Environment Forum

One small step for green energy, one giant leap….

The idea to tap solar power from the Sahara desert to provide CO2-free electricity for Europe and northern Africa has captured the public’s imagination in Germany after the Desertec Industrial Initiative was formally launched in Munich on Monday. Several German commentators compared the notion of catching the sun’s rays in the Sahara to the boldness of the U.S. space programme in the 1960s with its drive to put a man on the moon. As my colleague Christoph Steitz pointed out in his report, 12 companies took the first step towards the project that could be delivering up to 15 percent of Europe’s power by 2050.Even if it was only the start and details on how it will all work remain sketchy, the Desertec story led the news broadcasts on all the major German networks on Monday and triggered an avalanche of front-page media coverage and editorials, most favourable. Germans see Desertec as a “win-win-win” prospect. It would a) produce CO2-free energy, b) create hundreds of thousands of jobs in Europe and Africa, and c) promote better relations between countries north and south of the Mediterranean through business and trade connections similar to the way Europe grew together after World War Two. There is, of course, another point — d) it could give German companies, many of which have spent the last decade building up their know-how with solar and wind energy, a chance to take advantage of their expertise on an even larger scale.”It’s rare that I’ve been so fascinated by a news item as I have by the idea of using the hot desert as a giant socket,” wrote Bild newspaper’s venerable Franz Josef Wagner, one of Germany’s most popular columnists known for his usual biting criticism. “Desertec is for me the greatest leap for mankind since Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. The hot desert could save humanity. This project is greener than green. Desertec is the bright future.”And Michael Miersch, in a commentary for the conservative daily Die Welt, wrote: “It seems at first glance like some sort of Jules Verne Utopia but it’s nevertheless being backed by 12 large companies that want to invest in it. Even if it falls short of the goal of delivering 15 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050, it is nevertheless a clear start signal — it could possibly mark the beginning of the end of the oil age.”Miersch also likened Desertec to the U.S. space programme and quoted President John F. Kennedy’s rallying cry “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” Miersch wrote: “There is a large choir of critics. But problems are there to be solved.”Joachim Wille wrote a column in the left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau that also compared Desertec to the Apollo programme. “It is far more than just electricity for our sockets. It represents a quantum leap forward into a new energy age.”But Andreas Heitker cautioned in a page one editorial in the Boersen-Zeitung business daily that it was far from unsure if Desertec would ever be built: “Desertec could give a boost to renewable energy in Europe but whether the 400-billion euro project turns out to be anything more than a good idea remains doubtful. It shows quite clearly, in any event, that there is still a great untapped potential for solar energy.”Hamburger Abendblatt columnist Oliver Schade said: “It makes a lot of sense to put such a major project in an area where the sun shines brighter and more often than between Flensburg and Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Europe is moving in the right direction by launching a project like this. It sounds like a fairy tale — but in fact solar power plants in North Africa and Arabia could be delivering one in seven kilowatt hours that we need in Europe by the year 2050.”The Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper observed that after Monday’s news conference the executives from the 12 companies that signed the memorandum of understanding were lined up, as planned, for a group picture. But before the assembled photographers could start snapping, the stage quickly filled up with political leaders who were also attending the launch. “It was a situation that was perhaps symbolic — everyone wanted to be part of it and they wouldn’t feel they were part of it if they weren’t in the picture,” wrote the Munich daily’s Thomas Fromm.There is clearly a buzz about Desertec in Germany even if the same level of enthusiasm hasn’t yet been detected in any of the other countries that might be involved. Maybe it has something to do with Germans’ yearning for sunshine and fascination with the sun in their country that is often covered by clouds? Or maybe it has something to do with companies getting a whiff of profits in the air — the sun doesn’t send any bills, after all.PHOTO: A “solucar” solar park in Sanlucar La Mayor, near Seville, November 6, 2008. The solar thermal power plant uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays onto the top of a 100 metre (300 foot) tower where it produces steam to drive a turbine, producing electricity. REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo

from Commentaries:

Are pension funds ignoring climate risk?

And are conservation groups moving into the business of giving investment advice?

It seems an unlikely path for environmentalists to take, but this WWF commissioned report warning that failure to take carbon risk into account could knock pension fund returns raises some interesting points.

"Carbon Risks in UK Equity Funds" by Mercer and Trucost "outlines how fund manager complacency on corporate carbon performance could put pension fund assets at risk as carbon-intensive companies face rising carbon costs and their company valuations fall in the short-term in anticipation of future carbon risk".

Ex-GOP diplomacy machine talking green

Unfairly or not, any discussion of the Republican party’s environmental record by clean energy advocates often includes a mention of the White House solar panels ditched under Ronald Reagan. Green-minded members of the Grand Old Party, on the other hand, would rather point to the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency under Richard Nixon. Either way, in what’s clearly a sign of the times, renewables featured high on the minds of three former GOP secretaries of state who popped up at various energy conferences in the San Francisco Bay Area this past week (One can only assume the timing was a coincidence).

George Schultz, who served under Reagan, probably surprised at least a few people when he counted himself as among those EV1 owners still regretting GM’s controversial scrapping of the electric car earlier this decade.  A Stanford professor and Hoover Institution fellow for the past two decades, Schultz had enjoyed driving it around campus. “I could even drive it up to San Francisco. I couldn’t go too many other places, but it’s a very useful car,” he said. “I was sorry to see that car taken off the market, it worked just fine.” Speaking at a meeting of energy economists last week alongside Chevron’s David O’Reilly, Schultz went on to join the oil company CEO in endorsing a carbon tax as more efficient than the cap-and-trade system favored by Congress.

On Monday, Condoleezza Rice also favored a carbon tax when she addressed the Silicon Valley Energy Summit at Stanford, where she too is a professor and Hoover fellow, while stressing the importance of not picking winners in the push for greener energy. “At this stage, we need to have an open field for all renewable alternatives to change the energy mix,” she said.

from FaithWorld:

U.S. conservative Christians sound “cap and trade” alarms

America's social and religious conservatives are turning up the heat as they galvanize heartland opposition against the latest example of President Barack Obama-inspired "socialism" -- a climate change bill that aims to reduce fossil fuel emissions, which most scientists have linked to climate change.  

USA/

The Democratic Party-led House of Representatives passed the bill on Friday. It would require large companies, including utilities and manufacturers, to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases associated with global warming by 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, from 2005 levels. It must still go through the U.S. Senate, where its ultimate fate remains uncertain despite the Democratic majority there.

Conservative Christians, a key base -- if not THE base -- for the out-of-power Republican Party, are among the biggest skeptics of human-induced global warming. In the eyes of many environmentalists, they were part of an "unholy alliance" with the energy industry that enjoyed its zenith under former president George W. Bush, who pulled America out of the Kyoto Protocol aimed at cutting emissions in the developed world. The Bush administration was widely seen as hostile to any attempt to cap emissions as well as the science behind it.

New ‘gold rush’ buzz hits Germany over Sahara solar

A “gold-rush-like” buzz has spread across Germany in the last week over tentative plans to invest the staggering sum of 400 billion euros to harvest solar power in the Sahara for energy users across Europe and northern Africa. Even though European and Mediterranean Union leaders have been exploring and studying for several years the idea of using concentrated solar power (CSP), the Desertec proposition suddenly captivated the public’s attention a week ago when German reinsurer Munich Re announced it had invited blue chip German companies such as Deutsche Bank, Siemens and several major utilities to a July 13 meeting on the project. The 20 companies aim to sign a memorandum of understanding to found the Desertec Industrial Initiative that could be supplying 15 percent of Europe’s electricity in the decades ahead.

Germany’s deputy foreign minister, Guenter Gloser, has been the government’s point man for the project. I had the chance to talk to him about it.

Question: How did this project to turn the sun in the Sahara into electricity for Europe and north African countries get started?
Guenter Gloser: About 15 months ago Germany and France proposed including the solar plan into the list of projects for the Union for the Mediterranean. There were institutions that had already done research and we thought: ‘Why don’t we use this sun belt where there is such an abundance of sunshine as a source of renewable energy?’ Together Germany, France and Egypt put forth this solar plan as one of the six projects for the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and underscored the fact that it could benefit both sides. It was not an idea where just countries north of the Mediterranean will benefit but rather those countries south of it as well as across the EU would also benefit.

from Shop Talk:

The greening of Wal-Mart

walmartsustainable Wal-Mart, which helped promote the adoption of those funny-looking "green" lightbulbs, is making more room in its Sam's Club warehouse stores for environmentally friendly products -- including a water-saving toilet that has one button for flushing liquids and another for flushing solids.

Employees at a Sam's Club in the discounter's home town in Bentonville, Arkansas, have emptied shelves of things like power tools to make way for a variety of green products. Similar efforts have taken place in Sam's Clubs across the United States.

"Our members need and are looking for things that will help them mitigate their energy bills," said Joel Heiligenthal, buyer of home efficiency products at the club store chain.

U.S. cities take lead on environmental action

“Green Cities,” a new report by a thinktank called Living Cities, examines how American cities have taken the lead on environmental issues in the absence of strong federal action. 

Based on a survey of 40 of the largest U.S. cities, the report points to progress in mandating more efficient city buildings and promoting recycling but notes that talk of creating “green jobs” has been more talk than action.  

Among the main findings:

* Four in five big cities say sustainability is among their top five priorities. Only about one in six says it is not.

from From Reuters.com:

Expanding our environment coverage

When the Reuters.com editorial and business teams met last year to frame our priorities for 2009, one of the ideas that most excited us was an expansion of our environment section. Our environment correspondents around the world were already ramping up their coverage of the business of clean technology, anticipating increased demand for news about how companies were addressing the challenges of climate change and pollution. This was before the election of President Obama and the promise of economic stimulus money for environmental projects.

So the timing felt right when we relaunched our Environment section as Green Business last week. You'll still find all the news that was on the old page, from correspondents such as Oslo-based Alister Doyle and Peter Henderson in San Francisco. But we've added more financial content and news from partners with complementary coverage.

Here's a quick tour of the page:
1: Business news from correspondents such as Nichola Groom, who covers alternative energy out of Los Angeles.

On your mark! Get set! Swim to the Caribbean!

The contestants are chunky to say the least, but to their celebrity coaches and sponsors they are things of beauty: 11 endangered leatherback sea turtles, competing to be the first to swim from their chilly feeding grounds off the Canadian Atlantic coast to their breeding grounds in the Caribbean.

The Great Turtle Race starts April 16, but the handicapping began early, with boosters for massive entrants Nightswimmer and Backspacer boasting that they were sure to win.

“Our turtle, Nightswimmer — huge, beautiful,” said Mike Mills, bass player with alternative pop/rock group R.E.M., which is sponsoring the big male racer. “Of course with (former U.S. Olympic champion swimmer) Janet Evans as coach I really don’t see how we can lose.”

What a difference a year makes – Valero embraces corn ethanol

At last year’s American Petroleum Institute conference, Bill Klesse, CEO of leading U.S. oil refiner Valero, slammed federal policymakers who push subsidies and mandates for production of ethanol, saying that using corn to make it would make food so expensive it would cause more misery than global warming.

“All of these programs are just a huge transfer of wealth from our industry (oil) to the Midwest farms,” Klesse said in March 2008 speech.

A year later, Klesse has decided to join rather than fight. If the money is going to the Midwest corn farms, why not cash in, right? Valero two weeks ago was chosen by a bankruptcy court as the winning bidder for two more VeraSun ethanol-producing plants.  The sale of seven former VeraSun plants closed on Wednesday and two more are expected to close soon.

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