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China resorts to blackouts in pursuit of energy efficiency

Jonathan Watts, Guardian
With end of current five-year plan looming, many regions are desperately pulling the plug to meet usage targets

No TV. No internet. No air conditioning. Traffic lights off. Hospitals deprived of electricity. Tens of thousands of household fridges and freezers without power. Milk curdling. Vegetables rotting. The risks of delaying energy-saving measures have been all too apparent in a Chinese region where the authorities initiated draconian rationing last month to achieve the state’s efficiency targets.

Anping County, in Hebei Province, cut electricity to homes, factories and public buildings for 22 hours every three days in a radical move that has highlighted both the serious last-minute effort that China is making to achieve environmental goals and the immense long-term difficulty of shifting away from a dirty, wasteful model of economic growth.

There are less than four months left until the end of China’s current five-year plan, during which the economy is supposed to have become 20% more energy efficient. That target (which measures energy use relative to GDP growth) is crucial for a nation that wants to move up the economic value chain and prove to the world that it is making a significant contribution toward tackling greenhouse gas emissions.

Progress towards this goal was initially good, with a 14.4% gain in efficiency until last year. But it was tilted off track in the first three months of 2010 by huge infrastructure spending – largely on energy-intensive steel and cement projects – aimed at warding off the worst effects of the global economic downturn.

This meant China’s economy surged forward at more than double-digit pace, but was having to burn more coal for each yuan of productivity. After this was revealed, the state council – China’s cabinet – ordered the provinces to step up their efforts to reach the energy efficiency target by the end of the year.
(19 September 2010)

Air Conditioning Using 90 Percent Less Power

Michael Haederle, Miller-McCune
A U.S. government project combining two well-known technologies — swamp coolers and water-absorbing compounds — generates an amazingly efficient air conditioner.

We often take air conditioning for granted as we escape from the sweltering summer heat in our climate-controlled homes, but it is an expensive, energy-intensive technology. By some estimates, it accounts for about 14 percent of the electricity consumed by American households.

That current comes largely from coal- and gas-fired power plants — bad news as we look for ways to cut carbon emissions to soften the impact of global climate change.

Now, engineers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., have developed an innovative air conditioning concept that promises to cut electrical demand by up to 90 percent — and it works well in both Gulf Coast humidity and desert heat.
(9 September 2010)

Solar on the Cheap: Thanks Purple Pokeberry!

Arnie Cooper, Miller-McCune
A dye made from the purple pokeberry — a common weed — proves uncommonly effective at juicing up the prospects for solar power.

A valueless plant growing wild…” might be’s definition of purple pokeberries, but David Carroll, director of Wake Forest University’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials, says the omnipresent “weed” will soon play a role in improving solar power in places ranging from residential green building in the United States to areas in the developing world cut off from the power grid.

Carroll says a red dye made from pokeberries can be used to coat a new type of solar cell that’s produced from millions of tiny plastic fibers. Unlike traditional solar units, fiber cells — thanks to a patented design that exposes more surface area to the sun’s rays — can produce a usable amount of power even at sunrise and sunset.
(13 September 2010)

Ten Ways the Feds Are Leading the Green Charge

Emily Badger, Miller-McCune
How exactly is the U.S. federal government leading by example on reducing greenhouse gas emissions? A collection of reports lists a zillion specific items, from double-sided printing to thousands of solar panels.

resident Obama issued an executive order last October requiring every government agency to spell out how it plans to “lead by example” in environmental sustainability. He wanted to hear about waste management and water use, smart meters in federal office buildings and alternative-fuel vehicles in public fleets.

The Strategic Sustainability Performance Plans were finally due last week, and embedded in the dense documents — no one should print these things, even on recycled paper — are hundreds of small ideas. The relatively obscure Corporation for National and Community Service, for one, is promising to set all its printers to double-sided default mode and to check the tire pressure every time a government vehicle leaves the lot.

The federal government is the largest consumer of energy in the U.S. economy, and the president is aiming for a 28 percent reduction in direct greenhouse gas pollution by 2020. But will all the ideas add up? Here’s a look at what many departments have in mind.
(14 September 2010)

Busting Myths About Photovoltaics

John Perlin, Miller-McCune
Fresh from the European Union photovoltaic conference, our John Perlin takes on some of the misconceptions clouding the solar power movement.

… Myth: Because solar cells are only a few microns thick, they produce weaker electricity.

Fact: All electrons are created equal. Hence, the movement of electrons that make up electricity are no different from those generated by the sun striking “wimpy” solar cells than from those generated by huge turbines powered by steam. Our minds have become so accustomed to electricity generated by large power plants that it is hard to adjust to the concept that extremely thin material can do the same work.

Myth: Photovoltaic cells require much more area to generate power than do power plants run on fossil fuels or nuclear.

Fact: If the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels and nuclear is accounted for as well, then the area required for the production and generation of the three energy sources is about the same.

Myth: Photovoltaics, unlike other power generators, can only survive with subsidies.

Fact: While subsidies do matter, as shown in Germany, other common power sources also receive major support. Fossil fuels and nuclear receive about $500 billion in subsidies worldwide every year.
(15 September 2010)

Rising wheat prices raise fears over UK commitment to biofuels

Jamie Doward, The Observer
The soaring price of wheat has raised questions about the UK’s commitment to biofuels as it attempts to wean itself from its dependence on oil.

A network of biorefineries that convert wheat and other crops into bioethanol that can then be blended with petrol are being developed as the UK looks to meet its EU renewable transport fuels obligations.

But the huge amounts of wheat that will be used in the process – up to a fifth of the UK’s current annual production within four years – have prompted questions about where the crop will come from.

At the end of a week in which the wheat price hit a two-year high as Russia, the world’s fourth largest producer, imposed an export ban for the second year running, there were fears that the domestic move to biofuels would lead to further rises in the cost of wheat. The result would be a significant rise in shopping bills.
(5 September 2010)