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Stronger solar storms predicted; blackouts may result

John Roach, National Geographic News
The next 11-year solar storm cycle should be significantly stronger than the current one, which may mean big problems for power grids and GPS systems and other satellite-enabled technology, scientists announced today.

The stronger solar storms could start as early as this year or as late as 2008 and should peak around 2012.

“We predict the next solar cycle will be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the last cycle,” said Mausumi Dikpati, a solar scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, yesterday in a telephone briefing with reporters.
(7 March 2006)

The new biofuel republics

Dr. Elizabeth Bravo and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Institute of Science in Society (ISIS)
Poor developing nations are to feed the voracious appetites of rich countries for biofuels instead of their own hungry masses, and suffer the devastation of their natural forests and biodiversity.

The end of cheap oil and the impending fuel crisis have convinced the European Union and the United States to seriously tackle their long-standing and worsening “addiction to oil”, not by kicking the habit, but by guzzling biofuels instead. These “carbon neutral” fuels – biodiesel or bioethanol – make even committed environmentalists feel good about getting into their SUVs, as they do not contribute to carbon emissions. Burning biofuels simply sends back into the atmosphere carbon dioxide that the plants took out when they were growing in the field. The snag is that there simply isn’t sufficient arable land on which to grow all the biofuel crops needed to satisfy the voracious appetites of the industrialised nations.

So, the next phase of colonisation has begun. The industrialised countries are looking to the Third World to feed their addiction: the land is there for the taking as is cheap labour, and the environmental damages of large plantations, biofuels extraction and refining can all be outsourced, exactly as they were in the extraction of crude oil.
(7 March 2006)

Ownership matters: Three steps to ensure a biofuels industry that truly benefits rural America
David Morris, Institute for Local Self Reliance
Today less than 30 percent of proposed plants are farmer owned. More importantly, as much as 90 percent of ethanol capacity that comes on line in the next three years will be non-farmer owned.

Indeed, the eclipse of farmer-ownership has come so rapidly that the leading data-gatherer on the subject, BBI International, stopped tracking “farmer owned” ethanol plants just after the publication of its 2005 Fuel Ethanol Industry Directory. The reason? According to Tom Bryan, “(W)e came to believe that it was becoming too difficult to differentiate between what were labeled “farmer owned” and “majority farmer owned” ethanol plants. In other words, it became apparent to us that farmer owned ventures were becoming hard to define in this industry. It was also getting tough to say just what a “farmer” or “grower” was.”

In retrospect, and being an old timer, I confess to a very long hindsight, between 1980 and 1990, U.S. farmers redesigned an ethanol policy, at least at the state level, that married economic development and agricultural objectives to its environmental and energy objectives. By 2000-2004, that strategy had become the centerpiece of the nation’s biofuels expansion.

Today, the rise of giant plants and absentee plant ownership, threatens to divorce our agricultural and even economic development goals from our goal of reducing dependence on imported oil. Something needs to be done. Now.
(February 2006)

The green bullet (ethanol)

Lester B. Lave, W. Michael Griffin, Foreign Policy
There’s a straightforward way for Washington to end America’s addiction to foreign oil, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and resolving the impasse on international trade: Turn farm subsides into fuel subsides.

U.S. President George W. Bush says he wants to cure America’s “addiction” to imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As world trade negotiations move forward, he faces international pressure to cut U.S. farm subsidies and domestic pressure to keep them. How are these problems related? Bush has an opportunity to address each of them with one deft stroke by transforming farm subsidies into fuel subsidies. If Washington subsidized corn and switchgrass for domestic ethanol production instead of export, Bush would relieve his headache on trade, bolster energy security, and improve the environment.

After years of deadlock, World Trade Organization (WTO) talks may this year result in a deal that calls for a reduction in rich-country agricultural export subsidies. In the United States, the weight of such a ruling would fall on corn. The U.S. government transfers around $4.5 billion from taxpayers to corn farmers each year. The United States exports between 1.5 and 2.5 billion bushels of corn annually, worth some $3 to $5 billion. After World War II, American farmers fed much of the world. Five decades later, improved global food production means the world doesn’t need U.S. grain exports. Luckily for farmers, and the political leaders who cannot afford to alienate them, the United States must diversify its energy sources. The United States can and should continue to subsidize the corn—for ethanol—not for export.

…So what’s the catch? Corn farming is rough on the environment. Soil erosion due to wind and water is rampant. Fertilizer and pesticide runoffs produce algae blooms that result in “dead zones,” including one in the Gulf of Mexico that is so polluted it cannot support aquatic life. Furthermore, building the ethanol processing plants will take 3–4 years, and gas stations would have to commit to providing ethanol. And, because ethanol uses only the starch in corn, not the oil, protein, or other components, converting corn into ethanol is attractive only if there is a market for the byproducts. Opinions differ, but some estimate that byproduct markets could saturate well short of 11 billion gallons of production.

Fortunately, the surplus corn that isn’t economic to convert to ethanol doesn’t have to be grown, because it could easily be replaced with switchgrass.
(7 March 2006)
Comment by David Roberts of Gristmill.

St Patrick and the shortage of engineers

Heading Out, The Oil Drum
…If you are going to rely on technology to solve the problems of running short on various fuels, as they are currently produced, then you need certain folk (engineers, scientists and technologists), who understand the current ways of producing those fuels, to come up with that technology. It is likely that some of the new advances will come from “thinking outside the box”, but generally you need to know what’s inside the box first. The problems that we have are several-fold, but let me hit just a couple, the current lack of students, and the growing shortage of faculty to teach them. (And while I write largely about the United States, much of this also applies to Western Europe.)
(9 March 2006)

Oil industry asks for help to ease skills shortage

Toby Shelley, Financial Times
The oil industry has urged the government to help ease the shortages of professional and labouring staff that are hampering development in the North Sea.

The skilled workforce in the oil and gas sector is ageing and staff leaving are not being replaced in sufficient numbers. The problem is exacerbated by the boom in investment in the North Sea because of high oil prices.

The average offshore worker today is in his late 40s. Stephen Sheal of recruitment consultants Maxwell Drummond says 13 per cent of North Sea engineers could retire by 2007, and 33 per cent by 2012. He says there is a severe shortage of staff aged 25-40 to replace them.

…In the longer term, Opito’s Pinchpoints Project will investigate the shortage of British graduate specialist engineers. Half of the students in the UK training in engineering and physics, disciplines relevant to the oil, industry are from overseas.

The manpower problem is not simply one of recruitment, which has been slow since the low oil prices of the late 1980s, but also of staff development and retention. Even if recruitment were to pick up immediately, it would not cure the shortage. Engineers need five to eight years on-the-job experience before companies consider them fully competent.

Some companies, such as BP, have widely admired graduate recruitment programmes, but find their skilled workers are likely to be poached by what Mr Sheal calls “lean, sleeker independent companies” offering quicker career advancement.
(7 March 2006)
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