Editorial: We must ensure a healthy environment

3606537 300x200 INS6Today marks the 41st anniversary of Earth Day, a day to celebrate our greatest resource — the environment.
Since Earth Day has its roots in the Badger State — the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson organized the first observance in 1970 — Wisconsin should be a leader in promoting stewardship of land, air and water. Two other environmental leaders — John Muir and Aldo Leopold — developed much of their concern for the world in which we live growing up in Wisconsin and spread this message worldwide.

Muir is arguably America’s most well-known naturalist and his writings in the late 1800s brought an environmental awareness to millions. Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” is a collection of his essays on the environment and is the bible for land ethics and stewardship.

But this legacy of strong environmental protection is threatened by several recent actions in Madison by Gov. Scott Walker. Walker, in his two-year state budget, first proposed to ease regulations designed to keep streams, rivers and lakes free from algae-producing phosphorus that have fouled beaches and choked off oxygen supplies in rivers and streams. Walker has since changed his mind and now wants the rules to be delayed for two years.

Yes, there is a cost to keeping phosphorus out of the water we fish, swim and boat in, but if Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers are no longer inviting to visitors from other states, tourism suffers and people lose jobs. The governor and some in the Legislature have put a stop on development of alternative-energy wind farms in Wisconsin by halting implementation of reasonable siting regulations. Not only does this kill wind energy as a replacement for electricity from coal-fired power plants, it also is a job-killer because wind turbine manufacturers say they will move jobs to states more receptive to alternative energy.Walker also wants to eliminate the Office of Energy Independence, the state agency that seeks to find and implement efforts to reduce dependence on foreign oil and find uses for renewable, non-pollution energy sources. Walker also proposed shifting the $29 million used to support local recycling efforts to other parts of his budget and eliminating the mandate for recycling of paper, plastics, glass and aluminum. He has since backed down on removing the mandate to recycle, but not on the elimination of the state subsidy.

Recycling is not only good for the environment by keeping millions of tons of waste out of landfills, it also supports nearly 100,000 jobs in Wisconsin. A healthy environment that has clean air and water is a fragile resource and is not only good for our health, it also is an integral part of our state’s economy. We should be working hard to ensure an environmentally strong future. SOURCE: Sheboygan Press

President Obama’s energy speech

barack energy 189x300 INS6We meet here at a tumultuous time for the world. In a matter of months, we’ve seen regimes toppled and democracy take root across North Africa and the Middle East. We’ve witnessed a terrible earthquake, catastrophic tsunami and nuclear emergency batter a strong ally and the world’s third largest economy. And we’ve led an international effort in Libya to prevent a massacre and maintain stability throughout the broader region.

As Americans, we are heart broken by the lives that have been lost as a result of these events. We are moved by the thirst for freedom in many nations, as well as the strength and perseverance of the Japanese people. And of course, it’s natural to feel anxious about what all this means for us.

One area of particular concern has been the cost and security of our energy. In an economy that relies on oil, rising prices at the pump affect everybody – workers and farmers; truck drivers and restaurant owners. Businesses see it hurt their bottom line. Families feel the pinch when they fill up their tank. For Americans already struggling to get by, it makes life that much harder.

But here’s the thing – we’ve been down this road before. Remember, it was just three years ago that gas prices topped $4 a gallon. Working folks haven’t forgotten that. It hit a lot of people pretty hard. But it was also the height of political season, so you had a lot of slogans and gimmicks and outraged politicians waving three-point-plans for two-dollar gas – when none of it would really do anything to solve the problem. Imagine that in Washington.

The truth is, of course, was that all these gimmicks didn’t make a bit of difference. When gas prices finally fell, it was mostly because the global recession led to less demand for oil. Now that the economy is recovering, demand is back up. Add the turmoil in the Middle East, and it’s not surprising oil prices are higher. And every time the price of a barrel of oil on the world market rises by $10, a gallon of gas goes up by about 25 cents.

The point is, the ups and downs in gas prices are usually temporary. When you look at the long-term trends, though, there will be more ups than downs. That’s because countries like India and China are growing at a rapid clip. And as two billion more people start consuming more goods, and driving more cars, and using more energy, it’s certain that demand will go up a lot faster than supply.

So here’s the bottom line – there are no quick fixes. And we will keep on being a victim to shifts in the oil market until we get serious about a long-term policy for secure, affordable energy.

We’ve known about the dangers of our oil dependence for decades. Presidents and politicians of every stripe have promised energy independence, but that promise has so far gone unmet. I’ve pledged to reduce America’s dependence on oil too, and I’m proud of the historic progress we’ve made over the last two years towards that goal. But we’ve also run into the same political gridlock and inertia that’s held us back for decades.

That has to change. Obama’s Energy Security Speech_ ‘There Are No Quick Fixes’ – Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stanford researchers develop new technology for cheaper, more efficient solar cells

aaas bentsolar news 300x204 INS6By Sandeep Ravindran

The sun provides more than enough energy for all our needs, if only we could harness it cheaply and efficiently. Solar energy could provide a clean alternative to fossil fuels, but the high cost of solar cells has been a major barrier to their widespread use.

Stanford researchers have found that adding a single layer of organic molecules to a solar cell can increase its efficiency threefold and could lead to cheaper, more efficient solar panels. Their results were published online in ACS Nano on Feb. 7.

Chemical engineering Professor Stacey Bent first became interested in a new kind of solar technology two years ago. These solar cells used tiny particles of semiconductors called “quantum dots.” Quantum dot solar cells are cheaper to produce than traditional ones, as they can be made using simple chemical reactions. But despite their promise, they lagged well behind existing solar cells in efficiency.

“I wondered if we could use our knowledge of chemistry to improve their efficiency,” Bent said. If she could do that, the reduced cost of these solar cells could lead to mass adoption of the technology.

Bent will discussed her research on Sunday, Feb. 20, at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Time, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

In principle, quantum dot cells can reach much higher efficiency, Bent said, because of a fundamental limitation of traditional solar cells.

Solar cells work by using energy from the sun to excite electrons. The excited electrons jump from a lower energy level to a higher one, leaving behind a “hole” where the electron used to be. Solar cells use a semiconductor to pull an electron in one direction, and another material to pull the hole in the other direction. This flow of electron and hole in different directions leads to an electric current.

But it takes a certain minimum energy to fully separate the electron and the hole. The amount of energy required is specific to different materials and affects what color, or wavelength, of light the material best absorbs. Silicon is commonly used to make solar cells because the energy required to excite its electrons corresponds closely to the wavelength of visible light.

But solar cells made of a single material have a maximum efficiency of about 31 percent, a limitation of the fixed energy level they can absorb.

Quantum dot solar cells do not share this limitation and can in theory be far more efficient. The energy levels of electrons in quantum dot semiconductors depends on their size – the smaller the quantum dot, the larger the energy needed to excite electrons to the next level.

So quantum dots can be tuned to absorb a certain wavelength of light just by changing their size. And they can be used to build more complex solar cells that have more than one size of quantum dot, allowing them to absorb multiple wavelengths of light.

Because of these advantages, Bent and her students have been investigating ways to improve the efficiency of quantum dot solar cells, along with Associate Professor Michael McGehee of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

The researchers coated a titanium dioxide semiconductor in their quantum dot solar cell with a very thin single layer of organic molecules. These molecules were self-assembling, meaning that their interactions caused them to pack together in an ordered way. The quantum dots were present at the interface of this organic layer and the semiconductor. Bent’s students tried several different organic molecules in an attempt to learn which ones would most increase the efficiency of the solar cells.

But she found that the exact molecule didn’t matter – just having a single organic layer less than a nanometer thick was enough to triple the efficiency of the solar cells. “We were surprised. We thought it would be very sensitive to what we put down,” said Bent.

But she said the result made sense in hindsight, and the researchers came up with a new model – it’s the length of the molecule, and not its exact nature, that matters. Molecules that are too long don’t allow the quantum dots to interact well with the semiconductor.

Bent’s theory is that once the sun’s energy creates an electron and a hole, the thin organic layer helps keep them apart, preventing them from recombining and being wasted. The group has yet to optimize the solar cells, and they have currently achieved an efficiency of, at most, 0.4 percent. But the group can tune several aspects of the cell, and once they do, the threefold increase caused by the organic layer would be even more significant.

Bent said the cadmium sulfide quantum dots she is currently using are not ideal for solar cells, and the group will try different materials. She said she would also try other molecules for the organic layer, and could change the design of the solar cell to try to absorb more light and produce more electrical charge. Once Bent has found a way to increase the efficiency of quantum dot solar cells, she said she hopes their lower cost will lead to wider acceptance of solar energy. Sandeep Ravindran is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.

Six Months after the Spill, What We Still Need to Do to Prevent Another Disaster

Peter Lehner Executive Director – Natural Resources Defense Council

110209 Green 052 INS6It was six months ago that the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 men and sending 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion continues to reverberate half a year later. Up to 50 percent of the oil may still remain in the Gulf, fishermen are still out of work or uncertain if their catch is safe, and the marine ecosystem is still degraded.

Yet what is even more alarming is that America is in danger of repeating this tragedy. Six months after the largest peacetime oil spill in history, we have failed to take the steps that would best prevent another devastating spill. While the federal government has made progress by issuing new safety standards, Congress should be moving right now to make drilling safer.

After all, the laws on the books are the same, America’s level of oil consumption is the same, and our scientific understanding of oil spills is largely the same as before the BP blow out.

We can’t keep doing nearly everything the same and expect different results. As actor Edward James Olmos said in an ad about the spill for NRDC’s Action Fund, that is the definition of loco. “It’s time to regain our sanity,” Olmos says. “America doesn’t want more oil disasters.”

Instead, Americans want Congress to make necessary changes. They support efforts to restore the Gulf and hold BP accountable. They also support efforts to transform the failed energy policies that fuel risky drilling. According to a poll conducted by the NRDC Action Fund, voters overwhelmingly support clean energy legislation that creates jobs and limits climate change pollution. We know what it takes to protect coastal communities and marine life from devastating oil spills. We just need to start now, and this is how we begin.

Pass the Oil Spill Bill to Reform Offshore Drilling

Operating at the frontier of knowledge in conditions more challenging than deep space, wells like BP’s are inherently dangerous. To make matters worse, the drive into deeper and riskier Gulf waters occurred in a context in which our watchdog agencies were defanged and compromised, creating an atmosphere in which oil company engineers sometimes penciled in their own responses to inspection forms. This reckless wildcatting and lax regulatory culture has to end. The Department of Interior issued new regulations—with more to follow—that will begin to make needed changes, but Congress must act as well. Only Congress has the power to strengthen the statutes that govern offshore drilling and hold companies fully accountable for damages. The House passed a promising bill in August, but the Senate went home for elections without passing key legislation to prevent this kind of disaster from happening again. Click here to tell your lawmakers to pass spill legislation as soon as they return in mid-November.

Respond to Immediate Health Concerns

Introducing 200 million gallons of oil into an environment has serious implications for people’s health. Yet government testing of seafood and worker safety has been woefully inadequate and much of the data has been withheld from the public. The FDA should fix their flawed seafood testing and the government should launch studies of residents’ ongoing health effects.

Conduct Independent Scientific Research

Time and again, America has failed to conduct thorough research after oil spills. We can’t afford to lose another opportunity to learn how to prevent and prepare for future spills. BP has committed to funding $500 million over 10 years into independent research, but that’s only a fraction of what’s needed. Meanwhile, the BP money is going to be distributed in a way that may put Gulf state’s political interests ahead of scientific expertise. Science should not fall victim to local politics. As I wrote in a recent letter to BP’s CEO, the research money must get into the hands of the best scientists in the world, not just those who live in the Gulf.

Unleash Technologies that Help Us Use Oil More Efficiently

America’s 800 million-gallon-a-day oil habit has encouraged energy companies to push past the limits of safe and reliable drilling. We burn oil in outdated engines as if it weren’t one of the most valuable resources we have, and we turn a blind eye to the dangers involved in filling our tanks.

We should use oil as efficiently as we possibly can. As I explain in my new book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction, technologies exist today that can help us do that, but we need smart policies to make efficiency the norm instead of the exception. Last month, Obama Administration officials said they are considering issuing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks equivalent to at least 47 miles per gallon and as high as 62 gallons by 2025. Setting the bar on the high end of this range will save 80 percent more oil than setting it at the low end. We are urging the administration to go high—a move that will save American families and American businesses money on fuel.

Together with more investment in public transit and low-carbon fuel options and a concerted effort to shift our freight transfer from trucks to rails and to design our communities so we are not sitting in traffic, America can cut our dependence on oil in half, create jobs for American workers, and better protect natural treasures like the Gulf of Mexico.

Twitter’s Biz Stone to Solar Industry: We’re Just Like You

biz stone1 280x300 INS6By Ucilia Wang: Twitter and solar may seem like strange bedfellows, but they both want something very badly: to convince the public that it can’t do with them. That was the gist of Biz Stone’s message from the solar conference Solar Power International in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Stone, the last-minute keynote speaker replacement for Peter Darbee CEO of PG&E Corp., recounted the key points of growth of his social communications tool and how Twitter can help solar businesses reach out to their customers. While the message was no doubt one of self-promotion, it also rings true for a fledgling industry that needs more campaigns to educate consumers.

“From what I’ve heard about the solar industry, is that they are trying to get the equipment to people and explain that over time it will generate a lot of value for them,” Stone said. “Twitter and the solar industry are in the same boat. People have heard about it, but people aren’t sure what to do with it. There is a huge awareness but also a disconnect in ‘What can I do about it.’”
Twitter, which Stone and his co-founders created in 2006 (though the company wasn’t formed until 2007), has 160 million users who broadcast 90 million messages per day. The service has become an avenue for companies such as Dell , Starbucks and Jet Blue to publicize deals and answer questions from their customers. Many solar company executives and advocates already use twitter to trade news, lobby for support and make announcements.

Creating a web of public conversations about solar is certainly an important task for the solar industry, whether it’s through Twitter or any other wireless tools. Stone said his business can both generate good revenues and do social good, and for example the service has been used to coordinate disaster relief effort and the company also is involved in charitable causes. The same tenet can apply to the solar industry, which has a similar message to tell the public. “You can build on that. You can’t do that if you were running a tobacco company,” Stone said.

Stone also talked about his young company’s foray into politics, a tale that illustrates the importance of government support for young tech companies. Twitter executives did a meet-and-greet with federal lawmakers in recent months because they wanted to establish a good relationship with politicians when the company is in the enviable state of not needing anything from them, Stone said.
“A couple of months ago, our general counsel told me, ‘Look, everyone in Washington thinks Twitter has 30,000 employees who are jerks. So buy a suit and we’ll parade around all the senators and you will say hello and how can we help you,’” Stone recalled (Twitter has 300 employees now). Political leaders “are supposed to represent the people, and they need to stay connected to people. Almost all of the senators are on Twitter. The Russian president came to our office to send his first tweet.”

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