Aug 7, 2010

Dirty Business

In the digital age, half our electricity still comes from coal. DIRTY BUSINESS: "Clean Coal" and the Battle for Our Energy Future is a documentary that reveals the true social and environmental costs of coal power and tells the stories of innovators who are pointing the way to an alternative energy future. Guided by Rolling Stone reporter Jeff Goodell, the film examines what it means to remain dependent on a 19th century technology that is the largest single source of greenhouse gases. Can coal really be made 'clean'? Can renewables and efficiency be produced on a scale large enough replace coal? The film seeks answers in a series of stories shot in China, Saskatchewan, Kansas, West Virginia, Nevada and New York.

Aug 5, 2010

"We’re Hot as Hell and We’re Not Going to Take It Any More"

Three Steps to Establish a Politics of Global Warming By Bil McKibben (Cross Posted from Try to fit these facts together: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the planet has just come through the warmest decade, the warmest 12 months, the warmest six months, and the warmest April, May, and June on record. A “staggering” new study from Canadian researchers has shown that warmer seawater has reduced phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, by 40% since 1950. Nine nations have so far set their all-time temperature records in 2010, including Russia (111 degrees), Niger (118), Sudan (121), Saudi Arabia and Iraq (126 apiece), and Pakistan, which also set the new all-time Asia record in May: a hair under 130 degrees. I can turn my oven to 130 degrees. And then, in late July, the U.S. Senate decided to do exactly nothing about climate change. They didn’t do less than they could have -- they did nothing, preserving a perfect two-decade bipartisan record of no action. Senate majority leader Harry Reid decided not even to schedule a vote on legislation that would have capped carbon emissions. I wrote the first book for a general audience on global warming back in 1989, and I’ve spent the subsequent 21 years working on the issue. I’m a mild-mannered guy, a Methodist Sunday School teacher. Not quick to anger. So what I want to say is: this is fucked up. The time has come to get mad, and then to get busy. For many years, the lobbying fight for climate legislation on Capitol Hill has been led by a collection of the most corporate and moderate environmental groups, outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund. We owe them a great debt, and not just for their hard work. We owe them a debt because they did everything the way you’re supposed to: they wore nice clothes, lobbied tirelessly, and compromised at every turn. By the time they were done, they had a bill that only capped carbon emissions from electric utilities (not factories or cars) and was so laden with gifts for industry that if you listened closely you could actually hear the oinking. They bent over backwards like Soviet gymnasts. Senator John Kerry, the legislator they worked most closely with, issued this rallying cry as the final negotiations began: "We believe we have compromised significantly, and we're prepared to compromise further.” And even that was not enough. They were left out to dry by everyone -- not just Reid, not just the Republicans. Even President Obama wouldn’t lend a hand, investing not a penny of his political capital in the fight. The result: total defeat, no moral victories. Now What? So now we know what we didn’t before: making nice doesn’t work. It was worth a try, and I’m completely serious when I say I’m grateful they made the effort, but it didn’t even come close to working. So we better try something else. Step one involves actually talking about global warming. For years now, the accepted wisdom in the best green circles was: talk about anything else -- energy independence, oil security, beating the Chinese to renewable technology. I was at a session convened by the White House early in the Obama administration where some polling guru solemnly explained that “green jobs” polled better than “cutting carbon.” No, really? In the end, though, all these focus-group favorites are secondary. The task at hand is keeping the planet from melting. We need everyone -- beginning with the president -- to start explaining that basic fact at every turn. It is the heat, and also the humidity. Since warm air holds more water than cold, the atmosphere is about 5% moister than it was 40 years ago, which explains the freak downpours that seem to happen someplace on this continent every few days. It is the carbon -- that’s why the seas are turning acid, a point Obama could have made with ease while standing on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s bad that it’s black out there,” he might have said, “but even if that oil had made it safely ashore and been burned in our cars, it would still be wrecking the oceans.” Energy independence is nice, but you need a planet to be energy independent on. Mysteriously enough, this seems to be a particularly hard point for smart people to grasp. Even in the wake of the disastrous Senate non-vote, the Nature Conservancy’s climate expert told New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, “We have to take climate change out of the atmosphere, bring it down to earth, and show how it matters in people’s everyday lives.” Translation: ordinary average people can’t possibly recognize the real stakes here, so let’s put it in language they can understand, which is about their most immediate interests. It’s both untrue, as I’ll show below, and incredibly patronizing. It is, however, exactly what we’ve been doing for a decade and clearly, It Does Not Work. Step two, we have to ask for what we actually need, not what we calculate we might possibly be able to get. If we’re going to slow global warming in the very short time available to us, then we don’t actually need an incredibly complicated legislative scheme that gives door prizes to every interested industry and turns the whole operation over to Goldman Sachs to run. We need a stiff price on carbon, set by the scientific understanding that we can’t still be burning black rocks a couple of decades hence. That undoubtedly means upending the future business plans of Exxon and BP, Peabody Coal and Duke Energy, not to speak of everyone else who’s made a fortune by treating the atmosphere as an open sewer for the byproducts of their main business. Instead they should pay through the nose for that sewer, and here’s the crucial thing: most of the money raised in the process should be returned directly to American pockets. The monthly check sent to Americans would help fortify us against the rise in energy costs, and we’d still be getting the price signal at the pump to stop driving that SUV and start insulating the house. We also need to make real federal investments in energy research and development, to help drive down the price of alternatives -- the Breakthrough Institute points out, quite rightly, that we’re crazy to spend more of our tax dollars on research into new drone aircraft and Mars orbiters than we do on photovoltaics. Yes, these things are politically hard, but they’re not impossible. A politician who really cared could certainly use, say, the platform offered by the White House to sell a plan that taxed BP and actually gave the money to ordinary Americans. (So far they haven’t even used the platform offered by the White House to reinstall the rooftop solar panels that Jimmy Carter put there in the 1970s and Ronald Reagan took down in his term.) Asking for what you need doesn’t mean you’ll get all of it. Compromise still happens. But as David Brower, the greatest environmentalist of the late twentieth century, explained amid the fight to save the Grand Canyon: “We are to hold fast to what we believe is right, fight for it, and find allies and adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or them to win, then let someone else propose the compromise. We thereupon work hard to coax it our way. We become a nucleus around which the strongest force can build and function.” Which leads to the third step in this process. If we’re going to get any of this done, we’re going to need a movement, the one thing we haven’t had. For 20 years environmentalists have operated on the notion that we’d get action if we simply had scientists explain to politicians and CEOs that our current ways were ending the Holocene, the current geological epoch. That turns out, quite conclusively, not to work. We need to be able to explain that their current ways will end something they actually care about, i.e. their careers. And since we’ll never have the cash to compete with Exxon, we better work in the currencies we can muster: bodies, spirit, passion. Movement Time As Tom Friedman put it in a strong column the day after the Senate punt, the problem was that the public “never got mobilized.” Is it possible to get people out in the streets demanding action about climate change? Last year, with almost no money, our scruffy little outfit,, managed to organize what Foreign Policy called the “largest ever coordinated global rally of any kind” on any issue -- 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, 2,000 of them in the U.S.A. People were rallying not just about climate change, but around a remarkably wonky scientific data point, 350 parts per million carbon dioxide, which NASA’s James Hansen and his colleagues have demonstrated is the most we can have in the atmosphere if we want a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Which, come to think of it, we do. And the “we,” in this case, was not rich white folks. If you look at the 25,000 pictures in our Flickr account, you’ll see that most of them were poor, black, brown, Asian, and young -- because that’s what most of the world is. No need for vice-presidents of big conservation groups to patronize them: shrimpers in Louisiana and women in burqas and priests in Orthodox churches and slumdwellers in Mombasa turned out to be completely capable of understanding the threat to the future. Those demonstrations were just a start (one we should have made long ago). We’re following up in October—on 10-10-10—with a Global Work Party. All around the country and the world people will be putting up solar panels and digging community gardens and laying out bike paths. Not because we can stop climate change one bike path at a time, but because we need to make a sharp political point to our leaders: we’re getting to work, what about you? We need to shame them, starting now. And we need everyone working together. This movement is starting to emerge on many fronts. In September, for instance, opponents of mountaintop removal are converging on DC to demand an end to the coal trade. That same month, Tim DeChristopher goes on trial in Salt Lake City for monkey-wrenching oil and gas auctions by submitting phony bids. (Naomi Klein and Terry Tempest Williams have called for folks to gather at the courthouse.) The big environmental groups are starting to wake up, too. The Sierra Club has a dynamic new leader, Mike Brune, who’s working hard with stalwarts like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. (Note to enviro groups: working together is fun and useful). Churches are getting involved, as well as mosques and synagogues. Kids are leading the fight, all over the world—they have to live on this planet for another 70 years or so, and they have every right to be pissed off. But no one will come out to fight for watered down and weak legislation. That’s not how it works. You don’t get a movement unless you take the other two steps I’ve described. And in any event it won’t work overnight. We’re not going to get the Senate to act next week, or maybe even next year. It took a decade after the Montgomery bus boycott to get the Voting Rights Act. But if there hadn’t been a movement, then the Voting Rights Act would have passed in… never. We may need to get arrested. We definitely need art, and music, and disciplined, nonviolent, but very real anger. Mostly, we need to tell the truth, resolutely and constantly. Fossil fuel is wrecking the one earth we’ve got. It’s not going to go away because we ask politely. If we want a world that works, we’re going to have to raise our voices. Have comments? Join the debate at or Bill McKibben is founder of and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Earlier this year the Boston Globe called him “probably the country’s leading environmentalist” and Time described him as “the planet’s best green journalist.” He’s a scholar in residence at Middlebury College.

Aug 4, 2010

Sawmill Museum gets room to expand

CLINTON, Iowa — Clinton’s long-planned Sawmill Museum will have plenty of area to expand with the donation of four acres of land surrounding its building in north Clinton. The land will be donated by the Wild Rose Casino & Resort to the Midwest Lumber Museum, the nonprofit organization funding the Sawmill Museum. The closing on the property transfer will be today. The project was launched in 2004 to build a world-class interactive museum on the history of the lumber industry, its role in Clinton’s history and culture, and the importance of forests and wood products. The property is the second donation to the project by Wild Rose, totaling $1.75 million in value. It is located at 2231 Grant St. on the former McEleney Motors car dealership site. The museum is in a renovated body shop building. “We hope this donation will serve as a catalyst for the next phase of the project,” said Tim Bollmann, general manager of Wild Rose. Museum planners envision outdoor exhibits and attractions, such as a children’s park, fores- fire watchtower and an Olde Town Lyons living history area, featuring the “Big Tree,” to overlook the Mississippi River and the windmill in Fulton, Ill. The “Big Tree,” used to be a gathering place once located near the intersection of North 2nd Street and 13th Avenue North, marked the dividing line between the cities of Lyons and Clinton in the late 1800s. When completed, the museum is expected to draw more than 40,000 visitors annually. “This donation allows us to not only share significant cultural, historic and environmental practices from the past to the present, but these visitors will leave knowing more about our own city’s rich traditions,” director Rich Phelan said. The museum is working to raise $8.5 million for the state-of-the-art history and environmental center, which will feature seven main areas: The Northwoods, The Logging Experience, The Rafting Experience, The Sawmill, Clinton, The Railroad to the West, and End of an Era to mark Clinton’s role in the lumber industry. The museum has hosted several traveling exhibits and will open in phases as early as 2011. The project has received more than $750,000 in grants and $2.75 million in donations.

Aug 2, 2010

Iowa State students take their professor’s advice and start an Ames bioenergy company |

Three recent Iowa State University graduates, left to right, Cody Ellens, Anthony Pollard and Jared Brown, are working with Dennis Banasiak, a former energy and agchemical executive, to launch Avello Bioenergy Inc. The new company is based at Iowa State's BioCentury Research Farm. Photos by Bob Elbert. Contacts: Robert C. Brown, Bioeconomy Institute, (515) 294-7934, Dennis Banasiak, Avello Bioenergy Inc., (443) 326-2755, Mike Krapfl, News Service, (515) 294-4917, Iowa State students take their professor’s advice and start an Ames bioenergy company AMES, Iowa - Iowa State University's Robert C. Brown pulled a few of his graduate students aside a couple years back and offered up an extracurricular challenge. "You are all experts on pyrolysis," he remembers telling them. "Why don't you start a company specifically to commercialize bio-oil recovery?"
The result is Avello Bioenergy Inc. based at Iowa State University's BioCentury Research Farm just west of Ames. Brown - an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor of Engineering, the Gary and Donna Hoover Chair in Mechanical Engineering and Iowa Farm Bureau director of Iowa State's Bioeconomy Institute - had worked with the students to research and develop fast pyrolysis technology. Fast pyrolysis quickly heats biomass (such as corn stalks and leaves) in the absence of oxygen to produce a liquid product known as bio-oil that can be used to manufacture fuels and chemicals and a solid product called biochar that can be used to enrich soil and remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The students - Jared Brown, Cody Ellens and Anthony Pollard, all December 2009 graduates of Iowa State - worked with Brown to develop three types of fast pyrolysis reactors. Brown, Pollard and Sam Jones, a former assistant scientist for Iowa State's Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies, also worked together to invent a new pyrolysis technology that improves, collects and separates bio-oil into various liquid fractions. A patent has been filed for the technology. Brown said the separation technology is a big step because bio-oil is such a complex mixture of chemicals and compounds that it's very difficult to process. He said bio-oil is much easier to process if it's separated into various fractions that are analogous to the "heavy ends" and "light ends" in petroleum refining. That separation is what the new company is all about. Avello, in fact, is a Latin verb meaning "to separate." Dennis Banasiak, a former energy and agchemical executive who recently worked as an industry liaison for the Bioeconomy Institute and is now president of Avello Bioenergy, said the company's focus will be to use the separation technology to produce bio-oils that can be used to replace petroleum-based materials in asphalt, can be processed into various renewable chemicals and can be used as renewable industrial fuels. Banasiak said the company has licenses from the Iowa State University Research Foundation Inc. granting it exclusive rights to use the bio-oil separation technology and a Bio-asphalt developed by Christopher Williams, an Iowa State associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. The company's initial work includes equipping a new product development lab and using Iowa State's fast pyrolysis facility to process biomass for several days at a time. The facility can process up to a quarter ton of biomass per day. The company is also working to raise money to build a demonstration plant capable of processing 2.5 tons of biomass per day. "We have proven this concept," Banasiak said. "We just need to scale up. We have to demonstrate this at larger scales." The company has already won awards for its business plan: Avello won $5,000 and top prize honors in 2009's statewide Pappajohn New Venture Business Plan Competition and was recognized at the 2009 Rice University Business Plan Competition. This spring, Avello also received a $150,000 demonstration grant from the Iowa Department of Economic Development. Banasiak said locating the company at Iowa State facilities is a key piece to its business plan. "The BioCentury Research Farm offers us the ability to use the existing fast pyrolysis pilot plant without spending a lot of money to do our development," he said. "We can lease the facility from the university and get our data. This facility gives us a quicker path toward commercialization." And what does Brown, who's listed as a company co-founder but is not directly involved with the company's operations, think of the business his former students are building? "It's a very competitive environment and hard to raise capital," Brown said. "But they have a unique technology that presents some exciting opportunities."

Is biochar the answer for ag? — Science Blog

MADISON, WI, August 2nd, 2010 — Scientists demonstrate that biochar, a type charcoal applied to soils in order to capture and store carbon, can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, and inorganic nitrogen runoff from agriculture settings. The finding will help develop strategies and technologies to reduce soil nitrous oxide emissions and reduce agriculture’s influence on climate change. A research team led by Bhupinder Pal Singh from Industry and Investment New South Wales and Balwant Singh from the University of Sydney, tested the effects of four types of biochar on nitrous oxide emission and nitrogen leaching from two different soil varieties. Their results are reported in the July-August 2010 Journal of Environmental Quality, published by the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America. The study revealed for the first time that interactions between biochar and soil that occur over time are important when assessing the influence of biochar on nitrogen losses from soil. The scientists subjected soils samples to three wetting-drying cycles, to simulate a range of soil moistures during the five-month study period, and measured nitrous oxide emissions and nitrogen runoff. Initially, biochar application produced inconsistent effects. Several early samples produced greater nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate leaching than the control samples. However, during the third wetting — drying cycle, four months after biochar application, all biochars reduced nitrous oxide emissions by up to 73%, and reduced ammonium leaching by up to 94%. The researchers suggest that reductions in nitrous oxide emissions and nitrogen leaching over time were due to “ageing” of the biochars in soil. “The impacts of biochars on nitrous oxide emissions from soil are of interest because even small reductions in nitrous oxide emissions can considerably enhance the greenhouse mitigation value of biochar, which is already proven to be a highly stable carbon pool in the soil environment,” according to senior author Bhupinder Pal Singh. “This research highlights that impacts of biochar on nitrogen transformations in soil may change over time and hence stresses the need for long-term studies to assess biochar’s potential to reduce nitrogen losses from soil.” In addition to the three wet-dry cycles, the soil samples also received glucose and nutrient applications to supply of carbon and inorganic nutrients for optimal microbial activity. The research team tested biochar from two different sources, wood waste and poultry litter. Biochar is made when organic material is burned at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. Research is on-going at Industry and Investment NSW to investigate the causes of the reductions in nitrous oxide emissions by biochars, especially under field conditions, and to determine optimal rate and timing of biochar and fertiliser applications to agricultural soils to maximize the greenhouse mitigation value of biochar. This study was funded by the New South Wales Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, and the biochars were supplied by Pacific Pyrolysis (previously known as Best Energies, Australia). The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at The Journal of Environmental Quality is a peer-reviewed, international journal of environmental quality in natural and agricultural ecosystems published six times a year by the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). The Journal of Environmental Quality covers various aspects of anthropogenic impacts on the environment, including terrestrial, atmospheric, and aquatic systems. The American Society of Agronomy (ASA), is a scientific society helping its 8,000+ members advance the disciplines and practices of agronomy by supporting professional growth and science policy initiatives, and by providing quality, research-based publications and a variety of member services.

Aug 1, 2010

My TLUD's Bigger 'n Yours

Climate change, habitat destruction, overexploitation of resources--these trends threaten the very fabric of life on earth. Awareness is growing and our leaders are gradually responding. Future generations will look back at our times and the actions we took. I believe that Biochar is among the handful of "keystone technologies" that will truly make a difference. The kiln load (Gmelina mill scrap) must get up to around 280C before it will produce enough combustible gas to "kick over" into pyrolysis mode, then gases will burn in the kiln's fire chamber and generate sufficient heat to sustain pyrolysis until the entire load has been carbonized. Our kiln was designed to have combustible gas from a different source injected into the fire chamber to "prime" the kiln until it could produce enough combustible gas to sustain the reaction on its own. We opted for a biomass gasifier for this purpose. Nik Foidl designed a beast for us––a TLUD (top-lit updraft) sawdust gasifier a meter in diameter, capable of generating 200-350kW. That's a lot of hot! A blower injects air into a space in the base of the unit, and the perforated floor of the basket allows air to migrate upward through the sawdust. Squirt a bit of kerosene onto the surface of the sawdust and ignite to get it started. Then put down the hood and turn on the blower. The flame front migrates downward, toward its oxygen source, producing a mess of smoke (mix of combustible gases). A pair of air ports in the hood of the TLUD introduce more air, causing the smoke to burst into flames, and the hot exhaust gases are injected into the kiln. The TLUD is powered by a single large blower regulated by butterfly valves. The primary butterfly controls the total air introduced into the system. A "Y" and pair of butterfly valves control the relative amount of primary air, which is injected into the base and blows through the sawdust; and secondary air, which is injected into the hood to ignite the gases. Hot, hot hot! Know of a bigger TLUD? We'd love to hear about it!