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Big Oil’s impact on research is debated

Rick DelVecchio, San Francisco Chronicle
The oil industry has committed more than $700 million to alternative energy research at three Northern California universities, prompting debate over how commercial interests might shape the direction and results of scientific advances.

On one side, John Simpson of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, based in Santa Monica, sees university affiliations as attractive to an industry trying to change its image but perilous to universities if safeguards are not put in place to protect their independence and reputation.

“When you have that amount of money coming in to a place, the mere presence of the money can have a substantial impact on the behavior of the university, and that means that it’s all the more necessary that specific safeguards go into place that prevent the university’s good name from being taken advantage of,” he said.

On the other side, alliance advocates say pooling federal, academic and private resources is necessary to solve technical problems with a level of complexity and financial risk that would undermine speedy, independent efforts by any one of the three.

They also argue that there’s nothing particularly nefarious about research sponsored privately as opposed to that supported by the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation — by far the biggest benefactors of university science and its largest financial investors, dwarfing all sources of corporate funding combined.

“All sources of research funding have implications for the academic institutions,” said Stanford plant biologist Chris Somerville, who will lead UC Berkeley’s new Energy Biosciences Institute. “The large increase in funding from NIH during the past 15 years led to a huge expansion of biomedical sciences and, in my opinion, a lot of distortion of biological research priorities.”

Industry funding of energy research is a comparative dribble and would have to grow far bigger to cause distortions comparable with federal initiatives, Somerville said. “If anything, industry funding represents a healthy diversification away from almost total reliance on the whims of government,” he said.
(15 July 2007)

The World’s Largest Solar Energy Farm

Warren Karlenzig, WorldChanging
Fresno, California sits at the south end of one of the sunniest and hottest valleys in North America, the San Joaquin. The San Joaquin Air District is also one of the most polluted in the nation, with asthma rates many times higher than the rest of the nation and numerous air quality action days every summer causing significant health and business impacts.

Upon this tableau, the city of about a half million residents along with 11 surrounding communities and two counties announced last week they would together be developing the largest solar facility in the world. It will be more than seven times the size of the earth’s largest solar energy farm, now in Germany.
(13 July 2007)

Contributor Zonbar-12 (Ken Ott) writes:
Covers background of people and policies behind this recent breakthrough. Also a mention of natural gas shortages in the near future as a motivator. But… I *like* my gas kitchen stove, dagnabit! Sigh. We do live like kings in the meanwhile…

Solar Power Wins Enthusiasts but Not Money

Andrew C. Revkin and Matthew L. Wald, New York Times
The trade association for the nuclear power industry recently asked 1,000 Americans what energy source they thought would be used most for generating electricity in 15 years. The top choice? Not nuclear plants, or coal or natural gas. The winner was the sun, cited by 27 percent of those polled.

…But for all the enthusiasm about harvesting sunlight, some of the most ardent experts and investors say that moving this energy source from niche to mainstream – last year it provided less than 0.01 percent of the country’s electricity supply – is unlikely without significant technological breakthroughs. And given the current scale of research in private and government laboratories, that is not expected to happen anytime soon.

Even a quarter century from now, says the Energy Department official in charge of renewable energy, solar power might account for, at best, 2 or 3 percent of the grid electricity in the United States.

In the meantime, coal-burning power plants, the main source of smokestack emissions linked to global warming, are being built around the world at a rate of more than one a week.
(16 July 2007)

Turbine shortage to leave some Scottish communities in the dark

Paul Kelbie, The Observer
A worldwide shortage of wind-turbines has been caused by a sudden surge in demand and the frenzied industrial growth of China creating delivery delays that could take years to rectify. Plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions and meet more of Britain’s energy needs by an expansion of offshore wind farms have had to be revised, because experts now believe the chances of building them before 2010 at the earliest is unlikely.
(15 July 2007)

Saudi Arabia invests in renewables

Saudi Arabia has set up a multimillion dollar renewable energy research center in an effort to diversify from its reliance on oil funds.

The center, on the campus of the Dhahran-based King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, is currently working on resource mobilization before its premier research activities kick off in a year’s time, Arab News reported. . .

. . . The center has set up different branches for research on hydrogen, methanol and fuel cell; solar and wind energy; advanced energy storage systems; electrical infrastructure and control systems; and economics of renewable energy.
(12 July 2007)
Jeffrey J. Brown writes:
recall the discussions of Saudi Arabia looking into importing coal?
Let’s see, what would they do after they start importing coal?
(Insert musical theme from the “Jeopardy” quiz show)