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Energy and Global Warming News for April 28: All-electric Chinese car headed to U.S. market; Home sensor startup snapped up; Do rules of U.S. electric grid discriminate against wind power?

All-electric Chinese car headed to U.S. market

The first Chinese-made car to hit the U.S. market might be an all-electric minivan that bypasses gasoline technology altogether and could be a harbinger of the auto industry’s new era.

BYD Inc., part owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., hopes to start selling its five-seat e6 on the west coast this year.

The e6, displayed at the recent Beijing auto show, is one of a series of “green” vehicles being developed by Chinese automakers that run on everything from batteries to solar panels and tiny wind turbines.

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They lag Western rivals in technology but are working at a frenzied pace to ensure they’ll be part of the green automobile age.

Home Sensor Startup Snapped Up

If you knew how much electricity your plasma television used or how much water your dishwasher drank at different times of day, would you change your habits to conserve more and spend less on utilities? Researchers at the University of Washington, Duke University, and Georgia Tech believe that you might. Several years ago they invented sensors that could track the electricity consumption and water usage throughout an entire building via a single point on each system. In 2008, the researchers founded a company called Zensi to commercialize the technology, and last week, they sold that company to Belkin, an electronics hardware manufacturer.

A line of easy-to-install sensors for homes could be commercially available within the next year, says Shwetak Patel, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, and co-inventor of Zensi’s sensors. Data from such sensors could lead to itemized utility bills — and customers who are more aware of the energy sinks in their homes, he says.

Right now it’s impossible for a consumer to get an accurate gauge of energy use without deploying numerous expensive sensors. But cost reductions in key technologies have made the concept of watching every device in a home more feasible, says Ivo Steklac, executive vice president of sales and strategy at Tendril, a Boulder, CO-based, energy-monitoring startup. The key technologies are high-speed analog-to-digital conversion devices, digital signal processing algorithms, low-power communications, and ubiquitous Internet access and connectivity, Steklac says.

The concept behind Zensi’s technology is simple: a single sensor is plugged into a wall outlet, where it “listens” to the high-frequency electrical noise produced in the wiring when different devices are turned on. Each electrical device has a signature that is unique to the kind of device it is, its brand, and its location within a house. This information, in turn, reveals its energy consumption. MIT professor Fred Schweppe, and others tested a similar idea more than a decade ago. In the case of plumbing, a sensor is connected to the hose spigot on the side of a house. When a toilet is flushed or a sink is turned on, the sensor detects the characteristic change in pressure.

Do the Rules of the Nation’s Electric Grid Discriminate Against Wind Power?

The future mix of electric power generation sources in the United States is critically linked to the fate of climate legislation in Congress.

But changes in the way the grid works — if they occur — hinge more on what happens at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where a set of central policy issues are on the table.

FERC has solicited comments (FERC docket RM10–11) into whether the grid’s current operating rules discriminate unduly against wind power, and if so, what should be done about it. The inquiry focuses on possible rule changes in how wind power forecasts are handled, how backup generation for wind is priced, and whether wind generation should be coordinated more widely across grid regions to dampen the impact of sudden wind shifts. The comments fill 2,800 pages, and the commission has set no timetable for taking action.

The questions the FERC staff posed in the inquiry — warmly endorsed by FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff in January — suggest that it sees plenty of reason for concern about the prospects for wind and solar power based on the way the grid is run today, industry officials say.

“FERC inquiries that have incredibly detailed analysis and lengthy sets of questions are especially likely to lead somewhere. And that’s what this is,” said Rob Gramlich, senior vice president of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

The same conclusion registered with the Organization of Southeastern Utilities, a group of power companies from the nation’s poorest wind resources region that stand opposed to AWEA on essentially all of the critical issues raised in the FERC proceeding.

While the FERC inquiry pledges not to pick one kind of generation over another, “certain of the proposals tentatively advanced” in the inquiry “actually imply a selection of VERs [variable energy resources such as wind] as the favored class of generating resources,” the Southeastern utilities complained in their filing.

US lawmakers propose boost to clean energy exports

A group of Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday proposed legislation to promote U.S. exports of clean energy technology, which they said are badly lagging behind those of China and Europe.

“The U.S. must be the leader in manufacturing and exporting clean technologies, not one that becomes dependent on foreign energy products,” U.S. Representative Doris Matsui, a California Democrat, said in a statement.

Clean energy comes from renewable natural resources, such as sunlight, wind and geothermal heat.

The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated U.S. exports of clean energy technology, also known as green technology, could reach $40 billion per year and help create more than 750,000 jobs by 2020, the lawmakers said.

“Right now, the global market for environmental goods and services is estimated at $700 billion … At present, only six of the top 30 global companies that lead in this sector are American-owned. This must change,” said Representative Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat.

Senators look to solidify funding for coastal conservation

Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) yesterday both backed a proposal to codify funding for the Interior Department’s efforts to protect coastal wildlife.

Interior’s Coastal Program began in 1985 as an initiative to protect the creatures of the Chesapeake Bay that sends federal experts to partner with state agencies and local volunteer groups to protect wildlife habitat, remove invasive species and restore wetlands. It has since expanded to 23 coastal areas, but Congress has never specifically authorized funding for the program.

Cardin said he was exploring such an authorization and that it would “establish more permanence” for the program. The legislation was still being drafted and will likely not set a specific authorization level but rather call for “such sums as necessary,” he said yesterday after an Environment and Public Works Subcommittee hearing.

Healthy coastal ecosystems create $800 billion worth of economic benefits annually, and every dollar the Coastal Program spends on restoration, leverages three in private contributions, Cardin said.

Inhofe, the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, also said he would support the authorization.

On Patrol With the Reef Ranger

Gilbert Mart­nez has his work cut out for him. A reef ranger for the Belize Department of Fisheries, he spends his days patrolling a 87,000-acre Marine Protected Area called Glover’s Reef, an azure paradise of an atoll about 28 miles from the country’s mainland. I met him while reporting for an article in Tuesday’s Science Times about a reef-monitoring project in the atoll that is sponsored by the Bronx-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Beneath the white hull of Mr. Mart­nez’s patrol boat was a reef system teeming with diverse life. Robust corals, sponges the size of oil barrels, spiny lobsters and a dizzying array of multihued tropical fish all call this place home.

The ranger’s job to protect these animals from overfishing and other damage. Within just three hours on a recent afternoon on which I accompanied him, he encountered at least three men illegally collecting conch, a local favorite that can fetch $15 a pound in local markets.

One of these men was just outside the so-called no-take zone, where no fishing of any kind is allowed. It is legal for him to collect conch here so long as they weigh three ounces or more. The fisherman’s bag was swollen with the slimy reef-dwellers, which are cut from their shells by using a short blade.