June 15 news: Ethanol Subsidies Not Dead Yet; Climate Change You Can See; Japan’s Richest Man Takes on Nukes With Solar

A round-up of climate and energy news. Please post other stories below.

Ethanol Subsidies Survive Senate Vote, Splinter GOP

Costly subsidies for homegrown fuel won a vote of confidence Tuesday on Capitol Hill. In a key test vote, the Senate blocked a measure that would have immediately ended both federal subsidies and protective tariffs for corn-based ethanol fuel.

The outcome showed the continued clout of farm states. But it also showed that most Senate Republicans are willing to get rid of at least one tax break.

Where senators stand on ethanol tax subsidies often has more to do with which state they’re from than which party they belong to.

“This is a very controversial subject,” says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). “We have members in our conference on both sides of this issue.”

Still, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn had been trying for months to force colleagues to take a stand on the more than $5 billion in tax breaks for the ethanol industry this year.

Joe Romm:  I am not a fan of our corn ethanol policy as I made clear made clear during the last food crisis (see “The Fuel on the Hill” and “Can words describe how bad corn ethanol is?” and “Let them eat biofuels!“).  In a world of blatantly increasing food insecurity — driven by population, dietary trends, rising oil prices, and growing climate instability — America’s policy of burning one third of our corn crop in our engines (soon to be 37% or more) is becoming increasingly untenable, if not unconscionable (see “The Corn Ultimatum: How long can Americans keep burning one sixth the world’s corn supply in our cars?“).  Heck, even former Pres. Bill Clinton start talking about this in a Washington Post piece  headlined, “Clinton: Too much ethanol could lead to food riots.”  But yesterday’s vote makes clear the subsidies will not go quietly….

Climate Change You Can See

Ever come across someone who wants visual proof that climate change is real? Well, now it’s at your fingertips. Thanks to a joint effort by California universities and research centers, the California Energy Commission, and Google, Golden State residents now have access to a brand new interactive tool that showcases the effects of climate change. The website,, culls a wealth of information from the the state’s scientific community and reformats it into easy-to-use charts and maps.

You can tailor the data to your specific location and voilá: The website will generate personalized local climate snapshots, wildlife risk areas, and sea level changes. Adjust the scale at the top of the tools section and you’ll see changes between decades. The site’s aim is to make the information publicly available, so your results can be easily downloaded.

Japan’s Richest Man Takes on Atomic Future With Solar Plans

Billionaire Masayoshi Son has a track record in taking on monopolies after building a business that opened up the nation’s telecommunications industry. Now he aims to shake up Japan’s power utilities after the worst nuclear crisis in 25 years.

Son, the 53-year-old chief executive officer of Softbank Corp., plans to build solar farms to generate electricity with support from at least 33 of Japan’s 47 prefectures. In return, he’s asking for access to transmission networks owned by the 10 regional utilities and an agreement they buy his electricity.

Radiation has spread across at least 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) in northeastern Japan after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said in May he will rethink a plan to increase atomic power to 50 percent of the nation’s total from 30 percent. Renewable energy accounts for 10 percent, according to Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, and Son wants that ratio to be tripled by 2020.

Democrats introduce bill to stop state RGGI action

The effort to kill New Jersey’s Global Warming Solutions Act and any involvement in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative by the governor and Sussex County lawmakers was challenged Monday by House Democrats.

Assembly Environment Chairman John F. McKeon, D-Essex and Assembly Utilities Chairman Upendra J. Chivukula, D-Middlesex introduced a resolution that would protect funding sources for clean energy and support New Jersey’s membership in RGGI, a 10-state carbon emissions cap and trade program to reduce greenhouse gasses in the region 10 percent by 2018.

State officials and business alliances are at odds with environmental groups and others over New Jersey’s withdrawal from the multistate pact to reduce greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

The state Environmental Protection Department says New Jersey is on track to meet its clean energy goals even without taxing power producers for generating pollution. But environmental advocates say the state is reneging on its commitment to lead the nation in fostering a green economy.

“The resolution clarifies the initial legislative intent and will close any loophole that may exist to allow the governor to pull the state out of RGGI or use the funds to balance the budget,” McKeon said. “Whether (the governor’s) actions are illegal will be decided by the courts.”

Proterra EcoRide BE-35 Electric Bus Project Gets GM Ventures Fund Boost

Wouldn’t you like to be witness to many a  Proterra sail by? The Proterra EcoRide BE-35 battery electric bus is, in fact, the current avatar in the green transportation avenue. What’s indeed amazing is the fact that the vehicle can remarkably undergo quick 10-minute recharging time to give 40 miles of range.

For the same reason, investment group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers led by General Motors Ventures has invested $30 million in Proterra.

They are of the opinion that with range and recharge time values marking high standards; the EcoRide can replace about 80 percent of traditional buses currently in the US, without altering the current schedule.

Big Oil May Improve Fracking

Could increasing involvement by oil giants, such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, make it easier to resolve the fracking wars?

That’s one possible outcome as multinational energy companies continue to grab shares of the booming market for natural gas from shale, a diverse industry in which hundreds of operators work under a patchwork of state-by-state regulations.

ExxonMobil — already the nation’s largest gas producer — closed this month on its latest move, a $1.69 billion purchase of two companies with access to 317,000 acres in Pennsylvania and other parts of the Marcellus Shale region. Chevron made two big deals in the Marcellus this year, buying Pennsylvania-based Atlas Energy for $3.58 billion in February before announcing last month that it was acquiring leases for 228,000 acres of the gas-rich region.

Some experts hope the companies will improve industry practices in the shale-gas game. The boom in unconventional gas extraction has brought complaints — exaggerated, the industry says — about spills, methane contamination of water supplies, discharges of fracking waste into rivers and streams and damage to rural roads by trucks heading to and from well sites.

“We should welcome larger operators into these unconventional plays, which were developed by the smaller independents,” former BP technology chief Tony Meggs said during a Massachusetts Institute of Technology webcast Thursday about the gas industry.

A renewable energy generator for all seasons

GREEN power may no longer be as fickle as the weather, thanks to a device that can generate electricity in any conditions – be it sun, wind or rain.

Most forms of renewable energy are intermittent, says Elias Siores at the Institute for Materials Research and Innovation at the University of Bolton in the UK – the wind doesn’t always blow and the skies aren’t always cloud-free. “What we wanted was something that can take energy from different elements,” he says.

So, together with his colleagues, Siores has done just that. First, he created 20-centimetre-long flexible ribbons made of a piezoelectric polymer that generates electrical currents when perturbed, either by wind or when rain drops fall on it. The team chose a polymer called polyvinylidene fluoride over ceramic piezoelectric materials because in wind tunnel tests and simulated rain it deformed more, creating higher peak voltages. That means more energy per rain drop or gust of wind, says Siores.

Next, the team coated the ribbons with a flexible photovoltaic (PV) film, and attached a pair of electrodes with which to harvest this solar-induced current. Siores says that 10 square centimetres of the PV film can generate 1 to 2 watts of solar energy at its peak. The work will appear in Smart Materials and Structures.

When climate gets wetter, plagues get worse

That’s the conclusion of study in China about changes in precipitation levels

When the climate gets wetter, plagues can get worse, according to a new study that reveals why the plague was much worse in China’s north than in the south.

The results also suggest that climate change could mean more virulent plagues in northern China and North America, as parts of the globe get wetter.

A bacterium called Yersinia pestis, which is carried by rodents, is responsible for three types of plague: bubonic (also called Black Death ), septicemic and pneumonic plague. Together, these illnesses have been responsible for the deaths of millions of people the world over, including an estimated third of Europe’s population during the Middle Ages. While modern antibiotics can effectively treat plague, thousands of cases are still reported each year to the World Health Organization, and the bacterium has been identified as a possible biological warfare agent.


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