Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2008 May 19

Flying Over the Columbia Hills of Mars
Animated Illustration Credit: Doug Ellison, Randolph Kirk (USGS), MSSS, MER, NASA

Explanation: What it would be like to fly over Mars? Combining terrain data from the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft with information about the robotic Spirit rover currently rolling across Mars has resulted in a digital movie that shows what a flight over the Columbia Hills might look like. Dark rippled sand dunes are highlighted against the Columbia Hills in the above opening image. Clicking on the above image, though, will launch you across Mars, approaching the Columbia Hills. On the far side of the hills, the dark sand dunes come into view. Soon you pass an unusual white-rimmed structure, slightly raised, known as Home Plate, the origin of which is currently unknown and being researched. Turning, you re-approach the hills from a different angle, this time zooming in on Spirit, a curious alien rover sent from planet Earth. A final zoom pans out over the region. This coming Sunday, NASA's Phoenix Lander will attempt to set down near the icy North Pole of Mars and search for signs of ancient life.

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MPs back creation of human-animal embryos

Cow /Mouse admixed embryos (also known as hybrids)

The amendment to ban all admixed embryos was defeated by 336 votes to 176. The prohibition on true hybrids was defeated by 286 votes to 223

British scientists will be allowed to research devastating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s using human-animal embryos, after the House of Commons rejected a ban yesterday.

An amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that would have outlawed the creation of “human admixed embryos” for medical research was defeated in a free vote by a majority of 160, preserving what Gordon Brown regarded as a central element of the legislation.

The Government is braced for defeat today, however, on a separate clause that would scrap the requirement that fertility clinics consider a child’s need for a father before treating patients. MPs will also consider amendments tonight that would cut the legal limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 22 or 20 weeks.

A second amendment, which would have banned the creation of “true hybrids” made by fertilising an animal egg with human sperm, or vice-versa, was also defeated yesterday by a majority of 63. Another free vote last night was expected to approve the use of embryo-screening to create “saviour siblings” suitable to donate umbilical cord blood to sick children.

Edward Leigh, Conservative MP for Gainsborough, moving the amendment to ban all admixed embryos, said that mingling animal and human DNA crossed an “ultimate boundary”. He said that exaggerated claims were giving patients false hope and that the dangers of the research were unknown. “In many ways we are like children playing with landmines without any concept of the dangers of the technology we are handling,” he said.

Mark Simmonds, a Shadow Health Minister, who moved the amendment to ban “true hybrids”, said that there was no compelling evidence of their research usefulness.

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West, challenged those who accepted admixed embryos in principle but rejected “true hybrids” to explain the ethical difference between an embryo that was 99 per cent human and one that was 50 per cent human.

Dawn Primarolo, the Health Minister, agreed: “Once we go down that road it seems illogical to oppose a particular mix.” Ms Primarolo said that the shortage of human eggs was the biggest barrier to embryonic stem cell research. The Minister admitted that the Bill was not a promise that cures for diseases could be found. “It is an aspiration that it may,” she said.

The amendment to ban all admixed embryos was defeated by 336 votes to 176. The prohibition on true hybrids was defeated by 286 votes to 223.

The main kinds of admixed embryo permitted by the Bill are “cytoplasmic hybrids” or “cybrids”, which are made by moving a human nucleus into an empty animal egg. These are genetically 99.9 per cent human. As well as true hybrids, it also allows chimeras that combine human and animal cells, and transgenic human embryos that include a little animal DNA.

The most immediate implication of the Commons vote will be to allow teams at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and King’s College London, which already hold licences to create cybrids, to continue their research. Though they were cleared to start these experiments by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in January, their licences would have been rescinded had MPs voted for a ban.

Cybrids could carry the DNA of patients with genetic conditions to create stem-cell models of these diseases for studying their progress and testing new treatments. Human eggs could be used but are in short supply because of risk to donor women.

It is legal to culture admixed embryos up to 14 days and illegal to transfer them to a human or animal womb.

The decision will also encourage a third team, which plans to use admixed embryos to study motor neuron disease, to apply for a licence. The group, led by Professor Chris Shaw, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, had been waiting for the vote.

Professor Shaw said: “It will allow us to forge ahead on all fronts in our attempts to understand and develop therapies for a huge range of currently incurable diseases. Cures may be some years off, but this vote does mean we can use hybrid embryos, in addition to adult stem cells, in our search to understand what causes Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease.”

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, of the National Institute for Medical Research in London, said the vote would aid understanding of normal embryonic development and of genetic disease: “This understanding will ultimately give us the best chance of developing therapies for these diseases, for infertility and for a range of other medical conditions”.

Simon Denegri, chief executive of the Association for Medical Research Charities, said: “MPs have clearly listened to the strong arguments put forward by medical research charities, patient groups and scientists of the importance of this research to advancing our understanding of diseases and conditions that affect hundreds of thousands of people in the UK.”

A majority of women say they should have the right to an abortion at between 20 and 24 weeks of their pregnancy and want the law to stay as it is. A poll of women of childbearing age, conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Marie Stopes International found that 61 per cent say that there should be access to late abortion services for a wide range of circumstances.

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Homemade power banishes the bills

Charmaine Watts says generating at home reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

Charmaine Watts says generating at home reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

Charmaine Watts hasn't had a power bill for eight years.

Her family of two adults and three children are one of hundreds around the country generating their own electricity.

With power prices on the rise, the $20,000 the Watts spent installing solar panels, a small wind turbine, storage batteries and wiring is starting to look like a good investment.

"I don't need to worry about power cuts," said Ms Watts. "It's just like a normal house. I flick the switch on my computer or my DVD player and away I go."

Watts is the head of the Sustainable Electricity Association of New Zealand, a group representing small-scale wind, hydro and solar power generators. Nobody knows exactly how many families generate their own power, but together it's thought they make between 5 and 6 megawatts of power a year - a drop in the bucket when measured against Meridian's planned West Wind wind farm near Wellington and its 142 megawatt production.

Watts says solar panels lasting between 25 to 30 years cost $25,000 , making them a good option even for city dwellers.

"Anyone with a roof has the potential to make their own electricity."

Solar panel dealer Mike Prior said the photovoltaic panels (the technology that generates electricity from the sun) were still too expensive for most people, even with prices falling all the time.

"A lot of people like the idea, but they run and hide when you tell them the cost," he said. "Most people spend about $40,000 installing a solar panel system, and you can buy a lot of electricity for that amount."

Mr Prior said home generation was a good option for people who lived away from the national power grid or who needed only small amounts of electricity. A basic system to power lights and hot water could cost as little as $5000.

For anyone living more than 500m from national power supply lines, installing a power supply worked out cheaper than connecting to the grid.

Mr Prior said solar generation would be affordable for most people only if the Government followed Germany and Australia and subsidised renewable power. "The market exploded in Germany. Manufacturers couldn't make enough panels," said Mr Prior. "The trouble here is the Government gets a return from state-owned renewable generators like Meridian Energy, so there's not much incentive to provide subsidies."

Ms Watts said the Government could do more to lower the barriers for home generators - like making it easier for people to sell their excess power back to the national grid. But for her family home generation was about more than saving money.

"We've saved something like 10,000 tonnes in carbon dioxide since 2000 by using natural, renewable energy."

There are drawbacks to self-sufficiency. Unlike the rest of the country, which has months to cut back on power when lake levels are low, the Watts have only five days worth of power stored.

By using LPG for cooking and a wood burner for hot water, the family live on between 500 and 1000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, compared with between 8000 and 12,000 for the average family. When sun and wind are in short supply, they cut down on TV and read instead. "We have to ration the use of the hair straighteners," says Ms Watts, who has two teenage daughters.

"It took us a while to get used to budgeting our energy use, but we haven't had to hire a back-up generator for the last two years."

- The Sustainable Electricity Association of New Zealand (SEANZ), headed by home power generator Charmaine Watts, is working with the Government to find out just how many New Zealand families generate their own power.

- Most families who make their own power live away from national power supply lines in rural areas. For example, the 800 residents of Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf have no choice but to supply their own power as they have no access to the national grid.

- Urban dwellers usually have to rely on roof-mounted photovoltaic panels, which generate electricity from the sun, to make power. Rural families may be able to use a combination of sun and wind or hydro power, depending on what resources they have on their property.

- In a typical scenario, power generated from a small hydro dam or a combination of a small wind turbine and solar panels is stored in a bank of deep cycle batteries in a shed next to the house. An inverter then converts the deep cycle battery power into AC power that can be used to run standard household appliances.

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MANA Recycled Jewelry hits NYC with TOUCH | NY

Mana ‘Clasp’ necklace made of recycled hair pins and rubber

We first discovered the stunning recycled jewelry of MANA back in January. Brazilian eco designer Mana Bernardes works with a collective of young women in Rio De Janeiro to refashion bits of urban detritus - plastic bottles, circuit boards, hairpins, phone-cards - into gorgeously thought-provoking jewelry. Now the fabulously eco-chic Mana Collection is coming to NYC with the launch of the TOUCH | NY exhibit this weekend, and we can’t wait to check it out at the opening reception tonight.

TOUCH | NY: May 18th -20th
12 noon - 7pm
148 11th Avenue, NY, NY

Mana Collection’s ‘Spatial Necklace’

Zoë Melo, curator of TOUCH | NY, has worked with some of the most talented designers, photographers and art directors in fashion, art and product design. Folks all seem to agree that Zoë’s strength is in “the ability to identify and develop a one-image concept, to work with a variety of talent, and to build successful teams for specific projects. She has built an extensive network of collaborators and friends from around the globe, some of them far away in remote indigenous tribes and locales where she finds inspiration in the honest lifestyles that blend aesthetics with eco-friendly philosophies.”

Mana bracelets made from recycled netting and buttons

Back in January we featured Mana Bernardes one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces made from recycled treasures from the streets of Brazil. Bernardes is a jewelry designer, poet, and visual artist from Rio de Janeiro who has actively joined forces with community education projects at the Museum of Rio de Janeiro and the European Design Institute of Sao Paulo, where she works with teenagers and students teaching jewelry making and entrepreneurial design skills. Mana’s team refashions seemingly unusable materials such as PET bottles, phone cards, toothpicks, hair clips, plastic netting, pearls, silver, and gold into their handcrafted collection. If you are in the New York City area and want to check out the stunning Mana Collection yourself, head over to Chelsea in the next couple of days to check out the TOUCH | NEW YORK exhibit:

TOUCH | NY: May 18th -20th
12 noon - 7pm
148 11th Avenue, NY, NY

+ Touch Mana Collection

+ Mana Collection on Inhabitat

+ TOUCH | NY Exhibit

Mana Bernardes of Mana Design and young designers
Mana Collection ‘Manda La Ca Pet’ necklace made of PET Recycled Bottles/Swarovski Crystal Bead and Rubber

Mana Collection PET Recycled Bottle/Bamboo Tooth Pick/Pearl
Silver Hooks

Mana Collection acetate necklace with Swarovski crystal bead

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Google Pours Massive Investment into Renewable Energy Research

(NaturalNews) Google Inc. has announced plans to invest millions of dollars in order to move into the renewable energy business. "If we achieve these goals, we are going to be in the [electricity] business in a very big way," said Google co-founder Larry Page. "We should be able to make a lot of money from this."

Google's move from Internet services into electricity generation was motivated by a desire to reduce the ecological footprint of the company's massive power needs. While Google's exact power consumption is a trade secret, the company acknowledges that one of its biggest worries is being able to meet its continually expanding electricity demands.

The company already has a history of investing in renewable energy, with its Mountain View, Calif. headquarters already being powered, in part, by one of the largest solar electric installations in the United States.

As part of the move into renewable energy, Google's philanthropic arm,, plans to invest $20 million in the next year alone toward renewable energy research. This will include the cost of hiring between 20 and 30 new employees, including renewable energy experts. Google aims to find a way to significantly reduce the cost of renewable energy generation to bring it more on par with the cost of coal.

According to Page, Google aims to significantly reduce the cost of generating renewable energy. It plans, for example, to bring the cost of solar power down by 25 to 50 percent. The company's wider goal is to produce one gigawatt of renewable electric power at a per watt rate lower than that of coal within "years, not decades." This would be enough electricity to power a city the size of San Francisco.

In addition to financing research directly, plans to invest "hundreds of millions" of dollars in companies that specialize in renewable power, Page said.
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New Light Source Lasts 15 Years Without a Recharge

How about a glowing light source that lasts for 15 years instead of the typical 15 minutes of a glowstick? GlowPaint’s newest product does just that and is also non-toxic and inexpensive and doesn’t require a recharge via solar or electrical sources for its entire lifespan. According to the company, “This has potential to save billions in energy costs world-wide. Litroenergy™ surpasses all known available lighting options for cost/durability/reliability and safety.” Their products are expected to be used to replace other forms of safety, emergency and novelty lighting duties normally performed by glow sticks, LEDs and other light sources.
“The Litrospheres are not effected by heat or cold, and are 5,000-pound crush resistant. They can be injection molded or added to paint. The fill rate of Litroenergy micro particles in plastic injection molding material or paint is about 20%. The constant light gives off no U.V. rays, and can be designed to emit almost any color of light desired.” PureEnergySystems
Litroenergy was also submitted to the Nasa Create the Future Design Contest to compete based on its originality and potentially major impact on sustainable energy technology. More information can be found via GlowPaint’s online patent application though much of their research remains proprietary.
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Where Will GM Go from Here?

Ethanol? Hydrogen? Plug-in Hybrids? Dare We Say Electric Cars?

Recently, it seems like everyone is speculating on the future of General Motors. Some are saying that the Volt will decide it all, others are saying that in the light of current gas prices, it's probably already over.

gm logo

Last month, sales of small cars rose dramatically and the "tiny" 4-cylinder finally overtook the 6-cylinder in U.S. sales. In less recent history, GM was unseated from its eight-decade long spot at the top by Japanese manufacturer Toyota.

Where does all this leave GM then? Well, the company isn't exactly belly-up yet, but you can surmise from its heavy advertising of the Volt, a car that's still two years away, that the company is trying to look to future technological developments to resurrect it from the SUV-sized grave it's dug for itself.

On that front, GM does have some grand promises. Aside from the much talked about Chevy Volt, GM plans to roll out new hybrids on a regular basis for the next several years (though at the same time they don't seem to be selling any). Diesel techs have developed a new 4.5 liter V8 diesel that seems promising. Finally, engineers are looking further down the road to HCCI technology, in hopes that it will make environmentally friendly driving more affordable and widespread.

From this, and conversations with people within GM, I think it's fair to say that GM is aggressively pursuing the greening of their business. At the same time, however, I think it would be prudent to look at the long-term goals of the company. I recently spent some time at a very insightful GM conference, where I learned a little bit about the company's plan for the future.

Liquid fuels, as the engineers pointed out, are very good energy storage media, which is why they are so prevalent currently. GM aims to move from today's liquid fuels to ethanol, a move we currently see in effect with GM's varied and rarely used Flex-Fuel Vehicles. Ethanol, especially from corn, certainly has its fair share of issues right now, however, and not everyone is happy with this move. From ethanol the company wishes to explore hybrids, which, as I have already mentioned, they are aggressively rolling onto the lot, but not so aggressively rolling off.

From there the company will try to make the leap from predominately liquid fuel-based vehicles to other modes of propulsion. After hybrids, E-Flex technology (the system being developed for the Volt), will create a generation of "extended range electric vehicles," which to me is a greenwashed version of the more used term, plug-in hybrids. While E-Flex promises decent electric-only range, it still relies on gasoline energy and does not require the paradigm shift that a true battery electric would. GM would then, somewhere far in the future, transition to hydrogen electric vehicles. Like the current hydrogen cars you see so much chatter about, these would use hydrogen as an energy storage system, which would create electricity to power electric-drive vehicles.

Whether this is folly or not, I shall not claim to be the judge of. However, I do wonder, where are the electric cars? GM did it years ago, the limited range would definitely be more than sufficient to service a majority of the population, and the technology is available now. Hydrogen should certainly be explored, but why pin our hopes on something so uncertain when we already have an efficient, tangible solution at our fingertips?

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How Are College Campuses Going Green?

a child gardens and learns at yale university's on-campus organic garden
A student harvests radishes at Yale University's organic garden, which supplies the campus and surrounding community.
Photo: Yale University/E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What initiatives are taking place on college campuses to reduce the footprints of these large users of energy and other resources? -- Shawna Smith, Hamilton, NY

Microcosms of the world at large, college campuses are great test beds for environmental change, and many students are working hard to get their administrations to take positive action. The initiatives that are emerging are models for the larger society, and the students pushing for them will be taking these lessons with them, too, as they enter the work force after graduation.

Foremost on the minds of green-leaning students today is global warming, and many are joining hands to persuade their schools to update policies and streamline operations so that their campuses can become part of the solution. Largely a result of student efforts, for example, nearly 500 U.S. colleges and universities have signed the American College and University Presidents (ACUP) Climate Commitment.

This agreement requires schools to put together a comprehensive plan to go "carbon neutral" in two years of signing. (Carbon neutral means contributing no net greenhouse gases to the atmosphere either by not generating them in the first place or by offsetting them somehow, such as through tree-planting or by buying "offsets" from companies that fund alternative energy projects.)

ACUP also commits schools to implementing two or more tangible (and easily implemented) policies right away, such as improving waste minimization and recycling programs, reducing energy usage, providing or encouraging public transportation to and from campus (and switching campus buses over to bio-diesel fuel), constructing bicycle lanes, and implementing green building guidelines for any new construction.

Signatory schools also pledge that they will integrate sustainability into their curricula, making it part of the educational experience.

One place where students are forcing green changes on campus is the dining hall. According to the Sustainable Endowments Institute's 2007 report card, which looks at environmental initiatives at the 200 colleges and universities with the largest endowment assets in the U.S. and Canada, 70 percent of such schools now "devote at least a portion of food budgets to buying from local farms and/or producers," while 29 percent earned an "A" in the "food and recycling" category. Yale University even has organic gardens that are student-run and that supply an on-campus farmer's market for use by campus food services, the local community and students alike.

Another area where college campuses are leading the way is in water conservation. Colleges consume huge quantities of water in dormitories, cafeterias, at athletic facilities and in maintaining their rolling green grounds. According to Niles Barnes of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), most of the 3,800 institutions of higher education in the U.S. have engaged in some sort of water-saving program. Low-water-volume toilets and urinals, as well as low-flow showerheads and faucets, are "pretty much standard practice across U.S. colleges today," says Barnes.

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MythBuster: Why Electric Vehicles Beat Gas in 5 Extreme Tests

Quietly, wind farms spread footprint in U.S

By Carey Gillam

ROCK PORT, Missouri (Reuters) - At 265 feet tall, four gleaming white wind turbines tower over the tiny farm town of Rock Port, Missouri, like a landing of alien intruders.

But despite their imposing presence and the stark contrast with the rolling pastures and corn fields, the turbines have received a warm welcome here.

As Eric Chamberlain, who manages the wind farm for Wind Capital Group, eats lunch in a local restaurant, local people greet him with a "Hey Windy!" and many say they are happy to be using clean electricity.

"It doesn't pollute the environment, it provides tax revenue, creates jobs. I don't see a downside," said Chamberlain, who is something of a celebrity in this town of 1,400 people.

While growth in ethanol use as an alternative fuel has had a big impact on rural America, wind power has also been growing steadily for the past three years, with wind farms like this one springing up all over the windy expanse of the Great Plains and beyond.

While only 1 percent of U.S. electricity comes from wind, it is attracting so much support these days that many in the industry believe it is poised for a growth spurt.

"These are pretty heady times," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association, which held an investment conference April 30 in Iowa that drew more than 600 attendees.

"People are finally starting to see the data about what is happening to the world's climate and that is really having an impact," said Swisher.

Last year, a record 3,100 turbines were installed across 34 U.S. states and another 2,000 turbines are now under construction from California to Massachusetts. In all, there are about more than 25,000 U.S. turbines in operation, an investment of $15 billion.

On May 12, the U.S. Energy Department said wind power could provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030, or 304 gigawatts, up from the current 16.8 gigawatts. Achieving that will require that wind turbine installations rise to almost 7,000 a year by 2017, the department said.

The industry appears poised to comply.

In March, GE Energy announced it had secured a $1 billion deal to supply 750 megawatts of wind turbines -- enough to power about 200,000 households.

In April, Nebraska officials broke ground on a wind farm that would be the largest in that state, providing power for an estimated 25,000 homes.

Also in April, the electric company Wisconsin Public Service Corp. won approval from state regulators to construct a $251 million wind farm in Iowa to help it meet a state mandate that it boost its supply of renewable power.

In Texas, legendary oil man T. Boone Pickens has announced plans to invest in a wind farm that would provide enough electricity for about 1 million homes. Pickens' company, Mesa Power, this month ordered more than 600 wind turbines from GE to get started.

And, this year, Kansas became the first state in the nation to reject expansion of coal-fired plants specifically because of global warming worries. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is recommending wind energy as an alternative and successfully fought legislative efforts to overrule her.

Wind Capital, based in St. Louis, Missouri, is a relatively small player. It operates three wind farms in Missouri and has plans for projects in 10 U.S. states. Among its backers are Irish renewable energy company NTR Plc, which invested $150 million in April, and a unit of Deere & Co, with a $200 million investment.

The firm leases land from farmers on which to build its turbines. In Rock Port, homes and businesses getting power from the municipal utility are now using wind energy, backed by conventional electricity supplies from the Missouri Joint Municipal Utility system.

Increasingly, states are mandating that utilities obtain a portion of their power through such renewable sources. Wind energy is also benefiting from a Production Tax Credit federal subsidy of 2 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity produced.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, this amounts to $4.5 billion over 10 years.

That is still far less than the $3.57 billion in annual subsidies enjoyed by the ethanol distillers under a 51 cents per gallon Ethanol Excise Tax Credit.


Supporters say along with helping the nation break a dependence on costly oil, natural gas and coal, they see wind energy as part of a base for "green-collar" employment, with jobs in manufacturing towers, blades and other components.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, has proposed investing $150 billion over the next decade for investments in alternative energy, including wind, solar and biodiesel. His rival for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton is also proposing a $150 billon ten-year investment in a "new energy future."

Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party's presumed nominee for November's presidential election, has also said he supports wind energy. McCain even chose a wind-energy facility in Portland, Oregon, as the setting for a May 12 policy speech on global warming.

Critics argue that imposing wind turbines spoil landscapes and disrupt wildlife habitats, and such worries have dogged what would be the first U.S. offshore commercial wind-powered electricity generator, proposed to cover 28 square miles of shallow waters off the Massachusetts coast.

As well, there is the reality that sometimes the wind just doesn't blow. That means wind turbines cannot be relied on as a sole power source, but rather as a supplement. And transmission lines and grid systems have yet to be established across much of the windblown prairie.

But the greatest concern currently for the wind energy industry is that for all the public support, the Production Tax Credit is set to expire in December. U.S. lawmakers and President Bush have repeatedly failed to agree on how to fund an extension.

"We continue to push ahead because we believe that renewable energy does make a lot of sense and even policy makers at some point will have to realize something has to be done with $120 a barrel oil," said Michael Polsky, CEO of Invenergy LLC, a Chicago-based wind developer.

Since the $90 million Loess Hill wind farm in Rock Port came online in April, it has been a point of pride for residents that, over a year, the farm should generate enough power to exceed the town's consumption.

Farmer Todd Herron, who receives $5,000 a year from Wind Capital Group for hosting a spinning turbine on one of his corn fields, said there should be no argument against using wind to make electricity instead of coal or natural gas.

"This is a rural farming community," said Herron. "Our lives depend on the Earth. We've got to keep it in as good a shape as we can."

(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Eddie Evans)

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Could Wind help Save Water?

wind and waterBig news for the wind industry, big implications for water.

First, the Department of Energy released a report that confirmed what the wind industry has already claimed: wind could power 20% of the United State’s energy needs by 2030. Even with growing energy demands, our ample wind resources could meet one-fifth of our needs with continued growth and innovation. Other nations, especially Denmark, are already deriving significant fractions of their energy from wind, sometimes with impressive results. The truth is, wind energy is booming even as the specter of the expiring Production Tax Credit moves to the House of Representatives for a vote.

Another large announcement this week came from ex-oilman T. Boone Pickens, who proved (once again) that every thing’s bigger in Texas.

He just ordered $2 billion worth of wind turbines from GE to build the world’s largest wind farm.

Texas has already shown that wind isn’t just good for the environment, it’s also good for rural jobs. There’s even a town in Missouri that derives almost all of its energy from wind power, and sells excess energy to other towns. These examples and more disprove many of the wind myths that are still floating around. Wind energy is not a perfect technology, but it holds powerful potential to diversify power generation around the world. The Aral Sea, drainedOne of the statistics that struck me is that wind power could:

“reduce water consumption associated with electricity generation by 4 trillion gallons by 2030.”

(Source) With drought affecting many places around the world, including Australia and several American regions, any technology that conserves water carries important implications. Even areas with abundant water resources (and recent flooding) are concerned about over-exploitation of their water. One part of the water issue is that nuclear and coal-fired power plants require a lot of water, billions of gallons per day across the nation. Some of that water is ultimately returned to its source, but some is also lost or polluted.

In areas with scarce or dwindling water resources, a host of hydra-headed problems appear simultaneously: agriculture and food, energy, population, health and sanitation, development,industry, environment. Our lives, economy, and society are intimately linked to water, and scarcity is often a source of instability.

Judging from various efforts around the globe, it’s safe to say that conserving water is cheaper than alternatives. Australia and Barcelona are potent examples of the cost of water shortages; both are spending a lot of money to secure their water supplies. In Los Angeles, recycling sewage is cheaper than piping it in. If things get worse, Boone Pickens’ investment will look like a steal. By investing in water-friendly energy production, you strike two birds with one stone. You add a buffer for communities in case of future water shortages by removing resource conflicts before they occur. Wind power could also help us prepare for the effects of climate change and shifting weather patterns, which are already evident around the globe.

There is also the possibility of harvesting potable water from the ocean, but desalination plants are expensive and use large amounts of energy. Another proven method may be to encourage natural water storage via wetlands. A town in the state of Georgia, outside of drought-stricken Atlanta, has not felt the effects of the southeast’s severe drought due to smart water planning. But even these methods fundamentally react to a water shortage instead of preventing it.

Wind is certainly no placebo for water supply problems, but it could be part of the solution. For me, this is another example of how renewable energy is a sound investment in the long-term, and how we can reap unexpected benefits from clean technology.

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