellow foam stuff), 15 per cent of your heat could be escaping through the roof. Installing the recommended 270mm will cost about £750 and save you £110 and 1 tonne of CO2 per year.

Get double glazing. This can cut heat loss through windows by half. Costs vary, but you could save £90 a year on bills and 740kg of carbon emissions. You can, of course, just do the rooms that cost the most to heat.

Buy a new high-efficiency condensing boiler. It's a pricey investment, but will save you about 1.7 tonnes of CO2 and £200 a year.

full article

Moving house? Think 'energy-saving'

Location, location, location. The traditional estate agents' argument is that really nothing else matters to a prospective home purchaser. Perhaps the kitchen too. But not the energy bills. Oh no, never the fuel bills. They are just not important enough.

It has long been official policy to address this prejudice. But can it really be altered sufficiently, in order to begin to cut back on the £20bn we spend each year heating and lighting our homes?

I believe that it is entirely practical to deliver such a step change before this decade is out. I accept it will require a combined effort, of a kind never attempted before. It will mean the abandonment of a number of entrenched attitudes. But I am convinced it to be possible, and the end definitely worth it.

First off, is it right to make the time when people change home the right moment to concentrate upon getting the building's energy performance upgraded? I am convinced it is. For a start, movers are frequently improvers. You feel most inclined to make changes when you first arrive. Rather less so when you have long been incumbent, and have grown inured to all that is a bit wrong.

So, you are moving in. First things first. How do you establish what needs to be done to make the home more comfortable, reduce the mounting fuel bills, cut the energy wastage?

full article

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Solar power, weeds and algae to fuel armed forces of future

Britain's armed forces could acquire a new tinge of green under plans to end the military dependency on fossil fuels.

Possible innovations include unmanned attack aircraft powered by the sun. They would fire missiles fuelled with hydrogen produced by feeding algae to microbes.

Tanks could be electrically powered or run on fuel produced from oil squeezed out of weeds so hardy they can grow in the desert.

Ships could run completely on electricity produced from generators powered by synthetic fuels made from grass.

The environmental requirements of the army, navy and air force will be presented this week to specially vetted defence and research companies.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said last week that many of the ideas would come to fruition only in the next generation. The US Air Force, however, is expected to start converting its aircraft to use a mix of synthetic and petroleum-based fuel by the end of 2010 and the RAF is likely to follow suit.

The Royal Navy’s new Type45 destroyers already use all-electric propulsion, albeit produced by gas generators, and greener ways of producing the electricity are being explored in conjunction with the French.

full article

Saturday, 26 April 2008

ThoRR, the fully electric open-wheeler

If Caterham Seven-style open-wheelers are last century's pinnacle of pure performance machines, it seems the concept will survive the transition to the electric age. Evisol's ThoRR takes its body shape inspiration from a Lotus Super 7, and adds a 272hp Siemens electric motor with a Lithium Polymer battery pack. Quick, light, accurate and nearly silent apart from road noise, ThoRR fits the Caterham model of a driver's car - there's no power assisted steering or brakes, no ABS, gearbox or even a windshield, so you're in complete control and you feel completely connected to the road through your machine. A range of 140km if you're doing more than 100kmh limits ThoRR to being a Sunday afternoon thrasher, but new tech batteries like those in the Lightning GT will fix that in due time.

full article

Dithering governments blamed for biofuel tanker shortage

A Stolt tanker. Biodiesel must be carried on specially built vessels. Photograph: Alamy

Britain is facing a big shortage of ships for carrying biofuels unless politicians give clear guidelines about the future of renewable fuels, a leading maritime organisation warned last night.

The comments from Lloyd's Register that the world fleet might be "unable to cope" unless an extra 400 suitable vessels - 20% of the present fleet - were constructed, came after energy minister Malcolm Wicks questioned the use of biofuels at a time of rising food prices.

Richard Sadler, chief executive of Lloyd's Register, said more information was needed about the potentially destructive elements of first-generation biofuels, but second and third-generation looked highly promising and could trigger huge demand for transport.

Mixed messages from governments about whether they will stick to targets for biofuel use were creating problems, he said. "There is so much uncertainty that makes it very difficult for a shipowner to invest in a sector with so much political risk."

Biodiesel must be carried on special chemical carriers, but Sadler said the regulations may need to be changed so that it can be moved on oil tankers. He added: "If second- and third-generation technologies are successful, current projections of demand would see the world fleet unable to cope with the logistics demand."

full article

Friday, 25 April 2008

The Power of Pond Scum: Biodiesel and Hydrogen From Algae

A start-up may have the key to boosting algae's chances as a future fuel, and scientists see a path to hydrogen production from pond scum
Food riots erupting around the world have been partly blamed on the growing use of food products to produce fuels like biodiesel and corn ethanol. But biofuels need not come from food crops. According to some researchers, the best source of biofuel may be algae, best known as pesky green pond scum.

As anyone who has had to clean a swimming pool or fish tank knows, algae grow quickly. All they need is light, carbon dioxide, and a little water to grow like, well, weeds. It turns out that algae produce oil that can be processed to make biodiesel. In some species, this oil represents more than half of the plantlike organism’s mass. Researchers are also trying to genetically alter algae to make them give off copious amounts of hydrogen to meet the needs of future fuel-cell-powered cars.

Algae’s biodiesel capacity compares well with today’s sources, says Glen Kertz, president and CEO at Valcent Products, a Vancouver, B.C., start-up that aims to become a leading algae oil supplier. A single hectare planted with corn will yield about 40 liters of oil per year; a hectare planted with oil palm would yield 1000 L. But according to Kertz, an algae bioreactor occupying the same space could yield more than 48 000 L. “And we think we can do far better than that,” says Kertz. “In a few years, when we come to understand more about this crop we’re growing, we could see bioreactors producing more than [150 000 L per hectare per year].”

Valcent’s proprietary technique, called Vertigro (which the company is also applying to the cultivation of plants like lettuce), is one of a bunch of approaches to growing algae. Instead of growing pond scum in large open ponds —whose yields are affected by seasonal variations like air temperature and relative humidity—Valcent uses the area above a plot of land to increase its yield. Hence the name Vertigro.

full article

Thursday, 24 April 2008

'Useless' green levy on drivers rakes in £4bn

The "green levy" on motorists announced in Alistair Darling's first Budget will double car tax revenue to £4 billion but reduce vehicle emissions by less than one per cent, Treasury figures have showed.
The Chancellor announced a significant increase in car tax in March.

This will result in the owners of family cars, estates and people carriers paying hundreds of pounds a year more to use the roads.

Mr Darling claimed that the duty increase was designed to encourage motorists to switch to greener cars and to reduce the environmental impact of driving.

However, the Telegraph has seen Treasury projections which disclose that while the amount raised from car tax will more than double - from £1.9 billion to £4.4 billion by 2010 - carbon dioxide emissions from motoring are expected to drop by less than one per cent.

full article

Monday, 21 April 2008

Our fear of hydrogen fuel stations

Sir, The opening of Britain’s first hydrogen fuel station marks an important step in the possible transition to a new energy carrier in the UK.

Edmund King, president of the AA, cautioned (report, April 16) that “images of the burning Hindenburg airship could undermine confidence in carrying hydrogen tanks”. This comment relates to the airship accident some 70 years ago which claimed the lives of 36 people.

Presumably King would hesitate at making a comparable, disturbing statement about our ubiquitous use of dangerous carbon-based fuels — paraffin, petrol and diesel, the first of which was responsible for the highest single-accident loss of life, some 583 people in the ground collision of two airliners, just over 30 years ago, in Tenerife.

It is now recognised that the Hindenburg disaster was probably caused by ignition (initiated by static electricity) of highly flammable skins covering the airship, not a leak in the hydrogen tanks (the cloth canopy was coated with what nowadays would be called rocket fuel, and the metal framework construction was based on iron oxide and aluminium — a potent combination )

The “hydrogen fear factor” raised by such evocative comments therefore needs to be taken in context. Of course, hydrogen, like any other fuel, can burn or explode if improperly managed or controlled; it can be safer than conventional fuels in some situations and more hazardous in others.

full article

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Solar so good for our house

It was with some trepidation that I went into the cellar this week to take some meter readings in order to find out how the solar panels we had fitted on our house exactly a year ago have been performing. Was the hefty sum of £8,500 we forked out last year a good investment or a waste of money?

Well, the news is better than I had expected. We, a family of four, have produced 92% of our electricity usage from the roof of a century-old terraced house in south-east London - laying to rest the idea that Britain is not sunny enough for solar power. It also disproves any suggestion this sort of technology only works in state-of-the-art, modern detached houses.

Not only will we not pay for any electricity, we should get a rebate of about £50 once a payment from the so-called renewables obligation (RO) scheme, which rewards microgeneration schemes with cash, is included.
n all, the saving for the past year will be around £500, giving a return on our investment of 6%, which is not subject to tax. Next year, when the payments from the RO scheme will double for photovoltaic (PV) solar installations, we will get about £150 back, giving a total return of 7%. That will rise further if energy prices continue to climb - which is likely after oil prices hit yet another high this week.

There is an important caveat here. I received a 50% grant for the system from the government's low-carbon buildings programme - the total cost of buying and installing the panels was £17,000. Unfortunately, the government is so pathetic at supporting low-carbon technologies that it last year cut the maximum grant to £2,500 because the scheme was so popular. As a result, demand has collapsed to the extent that the small company that fitted my system has gone out of business.

That means your return on a system purchased now will be lower - little more than 3% for one like mine this year, rising to close on 4% when the RO payments increase next year. Still, 4% that is not taxable is comparable to a building society account that you do pay tax on.

full article

EU set to scrap biofuels target amid fears of food crisis

The European commission is backing away from its insistence on imposing a compulsory 10% quota of biofuels in all petrol and diesel by 2020, a central plank of its programme to lead the world in combating climate change.

Amid a worsening global food crisis exacerbated, say experts and critics, by the race to divert food or feed crops into biomass for the manufacture of vehicle fuel, and inundated by a flood of expert advice criticising the shift to renewable fuel, the commission appears to be getting cold feet about its biofuels target.

Under the proposals, to be turned into law within a year, biofuels are to supply a tenth of all road vehicle fuel by 2020 as part of the drive to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the same deadline.

The 10% target is "binding" under the proposed legislation. But pressed by its scientific advisers, UN authorities, leaders in Europe, non-government organisations and environmental lobbies, the commission is engaged in a rethink.

"The target is now secondary," said a commission official, adding that high standards of "sustainability" being drafted for biofuels sourcing and manufacture would make it impossible for the target to be met.

Britain has set its own biofuels targets, which saw 2.5% mixed into all petrol and diesel fuel sold on forecourts in the UK this week. The government wants to increase that to 5% within two years, but has admitted that the environmental concerns could force them to rethink. Ruth Kelly, transport secretary, has ordered a review, which is due to report next month.

full article

Friday, 18 April 2008

Biofuels ‘not pushing up weekly food bill’

Biofuel produced in East Anglia will soon be finding its way into the petrol tanks of motorists around the country.

On April 15, the UK unveiled its Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation. All fuel companies in the UK will have to replace a certain percentage of their annual fossil fuel sales with biofuels, by law. As from that date, 2.5 per cent of fuel produced in the UK will have to come from renewable sources such as crops.

I welcome these initiatives, which will help the biofuel industry fulfil its potential. The eastern region has led the way in biofuel production and is home to the UK’s first bioethanol plant, which opened last year in Wissington, Norfolk, producing 70 million litres of biofuel a year.

It is vital that the rest of the UK follows suit and embraces biofuels, rather than stalling due to the unfounded, negative reports about biofuels which have appeared in the media recently.

Our energy security will become crucial in the coming years, and it is essential that we rely less on energy sources from abroad. Crucially, the UK biofuel industry must succeed as Britain is obligated to increase the share of biofuels used in transport to 10 per cent by 2020 to meet EU targets.

First generation biofuels produced at Wissington from corn and sugar beet are the first step to producing a successful biofuel industry which will help us all achieve a smaller carbon footprint. It is vital that the UK does not fall behind, which is why I am concerned that Alistair Darling has removed the fuel duty rebate for biofuels from 2010.

full article

Thursday, 17 April 2008

UK’s first hydrogen station to open

Britain’s first hydrogen fuel station will open in Birmingham tomorrow, in the first stage of a motoring-technology revolution that will potentially pave the way for the commercial production of fuel cell-powered vehicles.

The station will open at Birmingham University, which is conducting trials with a fleet of five fuel-cell vehicles, with a further three hydrogen stations planned for London and there likely to be at least twelve stations countrywide by 2010.

For more than a decade, the car industry has seen hydrogen and fuel cells as the holy grail that will help fuel the future and while manufacturers have displayed dozens of fuel-cell concept cars in the past, these have been reluctant to put ideas into mass production without an infrastructure to support them.


full article

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Major housebuilders told to share commercial secrets

Major housebuilders have been told to reveal their commercial secrets to help smaller developers meet energy efficiency targets.

The Energy Savings Trust (EST) has asked developers it works with to "open their books" and show others the mistakes made and lessons learned on the road to zero carbon.

The trust expects large developers to shoulder the financial costs associated with experimenting with new technology and pass the information on to others.

EST housing development manager Mat Colmer said: "It is imperative because smaller housebuilders have limited resources and experience, which means you have to go for the easy targets."

Home Builders Federation technical director Dave Mitchell said collaboration in the construction industry was at an all-time high and developers had formed groups to liaise with suppliers on how to reach targets.

full article

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Forecast for big sea level rise

Sea levels could rise by up to one-and-a-half metres by the end of this century, according to a new scientific analysis.

This is substantially more than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast in last year's landmark assessment of climate science.

Sea level rise of this magnitude would have major impacts on low-lying countries such as Bangladesh.

The findings were presented at a major science conference in Vienna.

The research group is not the first to suggest that the IPCC's forecast of an average rise in global sea levels of 28-43cm by 2100 is too conservative.

The IPCC was unable to include the contribution from "accelerated" melting of polar ice sheets as water temperatures warm because the processes involved were not yet understood.

full article

Biofuel: the burning question

The production of biofuel is devastating huge swathes of the world's environment. So why on earth is the Government forcing us to use more of it?
From today, all petrol and diesel sold on forecourts must contain at least 2.5 per cent biofuel. The Government insists its flagship environmental policy will make Britain's 33 million vehicles greener. But a formidable coalition of campaigners is warning that, far from helping to reverse climate change, the UK's biofuel revolution will speed up global warming and the loss of vital habitat worldwide.

Amid growing evidence that massive investment in biofuels by developed countries is helping to cause a food crisis for the world's poor, the ecological cost of the push to produce billions of litres of petrol and diesel from plant sources will be highlighted today with protests across the country and growing political pressure to impose guarantees that the new technology reduces carbon emissions.

On the day when the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) comes into force, requiring oil companies to ensure all petrol and diesel they sell in the UK contains a minimum level of biofuel, campaigners condemned as "disastrous" the absence of any standards requiring producers to prove their biofuel is not the product of highly damaging agricultural practices responsible for destroying rainforests, peatlands and wildlife-rich savannahs or grasslands from Indonesia to sub-Saharan Africa to Europe.

A study by the RSPB published today criticises the introduction of the RTFO as "over-hasty" and "utter folly". The conservation body said there is already widespread evidence that biofuel production is destroying vast areas of unspoilt habitat and has made at least one species extinct.

full article

Monday, 14 April 2008

Extra £225m to beat fuel poverty

Up to 100,000 households could be helped with their fuel bills under a deal agreed between the UK's big six energy companies and the government.

The energy firms have agreed to boost their collective annual spending on social assistance programmes by £225m over the next three years.

Spending will go up from £50m in the past financial year to £100m this year, £125m in 2009-10 and £150m in 2010-11.

The deal was brokered by Energy Secretary John Hutton.

'Eradicating fuel poverty'

If all the extra money was used to offset bills it could remove up to 100,000 homes from fuel poverty, although fewer would benefit if it was spent on more permanent energy efficiency measures. But consumer group Energywatch recently said social tariffs reached only one in 15 of the most vulnerable households.

A home is judged to be in fuel poverty if 10% or more of the household income is spent on energy bills.

full article

Biofuels: a blueprint for the future?

Our cars and other forms of transport are the third-largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK and the only one likely to have increased by 2020. Any serious attempt to tackle climate change requires us to dramatically step up our efforts to reduce these emissions. So a clean, renewable energy that can be mixed with fossil fuels to power our cars has great attraction.

This is exactly what supporters of biofuels believe they offer. They say they are one of the few existing, feasible ways of slowing the growth of carbon emissions from transport. They point as well to their advantages in reducing dependency on imported fossil fuels at the same time as providing opportunities for developing countries to grow and refine the "green" energy source.

These arguments and the evidence that supports them have convinced many countries to promote their production and led the government to take cautious steps to encourage their use through the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation. The RTFO, which comes into force tomorrow, requires 2.5% of the fuel sold on garage forecourts to come from renewable sources, a figure set to rise to 5% after two years.
But the government also recognises increasing concern about biofuels. Critics say there is very little "green" about them; in their view, savings of greenhouse gases have been exaggerated, if not invented. They warn that the dash to grow palm oil, sugar cane and other crops from which biofuels are made is leading to widespread destruction of forests and wildlife habitats around the world - and worsening food shortages as farmland is switched to industrial crops. This is something that must be examined closely. As Alistair Darling outlined at the weekend, the government has asked the World Bank to look into food markets and the impact of subsidies in time for the next G7 meeting in June.

Ruth Kelly and Peter Ainsworth

full article

Friday, 4 April 2008

Protesters promise a fight to halt eco-towns

Four proposed new towns of 15,000 homes or more are on a shortlist of 15 sites for the eco-town programme published by the government yesterday.

The list will be cut to 10 successful bids in the next six months, each of which will have to be zero-carbon as a whole and an "exemplar" in at least one area of environmental sustainability.

The programme, which aims to have towns of between 5,000 and 20,000 homes under development by 2020, is expected to provoke strong local opposition.

Many of the most controversial bids among the 57 submitted have survived the first round of competition for the first new towns in England since the 1960s.

They include Pennbury, south-east of Leicester, in which the Co-op is a leading partner, and Rossington, South Yorkshire.

A proposed 5,000-home development near Weston-on-the-Green, Oxfordshire, where Tim Henman's father has been a leading objector, is also on the shortlist.

Anthony Henman said: "This will destroy our village community as we know and enjoy it ... If we wanted to live in a town, we would, but we love village life."

full article

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Warm Front's heating scheme leaves the elderly cold

We're not surprised when cowboy builders fleece pensioners.

But when a £350million-a-year government-funded scheme is accused of doing the same, it's a different story.

Warm Front pays for new central heating systems and insulation for some of Britain's poorest households.

But last week MPs lined up to accuse Eaga plc, the firm running Warm Front, of ripping off pensioners and the taxpayer.
Click here to find out more!

We've heard horror stories of our own. Retired Jack and Elizabeth Thompson, of Barnsley, South Yorks, got a £2,700 Warm Front grant after their boiler burst.

But they were asked to pay £2,100 for extra work that their son Andrew said wasn't needed and he should know - he's a former Warm Front contractor.

Disabled Gary Thomas from Liverpool has gone though two broken boilers and three water pumps since Warm Front offered to replace his boiler.

Eighty-year-old Matthew Carroll, from Leeds, was left with a hole in his roof and a £130 repair bill after a visit from Warm Front engineers.

Since its launch in 2000, the scheme has helped to heat 1.6 million households and cut their fuel bills.

But something appears to have gone wrong. Labour MP Robert Flello told the House of Commons: "The trickle of complaints coming to my desk has turned into a flood."

He's worried that an "excellent idea" is being abused and cited the scandal of a Warm Front customer being charged for scaffolding - although he lives in a bungalow.

Reports by Warm Front's independent "quality assessor", released to us under the Freedom of Information Act, show the number of unhappy customers has almost trebled since 2006 to 14 per cent.

We met Eaga's boss John Clough at the firm's Newcastle HQ and he said the same assessor called the scheme "very competitive" and insisted the true level of upheld complaints was less than half a per cent.

But the assessor also warned of a "potential void" because, until recently, inspectors only checked work done - not work billed for. In one case, a woman paid £350 towards work not carried out. This was only spotted by chance by the assessor, who arranged a refund.

The assessor concluded: "The extent the scheme is being abused cannot be determined."

When Warm Front was launched, the standard £2,500 grant almost always covered the work needed.

Now 40 per cent of householders needing new heating systems are asked to top up the grant. Eaga currently has 131 sub-contracted installers. Six have left since 2005, seven are suspended and six more are being closely monitored.

Clough, who's been paid £1.5million in two years as Eaga's chief exec, says: "If you are doing 250,000 homes a year, then there are some instances where sadly we do fall short of the standards we set ourselves.

"We are not perfect. But we refute the accusation of ripping off the government."

Trickle of complaints has turned into a flood

full article