Energy and Global Warming News for April 8: Solar airplane completes maiden voyage; Austin seeks a new blueprint for power utilities; Record drought turns southern China into arid plain

Solar Airplane Completes Maiden Voyage

Solar Impulse, a prototype of an airplane designed to fly around the world using only solar power, made its first real flight today. As the sun shone down on the Swiss countryside an aircraft powered by 12,000 solar cells flew for 87 minutes to an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet.

Solar Impulse program founder Bertrand Piccard called the inaugural flight a crucial step toward fulfilling his goal of circumnavigating the globe in such an unusual aircraft. In a statement from the Solar Impulse team, Piccard said he was relieved to have the first flight completed after seven years of hard work.

“This first mission was the most risky phase of the entire project,” Piccard said. “Eighty-seven minutes of intense emotion after seven years of research, testing and perseverance. Never has an airplane as large and light ever flown before!”


The aircraft, known by its identifier HB-SIA, has a wingspan of a jumbo jet yet weighs the same as an average sedan. It made a “flea hop,” as the team called it, back in December when it lifted about three feet off the runway and flew less than a quarter mile. Today’s flight demonstrates that the airplane can not only fly, it can do so for an extended period at altitudes high enough for basic flight testing….

The wingspan of HB-SIA is 208 feet, that’s about 10 feet more than Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. But the airplane only weighs 3,500 pounds loaded for flight, about 499,000 pounds less than the 787.

Austin Seeks a New Blueprint for Power Utilities

When they loaded solar panels on their roofs in a new planned community here, Joe Zabreznik, Ashley Fisher and Leila Melhem were not trying to overturn a century-plus of electric utility practices and policies in the United States.

No less may be at stake, however, as the Pecan Street Project unfolds in Austin’s Mueller neighborhood.

Backed by a $10.4 million Smart Grid grant from the Department of Energy, the project will test whether Austin Energy — the city’s municipal power company — can manage a fundamental shift in how it operates.

Instead of selling an ever-expanding supply of electrons, the power industry’s historic goal, Austin Energy will experiment with a radically different business model. This one promotes energy efficiency and conservation, and renewable and distributed generation, seeking to meet climate goals while still remaining profitable.

In the process, Austin officials believe they are creating a model for the nation in how green energy development can be accelerated.

“This isn’t a smart grid project. This is going way beyond that,” said Roger Duncan, former general manager of Austin Energy and now board president of the Pecan Street Project, an eclectic nonprofit consortium that includes the utility, the University of Texas, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Austin Chamber of Commerce. The project draws its name from a landmark downtown neighborhood.

“Technologies are developing that are starting to integrate the major energy systems of utilities, buildings, the transportation sector and communications. That’s going to fundamentally change the way people generate, use and think about energy. There are a lot of elements of this project dealing with that bigger picture,” Duncan said.

The project will seek 1,000 residential and 75 commercial volunteers to try out a wide range of clean energy pilot projects. Some will experiment with versions of new smart meter billing systems for electricity customers aimed at encouraging electricity conservation through time-based rates. Some customers will get smart appliances tied to the grid. There will be household connections for plug-in hybrid vehicles that allow them to take power from and return it to the grid, and measure the strain on nearby transformers. Other experiments will test how native landscaping can conserve water — another municipal priority — and study which kinds of solar power installations are most effective.

The goal is to create a new template for the utility. Instead of trying to boost revenues through electricity sales, Austin Energy may be able to shift customers to a flat monthly electricity fee that remains constant however much electricity the customer uses over some period of time. The utility could profit if its energy conservation and efficiency programs reduce the electricity it has to generate or buy for its customers, said Brewster McCracken, executive director of the Pecan Street Project and a former member of Austin’s City Council.

Record drought turns southern China into arid plain

[Click here for video.]

It is hard to imagine a less fitting environment for a mollusc than the arid plain of Damoguzhen in south-west China.

There is not a drop of water in sight. The baked and fissured earth resembles an ancient desert. Yet shellfish are scattered here in their thousands; all so recently perished that shriveled, blackened bodies are still visible inside cracked, opened shells.

Far out of water, the aquatic animals are not the advance guard of evolutionary progress; but the victims of a drought that has devastated their habitat and now threatens the livelihoods of millions of people in surrounding regions. The Chinese government is so worried about the drought that it has embarked on a massive rain-making operation, involving firing thousands of shells and rockets into the sky to seed clouds.

Until last summer, Damoguzhen was home to a lake that stretched across a mile-wide expanse of water in Yunnan, a southern Chinese province famed for its mighty rivers, moist climate and beautiful views.

Today, it joins 310 reservoirs, 580 rivers and 3,600 pools that have been baked dry by a once-in-a-century drought that is evaporating drinking supplies, devastating crops and stirring up political tensions over dam construction, monoculture plantations and cross-border water management in south-east Asia. Linking specific weather events to human-caused climate change is impossible, but the drought is consistent with what climate scientists expect to see more of in future.

Hardest hit are local farmers such as Ying Yuexian, who has seen her tobacco and rice crop shrivel up over a six-month period that has seen record high temperatures and half the usual amount of rain.

“In February, the water dried up completely,” said the 34-year-old, surveying the parched expanse where she once fished. “It turned into this overnight.” Instead of drawing water from the lake, she now scrapes soil from its cracked bed in the hope that the nutrients can replenish the earth on her sun-blasted farmland.

Hawaii biofuels, solar power being boosted for military use

The Navy wants to increase up to sevenfold the state’s solar power output as part of a militarywide effort in Hawai’i to reduce its dependency on foreign fossil fuels.

About 160 people from 61 companies on the Mainland and in Hawai’i attended a forum yesterday at Marine Corps Base Hawaii to discuss the effort.

A short distance away, also on Marine Corps Base Hawaii, a biofuels gathering that focused on growing renewable energy crops for Navy fuel drew 250 people and about 100 companies.

The meetings were separate, but the goal is the same: a drive by the military to curb its use of foreign oil. Officials said Hawai’i is the most oil-dependent state in the nation, getting 90 percent of its fuel from overseas nations.

In January, the Navy and U.S. Department of Agriculture signed an agreement to increase biofuel crops and other renewable energy sources for military use.

Hawai’i was chosen for the initial collaboration between the two federal entities.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan yesterday called the biofuels gathering a “historic day for Hawai’i.”

“This charter partnership, under the agreement, gives us the chance to tap the under-utilized agricultural potential of Hawai’i,” Merrigan said at a news conference.

On Maui today, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai’i, will join with Merrigan and officials of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. to discuss commercial production of advanced biofuels and other renewable energy sources for the Navy.

Officials said the Office of Naval Research will commit about $2 million a year to the effort and the Department of Energy this year will add another $2 million.

GE Leads U.S. Wind Market But Faces More Competition

General Electric Co. installed more wind turbine capacity than rivals in the U.S. last year, but faces new competition from Asian companies, according to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based American Wind Energy Association, scheduled for release Thursday.

GE installed nearly 4 gigawatts, or 40% of new U.S. wind turbine capacity in 2009, up from 3.7 gigawatts in 2008, the report said. GE sold roughly $6 billion of wind turbines worldwide in 2009, company executives say.

S.F. program to help homeowners go green

One of the nation’s largest and most ambitious home-retrofit and alternative-energy programs is being launched right here in San Francisco next week.

GreenFinanceSF is a $150 million, privately funded program enabling San Francisco property owners to have money-saving energy-efficiency measures — like low-flow toilets and double-paned windows — and noncarbon energy sources, like solar, installed in their homes and businesses. The costs, which will be attached to property tax bills, are payable over 10 to 20 years.

The program opens for business on Monday, with Mayor Gavin Newsom hosting an Internet town hall beginning at 6:30 p.m. to answer questions about participation.

In addition to alleviating the usual costs of environmental improvements, Newsom said, the program “will save property owners money on monthly utility bills, increase property value and will help the city meet its aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals.”

More details, including ways to ask questions about the program and join the town hall, at

“Something transformative”: The $150 million for San Francisco’s program comes from Renewable Funding LLC, an Oakland company that designs, finances and administers similar programs under the Property Assessed Clean Energy financing mechanism. The 2-year-old organization, which is funded by private investors, works in partnership with other financial firms — such as San Francisco’s Stone & Young-berg — to raise money for the clean-energy programs primarily through bond measures.

A legacy of Katrina: Green homes

In this city on the mend, hundreds of state-of-the-art sustainable, energy-efficient homes are being built in lower-income neighborhoods, a trend that’s outpacing most of the rest of the country.

More than 500 homes are being built with features such as solar panels, rain-catching cisterns and eco-friendly materials in neighborhoods that received the brunt of the damage from the 2005 floods following Hurricane Katrina. Hundreds of other homes are being given green upgrades.

“New Orleans is certainly a leader in that regard,” says Suzanne Watson of the Washington-based American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “The scale at which they’re doing it is remarkable.”

Green building has traditionally been left to higher-end homes, whose owners can afford the costlier solar panels and other elements, says Forest Bradley-Wright of the New Orleans-based Alliance for Affordable Energy. But as New Orleans began to rebuild, non-profits stepped in with innovative development techniques and eco-friendly plans to rebuild lower-income neighborhoods such as the Lower 9th Ward and Pontchartrain Park, he says.

“The destruction caused by Katrina necessitated almost every one to rethink how to rebuild their home,” Bradley-Wright says.

Carbon Positive: a chance to protect children affected by climate change

The era of all-night illuminations in shop windows and the open-door policy favoured by shops to help entice you in as you walk by, could well be over.

From the beginning of April, 5,000 organisations in both the public and private sector that use a certain level of energy — the equivalent of an annual bill of around £500,000 — will have to comply with the new “Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme”, which establishes a carbon trading scheme for large organisations.

Diverse organisations from supermarkets and shopping centres, to universities, hotels and all government departments, will be part of the scheme. Participants will be required to calculate and register theircarbon emissions and from next year, pay for the carbon they emit.

The aim of the CRC Energy Efficiency scheme is to make organisations more energy efficient and help the UK move towards the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. But while reducing our carbon footprint remains as important as ever — we must also acknowledge that carbon mitigation alone is no longer enough.

Why? Because far away from the bright lights of the high street, in some of the most fragile communities in the world, you will find the disquieting evidence for why Unicef sees an imperative for businesses to go beyond just reducing their emissions and really take the lead in tackling climate change. We need help to save childrens’ lives.

Tokyo kicks off carbon trading scheme

Plans for a national Japanese emissions trading scheme may still be mired in confusion, but that has not stopped Tokyo winning the race to launch Asia’s first carbon trading initiative.

The city last week kicked off its long-awaited carbon trading scheme, which will require 1,400 of Tokyo’s most energy and carbon intensive organisations to meet legally binding emission targets modeled on those used in Europe’s cap-and-trade scheme.

During the first phase of the scheme, which runs up to 2014, participating organisations will have to cut their carbon emissions by six per cent.

Those that fail to operate within their emission caps will from 2011 be required to purchase emission allowances to cover any excess emissions, or alternatively invest in renewable energy certificates or offset credits issued by smaller businesses or branch offices. However, under the rules of the scheme, credits issued outside of Tokyo can not exceed a third of the emission cuts required of participating organisations.

Those firms that fail to comply with the new rules will face fines and could also be named and shamed by the government. According to local reports, organisations that do not operate within their caps will also be ordered to cut emissions by 1.3 times the amount they failed to reduce emissions during the first phase of the scheme.

City officials said that in the long term the aim was to cut the metropolis’ carbon emissions by 25 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020.

China urges int’l trust on climate issue

A Chinese official on Thursday pledged that the country will stick to its clean energy policy, while urging the international community to enhance mutual trust and push for more transparency and cooperation at the climate conference to be held in Mexico in November this year.

The largely-disappointing Copenhagen climate conference last December worked out a diluted unbinding accord which failed to nail down the exact figure on carbon reduction commitments.

“This is the Copenhagen lesson. An international negotiation that lacks transparency and broad participation won’t be acknowledged by any nation, and will seriously imperil mutual trust in tackling the climate change problem,” said Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s top economic planner, in an address at the opening ceremony of the 2010 Asia News Network Board Meeting in Beijing.

Surviving Miner: “There’s No Safe Mines”

Coal miner Kevin Lambert says he and his co-workers knew something was very wrong when they noticed that the fan that propels air underground at the Massey Energy Company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W. Va. had reversed, and was blowing dust out as they were about to start the evening shift there.

“There’s only certain things that can make that fan reverse,” Massey told “Early Show” co-anchor Harry Smith Wednesday. “We knew it had to be something big.”

They were right. A major explosion had killed 25 miners and left four missing.

Lambert, who’s mined for Massey since 2001, suspects methane gas. “We know it’s gassy coal,” he said. “We know that when — you’re gonna hit methane. You don’t know where it comes from. Could come from a crack. Could come anywhere. All it takes is a spark. I can’t see how they can point a finger at just anybody. It’s just methane.”

Does he feel Massey, whose safety record has come under scrutiny, is a safe operator?

“They treat me alright,” Lambert replied. “There’s no safe mines. I don’t care where you go. You’re not gonna find a safe mine. They could do whatever they want — make all the laws.