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Energy and Global Warming News for April 23: GE to debut gearless offshore wind turbine; Supreme Court to look at GM crops; Big energy storage in thin films

GE to Debut Gearless Offshore Wind Turbine to Rival Siemens

General Electric Co., the world’s second-biggest maker of wind turbines, plans to introduce a 4 megawatt gearless wind turbine for offshore use in 2012 in a challenge to market leader Siemens AG of Germany.

Government incentives and pricing pressure for onshore models amid the economic slowdown make the offshore market more attractive, Mete Maltepe, global sales leader for wind energy at GE, said in a telephone interview on April 20.

Customer feedback on the offshore turbine has so far been positive, Maltepe said. GE is using technology acquired in its August takeover of the ScanWind unit of Morphic Technologies AB in Sweden to take on Siemens and Vestas Wind Systems A/S of Denmark. The purchase marked a change in tack for the U.S. company, which has mostly focused on the onshore market.

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“It’s a good turbine, the direct drive is key,” Maltepe said. In the onshore segment, “there are notable headwinds in pricing. We are reducing costs and improving the performance. There is pressure on margins and we’ll have to see if we can hold them up.”

GE, with a 12.4 percent share of the overall on- and offshore wind turbine market by capacity, is head to head with Vestas, which in 2009 held the top spot at 12.5 percent, according to Danish consultants BTM Consult APS.

Munich-based Siemens, with 5.9 percent of the overall market and the top spot in offshore models, is installing as many as 10 of its new gearless 3 megawatt turbines for both offshore and onshore use this year, with large-scale production planned to start in 2011. Vestas CEO Ditlev Engel on Feb. 10 declined to say if his company also plans to develop a gearless turbine.

Direct drive or gearless turbines reduce the number of moving parts in a unit and increase reliability, helping minimize costly open-sea maintenance. Such technology accounted for about 14 percent of installed capacity last year, BTM said. Offshore wind park operators include Germany’s Enercon GmbH and Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co. of China.

Big Energy Storage in Thin Films

Energy storage devices called ultracapacitors can be recharged many more times than batteries, but the total amount of energy they can store is limited. This means that the devices are useful for providing intense bursts of power to supplement batteries but less so for applications that require steady power over a long period, such as running a laptop or an engine.

Now researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia have demonstrated that it’s possible to use techniques borrowed from the chip-making industry to make thin-film carbon ultracapacitors that store three times as much energy by volume as conventional ultracapacitor materials. While that is not as much as batteries, the thin-film ultracapacitors could operate without ever being replaced.

These charge-storage films could be fabricated directly onto RFID chips and the chips used in digital watches, where they would take up less space than a conventional battery. They could also be fabricated on the backside of solar cells in both portable devices and rooftop installations, to store power generated during the day for use after sundown. The materials have been licensed by Pennsylvania startup Y-Carbon.

An ultracapacitor is “an electrical energy source that has virtually unlimited lifetime,” says Yury Gogotsi, professor of materials science and engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who led the development of the thin-film ultracapacitors. “It will live longer than any electronic device and never needs to be replaced.” While batteries store and release energy in the form of chemical reactions, which cause them to degrade over time, ultracapacitors work by transferring surface charges. This means they can charge and discharge rapidly, and because the electrode materials aren’t involved in any chemical reactions, they can be cycled hundreds of thousands of times. Researchers have begun developing thin-film ultracapacitor materials but have had difficulty getting high enough total energy storage using practical fabrication methods, says Gogotsi.

Study details at least four epic droughts in Asia

A study of tree rings provided Thursday the most detailed record yet of at least four epic droughts that hit Asia over the past millennium, including one that helped end China’s Ming Dynasty in 1644.

Data collected over the past 15 years for the study is expected to help scientists understand how climate change can unleash large-scale weather disruptions.

Any drastic shifts to the seasonal monsoon rains in Asia, which feed nearly half the world’s population by helping crops grow, could have serious socio-economic consequences, according to scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

They mapped out past droughts and their relative severity by sampling the wood of thousands of ancient trees across Asia. Among them was a drought that caused tens of millions of people to starve to death in the late 1870s.

“Global climate models fail to accurately simulate the Asian monsoon, and these limitations have hampered our ability to plan for future, potentially rapid and heretofore unexpected shifts in a warming world,” said lead author Edward Cook, head of Lamont’s Tree Ring Lab.

Prior to the study, published in Friday’s edition of Science, reliable instrumental data collected in Asia — such as temperature, rain accumulations and winds — only dated back to 1950.

The scientists pointed to some evidence that monsoon changes are driven at least in part by variations in sea-surface temperatures, with some speculation but no certainty that warming global temperatures could modify and possibly intensify these cycles.

The Key to Fixing Global Warming? China

It’s late November 2009, and US energy secretary Steven Chu is leaning against a fake sink in a fake kitchen. Chu is 62 years old and athletically trim with graying black hair.

He’s wearing a rumpled pin-striped suit, argyle socks, and gold-framed glasses. Chu is a renowned physicist, a cabinet appointee, and the winner of a Nobel Prize. But that’s not why he’s now being treated like a rock star. This morning a small crowd of scientists, politicians, and local businesspeople are flocking to him because he’s got cash, specifically $75 million in stimulus funds for the Ohio subsidiary of the American Electric Power utility.

Chu likes to ask questions “” a lot of questions “” and he can dive deep into the details of any science or technology issue very quickly. Today he’s touring a lab run by AEP just outside of Columbus, Ohio, that includes a model kitchen full of energy-saving appliances. Standard protocol would suggest that he smile vapidly and hustle along. But almost immediately, he starts to wonk out with Ray Hayes, the lab’s white-bearded manager. They talk power meters and the feasibility of sensors that can measure which gadget is sucking down what power. Chu is enjoying himself, his hands buried in his suit-pants pockets. A small crowd, including Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, follows the men around the room for a while, but everyone soon loses interest and strikes up side conversations. (“I didn’t know what the hell he and Ray were saying,” Brown later admits.)

Finally Chu is ready to do what he came to do. He walks outside to a tent, where in front of AEPers and politicos he announces the grant. He knows that all politics is local, especially in Ohio, a battleground state with high unemployment and strong unions. This is “a farsighted state,” he says; he mentions Toledo as the “solar valley of Ohio” and talks about the state’s prowess in manufacturing.

Still, he can’t help himself, and after a few minutes he departs from his prepared remarks. “I just came back from visiting China with the president,” he says, no longer reading. When he was there two years ago, there was little interest in doing anything about climate change or carbon emissions. “That is no longer true,” he says. “The president of China, the premier of China, the vice premier of China are all saying, ‘This is a very big deal for us. If we continue business as usual, continue to grow our carbon emissions, it would be devastating for the world, devastating for China.’ But they also say, ‘This is our great economic opportunity.’ And for that reason, they’re investing over $100 billion a year in the clean energy economy.”

SEC’s climate change transparency

Transparency is a cornerstone of our economy.

For investors, that means being entitled to hear about the risks of an investment before making a long-term capital commitment.

You might not commit, for example, to a computer chip-maker whose silicon costs are about to triple, or a clothing manufacturer whose factories are caught up in civil unrest overseas. Or you might invest and then pressure the company to address its issues.

That’s why the Securities and Exchange Commission’s new climate change disclosure guidance is important. It outlines the type of information that publicly traded companies facing material effects from climate change should be disclosing.

This is what regulators are supposed to do “” get ahead of the curve as business risks and opportunities change.

Climate change is a classic material risk to businesses.

It is clear that a changing climate affects virtually all companies. Recent droughts and water shortages in California, for example, have led to dramatic reductions in hydropower use “” and more than $1 billion in losses for the state’s agriculture industry. Melting ice in the Arctic is expected to have far-reaching effects on shipping and energy exploration.

Climate change is also a risk because it is altering behavior. Governments at all levels, here and abroad, are mandating greenhouse gas reductions, cleaner electricity generation and energy-efficiency initiatives. Consumers are demanding change. Large emitters are facing lawsuits.

Supreme Court to take first look at GM crops in case with NEPA implications

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Tuesday involving a federal judge’s temporary ban on a breed of pesticide-resistant alfalfa, setting the stage for the court’s first-ever ruling on genetically modified crops.

Legal experts do not expect a blockbuster decision on the merits of regulating modified plants such as Monsanto Co.’s Roundup Ready alfalfa, but the case, Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, has drawn widespread interest because the justices could issue a ruling that would raise or lower the threshold for challenges under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Environmental groups, which frequently use the statute to bring lawsuits against government agencies and industry groups, “don’t expect anything good” to come from the Supreme Court’s eventual decision, said David Bookbinder, chief climate counsel at the Sierra Club. It seems that some of the justices are “on a kick to gut NEPA remedies,” he said earlier this year during a panel discussion on environmental law at Georgetown University.

That sense of foreboding is compounded by the fact that the case comes from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a frequent source of environmental cases struck down by the Supreme Court. Last year, when the Supreme Court overturned five decisions favoring environmentalists, four had come from the 9th Circuit (Greenwire, June 25, 2009).

The Monsanto case stems from a 2006 lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Led by Phillip Geertson, a producer of organic alfalfa seeds from Adrian, Ore., the plaintiffs claimed that Roundup Ready alfalfa could spread its genes to alfalfa in neighboring fields, potentially preventing the other farmers from marketing their produce as organic.

Organic farmers convinced the court that they faced a “likelihood of irreparable harm” from genetic contamination, securing a ban on planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa that would remain in place until the Department of Agriculture concludes an environmental review.

“The court of appeals approved an injunction that is so broad that it prohibits beneficial activities that pose no risk of harm whatsoever,” attorneys for Monsanto wrote in their petition for Supreme Court review, which was granted in January. “If not reversed, the Ninth Circuit’s holding threatens to make blanket injunctions all but automatic in NEPA cases arising in that circuit.”

Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society of the United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court not to accept Monsanto’s argument, saying such a ruling would hinder their ability to rely on the statute “to ensure a meaningful consideration by federal agencies of the impacts of their actions on the environment, and particularly wildlife and plants.”

Michael Senatore, vice president of conservation law at Defenders of Wildlife, said his organization has not been involved in the issue of modified crops but wanted to weigh in because of the case’s potential impact on environmental litigation.

“It is a NEPA case, and NEPA has fared exceedingly poorly in the Supreme Court — I think it’s 0-for-13,” Senatore said. If the organic farmers lose, he added, “we could get another adverse NEPA ruling that could have implications for the work that we do.”

Scientist questions safety of new Westinghouse reactor design

A former nuclear industry engineer now affiliated with anti-nuclear groups has urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reject Westinghouse Electric Co.’s new AP1000 reactor design, claiming it would be “inherently less safe than current reactors.”

Anti-nuclear advocacy groups released yesterday Arnold Gundersen’s study, which concluded that the reactor’s steel liner would be vulnerable to rust leaks. Because of a new design element in the AP1000 reactor, the study says, “there is no backup containment” behind the steel liner should a leak develop.

Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert said the reactor would be safe despite backup containment because its steel liner is three to four times thicker than that in any existing plant. The containment was designed to prevent the leaks that have occurred in previous generations of reactors, he said.

“In the unlikely event that there was some corrosion, we’re confident it would be readily visible and corrected during plant inspections,” Gilbert said.

The new reactor design would be used in several U.S. nuclear proposals currently under consideration by NRC. Southern Co., which recently received $8 billion in federal loan guarantees, plans to build two of the reactors at its Vogtle facility near Waynesboro, Ga.

The company has received approval to begin site work, though NRC has not yet approved Westinghouse’s design.