Europe braces as mosquitos venture north due to climate change
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, August 13, 2012 15:59 EDT
Behind air-tight doors in a lab in a southern French city, scientists in protective coveralls wage war against a fingernail-sized danger. Lurking in net cages is their foe: the Asian tiger mosquito, capable of spreading dengue fever and other tropical diseases in temperate Europe. First spotted in Albania in 1979, the black-and-white striped invader has gained a foothold on Europe's Mediterranean rim and is advancing north and west, according to captors' reports. Colonies are established in 20 European countries, in moderate climes as far north as Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. "The risk of disease is very low but it is growing," entomologist Jean-Baptiste Ferre told AFP at France's leading mosquito-control institute. "The more mosquitoes there are, the higher the risk." The Asian tiger mosquito -- Latin name Aedes albopictus -- can spread many kinds of viruses. They include dengue, which can result in a deadly haemorrhagic fever, as well as West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis and a painful disease of the joints called chikungunya. A. albopictus transmits the virus by taking blood from a sick person and handing on the pathogen the next time it takes a meal. The worry is that the insect will spread disease in Europe by biting infected people arriving from tropical countries where the viruses are endemic. In 2007, the tiger mosquito caused a home-grown outbreak in Italy of chikungunya, and in 2010, 10 locally-transmitted cases of dengue occurred in Croatia. That same year, two cases of each disease surfaced in southern France, prompting the alarm bells to ring loudly. From Montpellier, Ferre and his colleagues at the Entente Interdepartementale pour la Demoustication en Mediterranee (EID) monitor the spread with some 1,500 traps dotted around France, luring mosquitoes to lay their eggs. These provide insights into how A. albopictus is adapting to European life, with its varied habitats and cooler climate. Ferre points to maps that begin in 2004, when a tiny red dot represented the first settling of albopictus in France around Menton, near the Italian border. Year by year, the dot grows into red tentacles that probe north and west. The insect has a flight range of only about 200 metres (yards), so it hitch-hikes a ride in cars, trucks and traded goods. With climate change, "further expansion is probable," the journal Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases warned this year. That assessment is supported by scientists at Britain's University of Liverpool who point to warming trends in the Balkans and northwestern Europe. Asian tiger mosquitoes are aggressive and robust, able to breed prolifically in their short, 10-day lives. Feeding during the day, they can bite several people in quick succession, and their offspring can hatch even after long periods without water. Worse, the insect is a stealthy urban dweller. It does not need large, open bodies of water to reproduce, for it can lay its eggs in small, water-holding receptacles such as flowerpots, toys and blocked gutters, and this makes it much harder to fight. Since May this year, surveillance in France has thrown up 267 suspected dengue and chikungunya cases among people who had arrived from abroad, said EID project coordinator Gregory Lambert. The institute sometimes launches pre-emptive strikes if this can prevent the mosquitoes from spreading disease locally. It orders out insecticide trucks that spray streets in a 200-metre (650-foot) radius around the area where a case is notified. The operations take place before dawn, while most people are still in bed. "The imperative is to kill the mosquitoes before they transmit the disease," said Lambert. The war is unrelenting. "It is impossible to kill them all," said Anna-Bella Failloux of France's Pasteur Institute, one of the world's top centres for infectious disease. "Even if there is no mosquito around you, you still have eggs somewhere, waiting for the next rain."
Greenland breaks ice melting record by four weeks
By Kay Steiger
Wednesday, August 15, 2012 15:20 EDT
In a terrifying reminder that climate change is reality, researchers have discovered that Greenland’s ice sheet melted as much as all of last year by Aug. 8—a full four weeks ahead of schedule and breaking any record since scientists began recording data on the ice sheet 30 years ago.
“With more yet to come in August, this year’s overall melting will fall way above the old records. That’s a Goliath year — the greatest melt since satellite recording began in 1979,” Marco Tedesco, assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at The City College of New York, told Live Science.
The ice sheet typically melts during the summer season, from June to September, but researchers looked at U.S. Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite Program data to determine that melting was extreme in every region of Greenland. They found melting particularly surprising in the parts of the country with high elevation, where ice usually only melts for a few days a year. But this year, Tedesco said, the melting had already been going on for two months.
The reason this is problematic is not because the amount of water produced is drastic, Tedesco said, but rather because the water could lubricate chunks of snow and ice, causing them to drop more quickly into the ocean.
“It’s no doubt that the warming of the Arctic and whatever is related to that is responsible at least for triggering the melting mechanism at the beginning of the season and providing enough gas to keep it going,” Tedesco said.
This compounds the data NASA distributed in July, which revealed striking satellite data showing 97 percent of ice veneer melting occurred in four days.
Add to that a record-setting rainfall that hit Needles, California, when rain began falling at a temperature of 115°F or 46.1°C, making it the hottest rainfall on record.
[Drifting ice via Shutterstock]
Climate change driving Australian fish south
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, August 17, 2012 8:07 EDT
Australian scientists said Friday there was now “striking evidence” of extensive southward migration of tropical fish and declines in other species due to climate change, in a major ocean report card.
Compiled by more than 80 of Australia’s leading marine experts for the government science body CSIRO, the snapshot of global warming’s effects on the island continent’s oceans warned of “significant impacts”.
“Climate change is already happening; widespread physical changes include rapid warming of the southeast and increasing flow of the east Australia current,” the report said.
“There is now striking evidence of extensive southward movements of tropical fish and plankton species in southeast Australia, declines in abundance of temperate species, and the first signs of the effect of ocean acidification on marine species with shells.”
The report described southeast Australia as a “global warming hotspot”, with the contraction south and strengthening of southern hemisphere winds causing the eastern current to become more intense and also warmer.
“A range of species including plankton, fish and invertebrates are now found further south because of the enhanced transport of larvae and juveniles in the stronger (current) and the high rate of regional warming,” it said.
Sea snakes were declining and warmer beaches were changing turtle breeding habits and seabird and marine mammal feeding and mating, it added.
Coral reefs had experienced increasing thermal bleaching in the past 30 years and that was projected to become more frequent and severe, “leading to chronic degradation of most coral reefs by the middle to late parts of the century.”
Though there were some “concerning findings”, project leader Elvira Poloczanska said there were some positives, with new research suggesting that certain tropical fish species were better equipped to adapt to warming than previously thought.
“Whether such acclimation capacity is widespread in tropical marine fishes and whether some critical processes (such as) reproduction remain significantly impaired is unknown.”
Poloczanska said Australia had some unique marine ecosystems and they provided “irreplaceable services including coastal defence, oxygen production, nutrient recycling and climate regulation”.
“Every second breath of oxygen we breathe is provided by marine plants; they provide protein when we eat fish and also relaxation such as when we go swimming,” she said.
“It’s important we make decisions about the future.”
U.S. carbon emissions drop to 20-year low
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, August 17, 2012 16:04 EDT
US emissions of carbon dioxide blamed for climate change fell in 2011 and have slipped to a 20-year low this year as the the world’s largest economy uses more natural gas and less coal, data shows.
The surprise drop from the world’s second biggest emitter comes despite the lack of legislation on climate change but it was unclear if the change marked a trend or would be enough to meet goals on fighting global warming.
Official data showed that energy-related US carbon emissions fell by 2.4 percent in 2011 from the previous year.
The decline did not fully track the broader economy as the United States posted growth in 2011, whereas the last time emissions declined was in 2009 during a contraction in the economy.
In the first three months of 2012, US carbon emissions from energy use were down by almost eight percent from the same period last year, marking the lowest level for the quarter since 1992, the Energy Information Administration said.
The government agency said that the drop in emissions in the first quarter was due in part to the warmer winter, which decreased the need for heating during the season that traditionally sees the most energy demand.
The quarter saw the lowest level since 1983 in carbon emissions generated by coal, which is the dirtiest major source of energy. In 2011, coal accounted for 43 percent of US power generation, down from 51 percent in 2005.
“The decline in coal-related emissions is due mainly to utilities using less coal for electricity generation as they burned more low-priced natural gas,” said the report issued this month.
The supply of natural gas has soared due to a boom in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” — high-pressure injections of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth to blast through rock and release gas and oil.
Advocates say that fracking has the potential to reduce US emissions and imports, but environmentalists have voiced concern that the process can contaminate water supplies. Governments including France and the US state of Vermont have banned fracking.
The US data showed that some 18 percent of US energy consumption in 2011 came from sources that do not emit any carbon dioxide including nuclear, hydropower, wind and solar energy.
The Energy Information Administration warned that it was “difficult to draw conclusions” from data due to specific factors in 2011, including a large increase in hydropower generation.
But it said that other factors — including the abundance of natural gas and improvements in fuel efficiency of vehicles — could make a longer-term impact.
In a projection made in June, the agency estimated that US carbon emissions would be more than nine percent below 2005 levels in 2020 assuming no national regulations other than vehicle emission standards.
President Barack Obama promised ahead of the turbulent UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 that the United States would cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels, in a shift from his climate-skeptic predecessor George W. Bush.
But proposals backed by Obama to restrict carbon emissions have died in Congress. Lawmakers of the rival Republican Party are staunchly opposed, arguing that climate efforts are too costly and voicing doubt about scientists’ views on climate change.
International negotiations have also deadlocked. China, the world’s largest emitter, has vowed to reduce the intensity of its emissions but rejects a binding treaty.
The planet has been experiencing extreme weather, droughts and record temperatures that many scientists link to climate change. The continental United States this year experienced a spring that was the warmest on record at 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit (2.9 Celsius) above the average from 1901 to 2000.
August 18, 2012
Horses Fall Victim to Hard Times and Dry Times on the Range
By FERNANDA SANTOS
AZTEC, N.M. — The land is parched, the fields are withering and thousands of the nation’s horses are being left to fend for themselves on the dried range, abandoned by people who can no longer afford to feed them.
They have been dropping dead in the Navajo reservation in the Southwest, where neighbors are battling neighbors and livestock for water, an inherently scant resource on tribal land. They have been found stumbling through state parks in Missouri, in backyards and along country roads in Illinois, and among ranch herds in Texas where they do not belong.
Some are taken to rescue farms or foster homes — lifelines that are also buckling under the pressure of the nation’s worst drought in half a century, which has pushed the price of grain and hay needed to feed the animals beyond the reach of many families already struggling in the tight economy.
And still the drought rages on. The most recent federal assessment is that parts of at least 33 states, mostly in the West and the Midwest, are experiencing drought conditions that are severe or worse. It is affecting 87 percent of the land dedicated to growing corn, 63 percent of the land for hay and 72 percent of the land used for cattle.
With water tables falling, fields are crusting and cracking, creeks are running dry. Water holes first shrink, then vanish altogether. And dozens of wildfires are consuming forests and grassland across the West.
While precise figures are hard to come by, rough estimates from the Unwanted Horse Coalition, an alliance of equine organizations based in Washington, puts the number of unwanted horses — those given up on by their owners for whatever reasons — at 170,000 to 180,000 nationwide, said Ericka Caslin, the group’s director.
Many more could be out there, though. The Navajos, for instance, have no tally on the number of feral horses on their land; a $2 million effort to count and round them up was vetoed by the tribe’s president because of the cost.
Here, in this speck of a city in northern New Mexico, just outside Navajo territory, Debbie Coburn has been scrambling to enlist volunteers and raise money to feed, clean and care for three times as many abandoned horses as she had in her rescue farm, Four Corners Equine Rescue, through all of last year.
She gets up almost every day to find messages in her computer from people whose horses are in desperate need of help. One recent morning, a woman writing on behalf of her elderly parents who live just east of Albuquerque said, “They have scraped by every week to purchase a bale of hay for their horse, but they just can’t do it anymore.”
At $8 to $12 for a bale of roughly 60 pounds, enough to feed a riding horse for maybe three days, hay already costs five times what it did 10 years ago, Ms. Coburn said. This summer’s anemic harvest has spurred competition for a limited supply among ranchers big and small, from nearby cities and also from out of state. And as a rule, the price of hay goes up in the cold months; it doubled last winter, when the drought’s devastating effects first began to sprout.
“This winter, to be quite blunt, scares the hell out of me,” Ms. Coburn said as she walked across the corrals where the horses are kept, some of them in improvised pens enclosed not by steel barriers, but by electric fence. (The horses have arrived faster than she has been able to make room for them.)
“At this point,” she added, “it’s just too late for rain alone to solve our problems.”
Tony Pecho, the president of Illinois Horse Rescue of Will County, some 50 miles south of Chicago, has been trying to get horses adopted straight from the homes of the people who call to say they can no longer keep them. There is no money to bring them all to his farm, he said. And while calls for abandoned horses were rare in years past, this year they are the most frequent, he said, sometimes coming from places as far as four hours away.
Mr. Pecho has been asking for donations, of money as well as hay, on Facebook. On Saturday, Connie Hendrix, the president of the Missouri Forget-Me-Not Horse Rescue and Sanctuary in Linn Creek, hosted a fund-raising ice cream social and pie auction at a church, and she plans a golf tournament and silent auction next month, just to feed the horses she already has.
Last week, Ms. Hendrix picked up a mare running in the woods behind a subdivision in a city 120 miles south of her facility, thirsty, malnourished and with an injured eye. Last Monday, she said, she got a call from a sheriff’s deputy asking if she could take in seven scrawny horses, three belonging to someone who is unemployed and the other four to an elderly man on disability. Neither, Ms. Hendrix said, could afford to keep the animals fed.
She is not sure if she can, either. “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to find hay or afford hay to take in that many,” she said.
There is little logic to the hay market. Ms. Hendrix’s rescue gets its hay from Tennessee, while the rescue in Illinois brings it in from northern Wisconsin. Jennifer Williams, the executive director of the Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society, a network of foster homes for horses in Texas, said she gets it from wherever she can.
Ms. Coburn said she could still find New Mexico hay for her horses, but competition from out-of-state cattle ranchers is stiff. Big trucks that roll in empty leave packed to the brim, bound for places like Texas and Kentucky.
“My challenge now is to set as many bales aside as I can,” she said, “but that’s hard when you’re the little guy.”
At the Navajo reservation, where much of the once green grass is gone, leaving behind only sand, sheep herders have taken to bringing their animals to eat the scraps of hay that are left behind after bales are sold in open-air markets. Feral horses, free-roaming animals that once were domesticated, have been jumping over fences to eat the weeds that grow by the side of the road.
Forage “has shriveled and died on the range,” Kimberly Johnson, the acting supervisor of the tribe’s grazing management program, said from the headquarters of the Navajo Nation’s agriculture department in Window Rock, Ariz., near the New Mexico border. Ms. Johnson said that only 30 percent of the tribe’s livestock owners care for their animals on a daily basis, based on an informal survey this year.
So the horses have been searching for water wherever they can: in mills and troughs meant to supply the families that live around them, as well as the animals they own, and in lakes the drought has turned into puddles.
Stallions fight one another for food and water, their bites drawing flesh and blood. Atop a mesa near Many Farms, Ariz., in the heart of Navajo territory, horses were stomping the ground one recent afternoon, as if trying to draw water from a pond that is now just cracked dirt. Tribal rangers said carcasses dot the arid landscape.
Horses are sacred animals to the Navajos; they symbolize prosperity and the beauty of the Navajo way of life, Ms. Johnson said. She and her colleagues have found themselves in an awkward spot, caught between tribe members who want the feral horses away from their water and out of their land and others who would rather the horses be left alone.
Roundups are being carried out almost every day, all across the reservation. The horses are sold, at least some of them destined for slaughter in Mexico. One morning in Cornfields, Ariz., on the western edge of the reservation, a woman tried to keep the feral horses from being penned in her corral, cursing and screaming at the men who had rounded them up at her grandson’s request.
Ms. Johnson watched it unfold from afar.
“What do we do?” she asked. “Do we leave them out to die of hunger and thirst?”
New owl species discovered in Philippines
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, August 19, 2012 10:06 EDT
MANILA — Scientists and birdwatchers have discovered 10 new owl species in the Philippines, using advanced recording equipment that can distinguish between their hoots, a conservation official said Sunday.
Eight of the new species were previously considered sub-species while two are totally new, said Lisa Paguntalan, field director of Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Programme.
“There is no significant variation in their forms. It was the sound difference of their calls that was very significant in distinguishing between species,” she told AFP.
Paguntalan warned that many of these new species were possibly endangered because they were found only in small isolated islands or in tiny pockets of forests.
Ornithologists and birdwatchers from Michigan State University, Birdlife International and other groups used museum samples and high-quality photography and recording systems to show the owls were of different species.
The research took 10 years but the results were only announced after coordination between the various groups.
The two new species are the Cebu hawk owl and the Camiguin hawk owl, found in the central Philippine islands of Cebu and Camiguin respectively.
They are described as about eight to 12 inches (20 to 30.5 centimetres) in size and hard to spot.
The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands with diverse animal species evolving in different parts of the country but many of these unique species are threatened by destruction of their habitat.
Arctic cap on course for record melt: scientists
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, August 22, 2012 2:20 EDT
The Arctic ice cap is melting at a startlingly rapid rate and may shrink to its smallest-ever level within weeks as the planet’s temperatures rise, US scientists said Tuesday.
Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder said that the summer ice in the Arctic was already nearing its lowest level recorded, even though the summer melt season is not yet over.
“The numbers are coming in and we are looking at them with a sense of amazement,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the university.
“If the melt were to just suddenly stop today, we would be at the third lowest in the satellite record. We’ve still got another two weeks of melt to go, so I think we’re very likely to set a new record,” he told AFP.
The previous record was set in 2007 when the ice cap shrunk to 4.25 million square kilometers (1.64 million square miles), stunning scientists who had not forecast such a drastic melt so soon.
The Colorado-based center said that one potential factor could be an Arctic cyclone earlier this month. However, Serreze played down the effects of the cyclone and said that this year’s melt was all the more remarkable because of the lack of special weather factors seen in 2007.
Serreze said that the extensive melt was in line with the effects of global warming, with the ice being hit by a double whammy of rising temperatures in the atmosphere and warmer oceans.
“The ice now is so thin in the spring just because of the general pattern of warming that large parts of the pack ice just can’t survive the summer melt season anymore,” he said.
Russia’s Roshydromet environmental agency also reported earlier this month that the Arctic melt was reaching record levels. Several studies have predicted that the cap in the summer could melt completely in coming decades.
The thaw in the Arctic is rapidly transforming the geopolitics of the region, with the long forbidding ocean looking more attractive to the shipping and energy industries.
Five nations surround the Arctic Ocean — Russia, which has about half of the coastline, along with Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States — but the route could see a growing number of commercial players.
The first ship from China — the Xuelong, or Snow Dragon — recently sailed from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Arctic Ocean, cutting the distance by more than 40 percent.
Egill Thor Nielsson, an Icelandic scientist who participated in the expedition, said last week in Reykjavik that he expected China to be increasingly interested in the route as it was relatively easy to sail.
But the rapid melt affects local people’s lifestyles and scientists warn of serious consequences for the rest of the planet. The Arctic ice cap serves a vital function by reflecting light and hence keeping the earth cool.
Serreze said it was possible that the rapid melt was a factor in severe storms witnessed in recent years in the United States and elsewhere as it changed the nature of the planet’s temperature gradients.
The planet has charted a slew of record temperatures in recent years. In the continental United States, July was the hottest ever recorded with temperatures 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.8 Celsius) higher than the average in the 20th century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Most scientists believe that carbon emissions from industry cause global warming. Efforts to control the gases have encountered resistance in a number of countries, with some lawmakers in the United States questioning the science.
« Last Edit: Aug 22, 2012, 08:02 AM by Rad »
08/24/2012 11:59 AM
'The Black Plague': Russia Plays Game of Arctic Roulette in Oil Exploration
By Benjamin Bidder, Matthias Schepp and Gerald Traufetter
Thawing sea ice and improved technology is opening up the race for natural resource exploration in the Arctic Circle, home to nearly a quarter of the world's untapped oil reserves. Russia leads the race and has promised to adhere to environmental guidelines. But accidents and other damage resulting from the country's oil exploration tell a different story.
The instruments hanging in the Russian city of Severodvinsk -- one by the mayor's office at Victory Square, two more at buildings belonging to the Disaster Prevention Agency -- look like oversized clocks.
But rather than showing the time, they indicate radioactivity. They're dosimeters, and they're meant to reassure people here on Russia's northwestern coast, in this city that serves as a home port for Russian nuclear submarines between their trips north into the seas. Less reassuring is the knowledge that just a year and a half ago, one of the submarines caught fire.
For decades, these fleets were both a blessing and a curse in this region with little other infrastructure. The boats provided jobs, but they also brought with them the fear of a Chernobyl at sea. Now the region has another cause for hope, as well as a new source of danger: oil.
The shipyards in Severodvinsk, on the White Sea, where nuclear submarines were once built, have turned their attention to assembling drilling platforms. One was just recently assembled for use at the Prirazlomnoye oilfield in the Pechora Sea, also along Russia's northwestern coast. The enormous metal construction, operated by a subsidiary of Russian energy giant Gazprom, is expected to start drilling sometime in the coming months.
Growing Environmental Threat
Although these plans were made with no particular fanfare, unexpected resistance has sprung up around the drilling rig. Greenpeace Russia presented an alarming study last week. "If an accident were to occur at the platform in the Pechora Sea, it would contaminate an area twice the size of Ireland," warns Roman Dolgov, director of Greenpeace Russia's Arctic program.
There are protected natural areas, home to endangered species such as walruses and beluga whales, just 50 to 60 kilometers (31 to 37 miles) from the platform. An accident could cover the entire 3,500-kilometer coastline in a toxic slick, but due to the particular conditions of the Arctic, it would only be possible to remove a small portion of that oil.
The danger of environmental damage is growing elsewhere in the far north as well, as the countries that border the Arctic race to exploit previously inaccessible resources. Sea ice here is disappearing and may even drop this year below its previous record low of 4.3 million square kilometers in 2007.
"We are witnessing a unique historical situation," says Rüdiger Gerdes, a physicist studying sea ice at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, in Bremerhaven, Germany. "As new ocean territory opens, it awakens new greed."
The Last Frontier
According to a United States Geological Survey estimate, around 22 percent of the world's as yet undiscovered, exploitable oil reserves will be found in the Arctic. This is the last frontier for multinational oil corporations -- and even that border is crumbling, as sea ice melts and energy prices rise:
Corporations Statoil and Cairn are exploring for oil in Baffin Bay, west of Greenland, with the help of a fleet of icebreaker ships capable of dragging icebergs out of the way.
The Dutch-British corporation Shell plans to start test drilling north of Alaska. The oilfield there was discovered in the 1980s, and its exploitation has American President Barack Obama's support.
This spring, American energy corporation ConocoPhilips, in test drilling performed together with a Japanese oil company, managed for the first time to extract methane hydrate from natural gas trapped inside ice crystals deep under the earth.
Traditionally, though, it is Russia, with its massive reserves of oil, gas and ore in northern Siberia that has been the pioneer in tapping the Arctic's resources. Barely noticed by the rest of the world, Russia's explorations here have frequently shown that a great deal can go wrong when machinery and brute force are used to extract natural resources from such a sensitive region, in what amounts to a game of Arctic roulette.
But environmental protection has never been a high priority for Kremlin strategists, who see the energy sector as the instrument Moscow can use to cement its position as a world power. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev introduced a package of laws early this month that establishes tax incentives for oil extraction. Just to complete extraction projects that have already begun, around 60 drilling platforms will be built by 2020, at a cost of $60 billion (€48 billion).
President Vladimir Putin has promised to adhere to "strict environmental guidelines," but just how little these assurances mean can be seen in the pioneering project at the Prirazlomnoye oilfield. If an accident occurred here, the platform's crew would be left completely to its own devices, with the closest rescue team stationed 1,000 kilometers away in the Barents Sea port city of Murmansk.
Gazprom Neft Shelf is the Gazprom subsidiary that holds the license for the Prirazlomnoye oilfield, and its emergency plan for handling potential environmental damages currently consists of three axes, 25 buckets, 15 shovels, 15 rakes and two all-terrain vehicles. The drilling platform's insurance against environmental damage amounts to a laughable €180,000.
Russian corporations' lack of experience with offshore projects has led to accidents time and again. Last December, a mobile drilling platform called Kolskaya sank in the Sea of Okhotsk, 200 kilometers off the coast of Sakhalin island, while being towed by an icebreaker. Gazflot, another Gazprom subsidiary, had been using the platform outside of the approved season. With 53 of the 67 crew members on the rig declared dead or missing in the icy sea, it was the largest number of causalities that an accident in the Russian oil sector has seen.
Reputation for Catastrophe
Since the Soviet era, Russia's oil and gas companies have had a reputation for catastrophe. Few people know this better than Greenpeace activist Dolgov. Together with his colleague Tatyana Khakhimullina, the bearded, broad-shouldered man is traveling this summer around the Komi Republic, located at the Arctic Circle in northwestern Russia. Equipped with a GPS device, an old laptop and images from an American research satellite, the two Greenpeace members are searching the taiga for pipeline leaks.
According to state-run regulatory authorities, pipelines here in the world's largest country burst at over 25,000 locations each year. Greenpeace estimates this leads to leaks of 5 million tons of oil -- seven times the amount that flowed into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform. Snowmelt here in spring and rain in summer wash around 500,000 metric tons of oil into the region's major rivers and then to the Arctic Ocean.
Roman Dolgov swings himself down from the vehicle. The Arctic wind that sweeps across the mountain pines and marshes carries with it a stench like that of a diesel pump at a gas station, and oil pipes can be seen on the taiga's horizon, glinting silver. In January, temperatures here drop to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit). "When the first snow falls in October, it lays a white blanket over hundreds of lakes of oil," Dolgov explains. When the snow melts again in May, black-colored ice floes drift down the Pechora River toward the Arctic Ocean.
Dolgov marches out across the marshy land. A few hundred meters on, he finds two fresh oil spills, spread across an area of 10 hectares (25 acres), where an underground section of pipe has burst. There are deep wheel tracks in the moss -- the Lukoil corporation that owns this pipeline simply sent an exploratory vehicle out to this lake of oil, then took no further action.
"The companies would rather pay the laughably low fines," Dolgov says. When Greenpeace reported 14 oil spills in Komi last year, Russia's environmental authorities fined Lukoil, a company with annual sales of €80 billion, a total penalty equivalent to €27,500.
A half hour's drive away is the village of Ust-Usa, population 1,300. Wooden huts and a handful of concrete high-rises hunker here on the bank of the Pechora. Once the villagers drank the water from the river; to do so now could be fatal. In between the rainbow-colored streaks of oil, pale foam floats toward the Arctic.
One rural doctor here has kept records of patients' medical histories in Ust-Usa and the surrounding villages. The incidence of cancer is 50 percent higher than it was in 2000, and children and teenagers suffer from respiratory illnesses twice as often. Few men in these villages ever reach retirement age. Average life expectancy here is 58, compared to a national average of 70.
Residents at a town hall meeting express their anger at the oil corporations and the Kremlin. One retiree rages against "Putin's regime, exterminating its own people." Yekaterina Dyakova, a biology teacher here in the village, believes, "Monitoring is the only solution." She's fighting to establish an independent institute that would monitor pipelines, water quality and pollutants. "The government can't leave that to the oil corporations," she says. "They'll only find what they want to find."
Dyakova sent her suggestion "to the president of the Russian Federation" two years ago, and she's still waiting for an answer. "Everywhere else, oil is seen as black gold," she adds. "For us, it's the black plague."
Translated by Ella Ornstein
08/24/2012 05:51 PM
Embracing the Wind: Denmark's Recipe for a Model Democracy
By Manfred Ertel and Gerald Traufetter
Hailed as a "miracle of modern politics," Denmark consistently earns top marks for its efficient governance, innovation and transparency. Nowhere is this more apparent than with its successful embrace of wind power, making it a role model for the world.
Western democracies consider themselves to be efficient, farsighted and just -- in other words, prime examples of "good governance." But in recent years, the euro and debt crises, along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan , have shattered faith in the reliability of Western institutions. Disconcerted Europeans are casting a worried eye at newly industrialized nations like China and Brazil . Can the West learn something from countries that for so long sought its advice? This is part III in a four-part series looking at how the world is governed today. For part I, on Brazil , click here. For part II, on the United States , click here. Check back for part IV, on China , next week.
The blades of the wind turbine are made of plain wood painted red, and they measure exactly 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) long. Their curved edges are only roughly sanded. Nothing seems to suggest that this unremarkable-looking device heralded the rise of a global corporation and the restructuring of an entire country.
"At the time, I found the thing in a dusty corner of the barn," says Henrik Stiesdal. "I still clearly recall how I held it in the wind for the first time."
His blue eyes gleam as if he were reliving the experience from 35 years ago, saying: "I suddenly felt this power and thought: That's just the ticket!"
Stiesdal jumps up from his chair, which he had been casually rocking on only a moment ago. He wants to leave his office on the first floor and show his visitors what has evolved from this red piece of wood. The 55-year-old technical director at Siemens Wind Power rushes toward a large production hall with its walls of black granite sparkling in the sun.
Once inside, everyone takes in the view of a vast production line, similar to the ones used in automotive plants. Here, though, workers are assembling white quadrants of steel that are as large as a small single-family dwelling. Stiesdal is still holding his red rotor blade, but it looks like a toy in comparison to the 400-metric-ton (880,000-pound) wind turbine behemoths moved here on air cushions. This is precisely the effect that Stiesdal is aiming for with his visitors: "They need to grasp the rapid development that the wind industry has experienced over the past 30 years," he says.
A Wind Pioneer
Stiesdal is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the wind-power-generating industry, in Denmark and around the world. He was just about to graduate from high school when his father's farm was in roughly the same predicament as the entire country: It was the 1973 oil crisis and Arab oil-producing countries had slashed production. The winter was cold, and the government had called on its citizens to only heat one room in their homes.
It was precisely at this critical point in their history that the Danes proved that they have a particularly well-organized state, one that can react and adapt. These years marked the beginning of Denmark's reputation as a model of modern governance, as a paragon of innovation and transparency. And it provided proof that a democratic government can foster enthusiasm among its citizens.
Stiesdal was a key figure in this development. Together with a talented handyman from his hometown in Jutland, he built the first economically feasible prototype of a wind turbine. They received a loan of 50,000 kroner -- the equivalent of roughly €23,000 ($29,000) today -- from the state, which was desperately looking for something to replace the missing shipments of crude oil. In 1979, they sold the license for the prototype to a company called Vestas. "At the time, the company was still manufacturing tractors and cranes," he says.
Today, Vestas is the world's largest producer of wind turbines. Stiesdal, on the other hand, continues to develop new models that generate even more power, though now he is working for the German engineering giant Siemens, which purchased a Vestas competitor in the small Jutland town of Brande in 2004. Stiesdal's latest breakthrough is a wind generator without a gearbox. "With an output of 6 megawatts, this machine is 150 metric tons lighter and requires less maintenance," he says without a hint of humility.
He explains that these technological marvels are nearly 200 meters high and still have a great deal of development potential. One thought makes him particularly proud: "We've produced turbines in this plant with a total output of 15,000 megawatts," he says, adding that they generate 35 billion kWh a year. "Do you know how much energy that is?" he asks. Without waiting for an answer, he says: "Denmark's entire electric power consumption!"
Stiesdal says that these wind turbines have been shipped to the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and the entire world. "That's this small country's contribution to the battle against climate change," he adds.
Leading the Way to Renewable Energy
Indeed, the statistics are impressive. It's estimated that some 50,000 wind turbines have been exported from this mini-kingdom between the North and Baltic seas, nearly 50 percent of the wind-powered generators worldwide. But sales are declining now that large industrialized nations, such as India, China and the US, are emulating the Danes' success.
In addition to the graceful, towering turbines made of fiberglass and steel, however, Denmark has also given the world a shining example of sustainability: The parliamentary monarchy is widely seen as a laboratory and model for how an entire country can make the transition away from coal, oil and gas and toward energy generated from renewable resources.
Today, already 24 percent of the electricity consumed in Denmark comes from wind power -- a world record. There are plans to increase this to 50 percent by 2020, and the country intends to become entirely independent of fossil fuels by 2050.
It's up to people like Stiesdal to meet the technical part of this challenge, to create increasingly efficient turbines that are quieter and more robust -- and better adapted to operate on the high seas. In the 1990s, for instance, he designed the turbines for the first offshore wind farm at his plant in Brande.
'A Miracle of Modern Politics'
But there's also a fundamental dimension to Denmark's energy transition: How is it possible to whisk such an initiative through parliament, the courts and company boardrooms in a way that makes the population see its advantages rather than growing weary of it? How do you plant a major technological innovation in people's minds, and how do you distribute it to the electrical outlets of an entire country?
It's the challenge of an entire generation and a race against time: Whoever first manages to tame the wind is guaranteed prosperity and power. "Why do you think the Chinese president recently visited Denmark?" Stiesdal asks.
Indeed, even without its wind-power success story, political scientists have long viewed Denmark as a model state. Perhaps the most striking expression of this was coined by Francis Fukuyama in his most recent work "The Origins of Political Order," when he talked about the idea of "getting to Denmark." For the Stanford professor, who became world-famous with his 1992 proclamation of the "end of history," the Scandinavian country is "a mythical place" known for its outstanding political and economic institutions. "It is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive and has extremely low levels of political corruption," he writes.
Fukuyama presents Denmark as a "miracle of modern politics," as a point of orientation for all failed and faltering states in this world. Likewise, he postulates a kind of tripartite recipe for successful governance. This requires an effective administration, a transparent justice system and a government that is accountable to its citizens at all times.
Of course there is always something or other rotten in the state of Denmark, making this famous line from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" an oft-cited metaphor in political commentaries on this nation of 5.6 million people. And, of course, even Denmark cannot isolate itself from the forces that undermine parliamentary democracies elsewhere. But, in international rankings, the Danes regularly take top positions not only in terms of quality of life, competitiveness, combating corruption and the satisfaction of its citizens, but also with regard to the quality of its politicians.
Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung, for instance, recently came to the following conclusion in its latest comparison of sustainable politics in over 100 countries: "The general level of public trust in government and public administration is high." When it came to political management ("very convincing"), it rated Denmark in third place, eight places ahead of Germany and 22 ahead of France. It said that governmental action in Copenhagen is extraordinarily "credible and transparent."
A Winning Mindset
Wind power provides an ideal example of what this triad of productive administration, effective justice and accountable politicians can accomplish in Denmark.
Right at the entrance to Copenhagen's harbor stands the first, widely visible symbol of the success of Denmark's wind democracy. Only just over 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the shoreline, directly in front of the local beach used by the capital city's residents, stand 20 wind turbines in a crescent formation, like pearls on a necklace in the strait that separates Denmark and Sweden. "Aside from a few old women, it doesn't bother anyone," says Erik Christiansen, 56, who heads the cooperative association that operates the wind farm.
Before the wind turbines -- each over 100 meters high and generating two megawatts of power -- were connected to the electrical grid in early 2001, only four objections were lodged against this major project. By German standards, this would be unthinkable. One resident complained at the time that the rotors stood so close to the shoreline that she would have to see the turbines every day. "Of course, that's also the idea," was the simple response. "We wanted to make alternative energy visible," Christiansen says.
He has been running the cooperative with a staff of seven since it was founded in 1997. Today, 8,642 members own 50 percent of the shares, while the remainder is held by the public utility giant Dong.
Christiansen is a mild-mannered legal expert who has a green and eco-friendly mind-set, but he isn't a zealous crusader. Indeed, this man -- with his nondescript mustache and square wire-rim glasses -- embodies a character trait that many political scientists say is responsible for the success of Danish consensual politics: "Ideological immunity," is the term used by Berlin-based Scandinavia expert Bernd Henningsen in his analysis of Germany's northern neighbors.
Instead of revolutionary upheaval, continuity has always been seen as a guarantee of success in Denmark. The great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard recommended that political thinking and action must be based on a tangible reality.
In terms of wind power, the tangible reality is the desire to never again be forced into a dependency on fossil fuels.
A 'People's Movement'
For a long time, the wind park just outside Copenhagen was the largest in the world. Christiansen and his colleagues have rehearsed how to gain acceptance for such a major project -- and how to raise money. The association had to accumulate some 180 million kroner -- the equivalent of €24 million -- to realize the project. It took them only one year to amass the funds, and the shareholders' optimism appeared boundless. There were no laws or guidelines to serve as a basis for the construction. Instead, rules and parameters were tested and established as the work progressed.
Although the turbines are spinning at a prime location, only a handful of objections were raised. A few fishermen protested, but they're not allowed to drop their nets there anyway due to water-pollution regulations. A few sailors complained about the feared operational noise of the propellers, whose sound would carry over the water for kilometers. And concerned nature lovers warned that thousands of birds would die.
These are all common objections in other countries. But, in Denmark, wind power has become a "people's movement," Stiesdal says.
Despite all the prejudices of the Protestant rural population, the tinkerers and inventors -- including many hippies and nonconformists -- were able to convince the farmers and small-town residents to make their fields available and give them money. "You don't fight against something that benefits you personally," Stiesdal says.
As an executive, Stiesdal knows that big-city dentists are the ones bankrolling wind turbines in other countries. But that isn't the case in Denmark. The original proponents of wind power may no longer be able to raise the large amounts of capital required, and the large wind farms receive their money from international investment funds, but local communities are also investing. They contribute 20 percent of the investments made, as prescribed by law. Offshore wind farms, such as Denmark's largest off the island of Anholt in waterway between Denmark and Sweden, receive their money from retirement funds. "It's a great feeling to see the turbines spinning and know that they're securing my pension," Stiesdal says.
Hardly a day goes by at the Siemens facility in Brande without there being yet another delegation of parliamentarians, civil servants or concerned citizens from around the globe wandering through its production halls. "The last group was from South Africa," Stiesdal says.
When the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, approved the energy transition last year, a phone rang shortly thereafter in Copenhagen. It belongs to Hanne Windemuller, a petite, determined woman with reddish-brown hair. A colleague from the Environment Ministry in Berlin was on the line because she knew that Windemuller has plenty to say about what a state has to do if it wants to revamp one of its key sectors from the ground up.
As a legal expert at the Danish Energy Agency, Windemuller has occupied a key position in her country's ambitious climate plans. The parliament approved the project in the spring. This gave an urgently needed political victory to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister who has been under constant pressure to disprove charges that she is too young and inexperienced since assuming office late last year. And it created a great deal of work for Windemuller.
Windemuller is on her way to the next meeting, so she grabs a quick bite to eat and rushes back across the corridor with her food tray. The building features the kind of Scandinavian design based on concrete, steel and wood that is so readily copied by the educated elite in the rest of the world. "The consensus in parliament was overwhelming," she says. In fact, this consensus has existed with few exceptions since the days of the first attempts by the wind farmers of Jutland.
What may sound like uniformity and a lack of change to passionate ideologists has, in effect, enormous advantages: "Such a consensus provides support for major projects that transcend legislative periods," Windemuller says. Her political superior, Danish Energy Minister Martin Lidegaard, knows that he can rely on the support of his fellow Danes. "It looks like Danes have an affinity for the wind," he says.
There has been much speculation about the Scandinavians' relentless will to reach consensus. Does it find its roots in a form of Protestantism based on reforms rather than revolutions? Already at an early stage, the black-clad ministers set out to teach people throughout the country to read and write. They were at least expected to understand the catechism. This created an early maturity of the masses that was unparalleled in Europe, as political scientist Fukuyama claims in his book.
There were probably also pragmatic reasons, though, for the search for consensual solutions in a country as small as Denmark. In any case, consensus could be a lesson that was learned from many lost wars, above all the Second Schleswig War in 1864, which entailed the loss of the country's southern territories to Germany. "Winning on the interior what has been lost on the exterior" was a popular slogan of the day, and it is still readily used today. In other words, it means that a small country can only survive through cohesiveness rather than through ideological conflicts.
Transparency and Trust
The Danish system of consensus is based on its citizens' deep-seated trust in the state and politics. In fact, this is much greater in Denmark than in most other Western democracies. And civil servants like Windemuller ensure that this remains the case.
Her team is responsible for setting up offshore wind parks. It coordinates all the relevant ministries, commissions the necessary environmental studies, acquires the necessary permits and introduces guidelines -- all under one roof. "We calculated how much wind power we need to meet our energy goals," Windemuller says. Then, she continues, they asked about possible locations in local communities, picked out the best ones and conducted all the necessary preliminary studies.
"That's the kind of thing we do for the investors," says Windemuller, who finds it unfathomable that a wind-power company would first have to run a gauntlet through ministries and government agencies. The areas that Windemuller's team have studied and selected are then auctioned off to a company via a tendering process. "The contract is awarded to the company offering the lowest price per kilowatt," she says.
This process has advantages for everyone concerned: The companies know exactly what to expect. "They can rest assured that they won't have to contend with any complaints or new regulations from the administration," says Windemuller, a former oil-industry executive herself. The state also benefits from the efficiency of this central planning: It can be sure that established targets are also respected.
Indeed, mismanaged energy policies like the ones in Germany, where billions of euros have been invested in inefficient photovoltaics at the cost of consumers, would be virtually unthinkable in Denmark.
Thanks to this transparent procedure, citizens can hope that the project will be a success -- and they generally thank the authorities with their loyalty. However, since trust also entails making sure that all parties play with an open hand, companies have to show that they are respecting the guidelines stipulated in the bidding process.
In fact, even Windemuller's agency has to ensure the highest degree of transparency. "Corruption," says Windemuller, as she pushes her empty tray aside as if it held an envelope stuffed with money, "is practically impossible in this country." There is hardly any detail of the process, she says, that can be kept hidden from public view.
Transparency is a two-way street in Denmark: Citizens and journalists can view the inner workings of everything that the state is doing. In return, citizens have to allow the state a more unrestricted view of their private sphere than is the case elsewhere.
Increasing Support, Reducing Litigation
Since this principle of openness is a key characteristic of Scandinavia, it's not particularly surprising that Denmark consistently ranks at the top or in second place in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, meaning that it is perceived as being one of the least corrupt of all countries surveyed by the organization. This may have something to do with the puritanical Protestantism in these countries. For centuries, devoutly religious community leaders have relentlessly ensured that all rules have been strictly followed. But political scientists also view this transparency as one of the secrets of Scandinavia's success.
Corruption is like a corrosive liquid that flows through a state's machinery and causes everything to rust until it finally grinds to a halt. If people believe their political leaders engage in nepotism, for example, their desire to play along wanes.
Windemuller knows that if a government announces a major new project, and its citizens' knee-jerk reaction is to immediately file lawsuits and organize demonstrations, then something is indeed rotten in such a state. What's more, she can't fully comprehend why the resistance to offshore wind farms in Germany is so great that they have to be built beyond the horizon.
She says it's certainly not because Danes are particularly environmentally conscious. Wind parks, particularly on land, also have their opponents in Denmark. But then the government goes about making the wind turbines more appealing to locals. The agency offers incentives: A portion of the profits from the wind energy generated flows back into the communities, where it's used for environmental projects. "That's a nice additional source of income for them," Windemuller says.
If the construction of a wind turbine threatens to erode the value of nearby real estate, the owners receive compensation. Furthermore, the state acts as a guarantor should a local operator association go bankrupt. "This takes away the locals' anxieties about joining forces and investing in wind power."
An added benefit is that there are not as many wind-power-related lawsuits in Denmark as there are in Germany. Instead, there are two boards to hear citizens' objections, each of which is presided over by a judge. "Anyone who has objections can voice them there," Windemuller says. It takes between six months and a year for the arbiter to reach a decision, and there are no provisions for appeal. "As far as I know, a lawsuit has never been brought before a normal court," says Windemuller, as she enters the conference room right on time for her next meeting.
One of the items on the meeting's agenda is an office that the agency is currently opening in Beijing. China, with its population of over a billion, is looking for advice, Windemuller says. "Imagine that," she adds, "from a country as small as Denmark!"
Read SPIEGEL's introduction to this series on good governance here, the first installment (on Brazil ) here and the second installment (on the US ) here. Check back for the final installment, on China , in the coming weeks.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
Scientists warn food shortages could turn us all into vegetarians
By John Vidal, The Guardian
Sunday, August 26, 2012 20:50 EDT
Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world’s population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.
Humans derive about 20% of their protein from animal-based products now, but this may need to drop to just 5% to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050, according to research by some of the world’s leading water scientists.
“There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in western nations,” the report by Malik Falkenmark and colleagues at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) said.
“There will be just enough water if the proportion of animal-based foods is limited to 5% of total calories and considerable regional water deficits can be met by a … reliable system of food trade.”
Dire warnings of water scarcity limiting food production come as Oxfam and the UN prepare for a possible second global food crisis in five years. Prices for staples such as corn and wheat have risen nearly 50% on international markets since June, triggered by severe droughts in the US and Russia, and weak monsoon rains in Asia. More than 18 million people are already facing serious food shortages across the Sahel.
Oxfam has forecast that the price spike will have a devastating impact in developing countries that rely heavily on food imports, including parts of Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East. Food shortages in 2008 led to civil unrest in 28 countries.
Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in an increasingly climate-erratic world, the scientists said. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One third of the world’s arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals. Other options to feed people include eliminating waste and increasing trade between countries in food surplus and those in deficit.
“Nine hundred million people already go hungry and 2 billion people are malnourished in spite of the fact that per capita food production continues to increase,” they said. “With 70% of all available water being in agriculture, growing more food to feed an additional 2 billion people by 2050 will place greater pressure on available water and land.”
The report is being released at the start of the annual world water conference in Stockholm, Sweden, where 2,500 politicians, UN bodies, non-governmental groups and researchers from 120 countries meet to address global water supply problems.
Competition for water between food production and other uses will intensify pressure on essential resources, the scientists said. “The UN predicts that we must increase food production by 70% by mid-century. This will place additional pressure on our already stressed water resources, at a time when we also need to allocate more water to satisfy global energy demand – which is expected to rise 60% over the coming 30 years – and to generate electricity for the 1.3 billion people currently without it,” said the report.
Overeating, undernourishment and waste are all on the rise and increased food production may face future constraints from water scarcity.
“We will need a new recipe to feed the world in the future,” said the report’s editor, Anders Jägerskog.
A separate report from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) said the best way for countries to protect millions of farmers from food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia was to help them invest in small pumps and simple technology, rather than to develop expensive, large-scale irrigation projects.
“We’ve witnessed again and again what happens to the world’s poor – the majority of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and already suffer from water scarcity – when they are at the mercy of our fragile global food system,” said Dr Colin Chartres, the director general.
“Farmers across the developing world are increasingly relying on and benefiting from small-scale, locally-relevant water solutions. [These] techniques could increase yields up to 300% and add tens of billions of US dollars to household revenues across sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012
In climate landmark, Arctic ice melts to record low
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, August 27, 2012 19:11 EDT
WASHINGTON — The sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has melted to its smallest point ever in a milestone that may show that worst-case forecasts on climate change are coming true, US scientists said Monday.
The extent of ice observed on Sunday broke a record set in 2007 and will likely melt further with several weeks of summer still to come, according to data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center and the NASA space agency.
The government-backed ice center, based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said in a statement that the decline in summer Arctic sea ice “is considered a strong signal of long-term climate warming.”
The sea ice fell to 4.10 million square kilometers (1.58 million square miles), some 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) less than the earlier record charted on September 18, 2007, the center said.
Scientists said the record was all the more striking as 2007 had near perfect climate patterns for melting ice, but that the weather this year was unremarkable other than a storm in early August.
Michael E. Mann, a lead author of a major UN report in 2001 on climate change, said the latest data reflected that scientists who were criticized as alarmists may have shown “perhaps too great a degree of reticence.”
“I think, unfortunately, this is an example that points more to the worst-case scenario side of things,” said Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.
“There are a number of areas where in fact climate change seems to be proceeding faster and with a greater magnitude than what the models predicted,” Mann told AFP.
“The sea ice decline is perhaps the most profound of those cautionary tales because the models have basically predicted that we shouldn’t see what we’re seeing now for several decades,” he added.
Arctic ice is considered vital for the planet as it reflects heat from the sun back into space, helping keep down the planet’s temperatures.
The Arctic region is now losing about 155,000 square kilometers (60,000 square miles) of ice annually, the equivalent of a US state every two years, said Walt Meier, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
“It used to be the Arctic ice cover was a kind of big block of ice. It would melt a little bit from the edges but it was pretty solid,” Meier told reporters on a conference call.
“Now it’s like crushed ice,” he said. “At least parts of the Arctic have become like a giant slushie, and that’s a lot easier to melt and melt more quickly.”
The planet has charted a slew of record temperatures in recent years, with 13 of the warmest years ever taking place in the past decade and a half, along with extreme weather ranging from severe wildfires in North America to major flooding in Asia.
Researchers have also reported a dramatic melt this summer on the ice sheet in Greenland, which could have major consequences for the planet by raising sea levels.
Scientists believe that climate change is caused by human emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.
But efforts to regulate emissions have faced strong political resistance in several nations including the United States, where industry groups have said that regulations would be too costly for the economy.
Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace who on Monday intercepted a Russian ship in the Arctic, said the ice melt showed that the planet was “warming up at a rate that puts billions of people’s future in jeopardy.”
“These figures are not the result of some freak of nature but the effects of man-made global warming caused by our reliance on dirty fossil fuels,” he said in a statement.
Shaye Wolf of the Center for Biological Diversity pressure group called the record ice melt “a profound — and profoundly depressing — moment in the history of our planet.”
The melt has rapidly changed the politics and economics of the Arctic region, with shipping companies increasingly eager to save time by sailing through the once-forbidding waters.
Data released Monday by the Washington-based Center for Global Development found that nations including China, India and the United States were reducing the intensity of their carbon emissions but that the effort was overwhelmed by the surge in power consumption in developing nations.
World’s largest marine park unveiled
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, August 29, 2012 5:47 EDT
Cook Islands dancers wearing traditional dress perform at the opening ceremony of the Pacific Islands Forum in Avarua on Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands via AFP
Topics: Henry Puna ♦ marine park ♦ the Pacific Islands Forum
The Cook Islands has announced the creation of the world’s largest marine park, as the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) opened with a spectacular Polynesian welcoming ceremony.
Heralded by traditional drummers and blaring conch shells, leaders of the 15-nation grouping were carried to the summit venue in the capital Avarua on litters while flag-waving locals cheered enthusiastically.
Prime Minister Henry Puna capitalised on a rare moment in the international spotlight to declare his nation of 11,000 people had created an enormous marine park almost twice the size of France.
The 1.065 million square kilometre (411,000 square mile) reserve would help save one of the last pristine ocean eco-systems, Puna said.
“(It is) the largest area in history by a single country for integrated ocean conservation and management,” he said.
While some leaders such as Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard looked somewhat sheepish as they were paraded aloft before the crowd, Puna burst into song after greeting them, delighting the locals with an impromptu lounge tune.
Gillard and her New Zealand counterpart John Key wore garlands of flowers around their necks, before a spear-carrying chieftain in a headdress decorated with shells and feathers performed a customary welcoming ceremony.
Dancers in grass skirts added to the Polynesian pomp for an event organisers said was one of the largest in the nation’s history, rivalled only by a visit from Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.
“This is certainly the biggest thing to happen here for decades,” one official at the ceremony told AFP.
Once the festivities were done, Puna turned to the serious issue of marine conservation, saying the new marine park was the Cooks’ major contribution “to the wellbeing of not only our peoples, but also of humanity”.
“The marine park will provide the necessary framework to promote sustainable development by balancing economic growth interests such as tourism, fishing and deep sea mining with conserving core biodiversity in the ocean,” he said.
Australia announced in June that it was creating a network of marine parks covering 3.1 million square kilometres, more than a third of its territorial waters. However, they are dotted around its huge coastline.
The Cook Islands protected zone will be the largest single marine park in the world, taking in the entire southern half of the nation’s waters.
The nation’s 15 islands have a combined landmass barely larger than Washington DC but its waters include environmentally valuable coral reefs, seagrass beds and fisheries.
Marea Hatziolos, the World Bank’s senior coastal and marine specialist, said the Cook Islands’ initiative was a win for both the environment and the country’s economy as it would help save fish stocks and promote tourism.
“There’s definitely an economic dimension to this, apart from protecting biodiversity,” she told AFP. “It allows small Pacific nations to generate revenue.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the summit later this week, in a move seen as sending a message to China that Washington intends to re-engage with the South Pacific to counter Beijing’s influence in the region.
The absence of Fiji, which was suspended from the PIF in 2009 in the wake of a 2006 military coup, will also be a major topic of discussion.
08/29/2012 05:24 PM
Power Failures: Germany Rethinks Path to Green Future
By Stefan Schultz in Bremerhaven
Germany's energy revolution is the government's only major project -- but the problems keep piling up. The pace of grid expansion is sluggish, and electricity costs for consumers are rising. The environment minister wants to fundamentally alter the way green energy is subsidized, but will it mean putting the brakes on the entire project?
The cornerstones of Germany's energy turn-around can be admired in a hall in the northern port city of Bremerhaven. Standing on three rust-brown feet apiece, each of these immense, yellow-painted trunks weighs as much as 900 elephants. Soon, special ships will come and sink these steel monsters into the seabed, where they will support the wind turbines that are supposed to supply the country with green electricity.
Before they do, Environment Minister Peter Altmaier will go to Bremerhaven to inspect the work of Weser Wind and Areva Wind, the companies building them. Areva calls these wind-turbine supports "tripods." Peter Altmeier has a more poetic term, dubbing them "cathedrals to industrial culture."
This last week, there was a strict division of labor at several locations around the country. From Monday to Wednesday, the environment minister went on a whirlwind tour of Germany. Almost everywhere he went, workers wearing vests and helmets were welding, bolting, stacking and installing the building blocks of the country's energy revolution. Altmaier's job was to endow this work with symbolic significance, elevating as many of these welders as possible to the status of torch-bearers of the coming green republic.
The intended message is that Germany is moving away from nuclear power and embracing renewable energy sources. And, as the country's environment minister, Peter Altmaier is naturally the driving force behind the project.
The minister, who claims he will soon "have personally greeted almost every wind turbine and solar panel in Germany," has been in office for barely 100 days, yet he's already playing catch-up. According to current estimates of the date of the next general election, he may have as little as 15 months to make his mark on the mammoth undertaking that is Germany's energy about-face., which envisions making renewables account for 35 percent of the energy mix by 2020 and phasing out all of Germany's nuclear power plants by 2022.
Grid Expansion Fails to Keep Pace
Altmaier has certainly set ambitious targets for himself for this period. One of these is to convince Germans that the turn-around is "the greatest identity-shaping project of a generation and comparable in significance to the country's reunification." At the same time, he wants to slow the expansion of the development of renewable energy so that it remains affordable for taxpayers.
Simultaneously enthusing the population and putting the breaks on the race toward the renewable-energy future promises to be an unenviable communications challenge for even a silver-tongued politician like Altmaier. Unfortunately, he doesn't have a choice since the two are interwoven: Attractive feed-in tariffs have given eco-friendly electricity production such a boost that the expansion of the power grid and many other projects simply haven't been able to keep pace. Timetables are being mixed up, costs are spiraling out of control, and every day that the chaos continues, the green-republic project risks losing more supporters.
In an attempt to bring some order back into the energy turn-around, Altmaier now wants "to work out a coherent concept for reforming subsidies for green power generation." He hopes this will cut costs without crushing all the country's eco-friendly dreams, while at the same time winning the backing of opposition politicians.
During his summer trip across Germany, it quickly became clear that he would have to face more or less every lobbyist the industry employed to have any chance of drawing up such a plan. And he'd have to think far beyond simple subsidies for eco-friendly electricity.
Altmaier sits in the restaurant of the "Komfort" hotel in Bremerhaven surrounded by representatives of the wind-power industry. They're eating pork and broccoli. As he chews and speaks, the minister draws a gently rising graph on a napkin: The cost of phasing out nuclear power -- or, rather, how the government would like this cost to increase.
"We have too much wind in Germany," Altmaier tells the wind lobbyists. "We want to offer you reliability, but not all of your dreams are going to come true." The minister draws a second, significantly steeper graph. This one represents the actual costs, which are getting the government into hot water at the moment. Altmaier considers the problem briefly before using the cost-graph napkin to wipe sauce off his chin.
The Renewable Energy Act (EEG) is the biggest cost factor in Germany's energy reorientation. The rules for the subsidies are quite simple: Operators of wind farms, solar arrays and biogas plants get a guaranteed, fixed feed-in price for all electricity they generate over a period of many years. Power companies are required to purchase this energy, but at a price much higher than what they get for it on the market. The difference is paid for by consumers through their electricity bill.
The EEG both guarantees big profits to anyone who invests in renewable-energy plants and makes the construction of such plants attractive. More than a fifth of the electricity produced in Germany already comes from renewable sources. Not surprisingly, this has led 65 countries worldwide to try to copy the German model.
Winners and Losers of the Nuclear Phase-Out
There's only one problem with the EEG: It's been too effective. Green electricity plants aren't being built gradually but, rather, as quickly as possible. Consequently, the costs are rising at a faster-than-expected rate. The average household in Germany currently pays €144 ($181) a year for these subsidies, and that figure looks set to rise to more than €200 in 2013. In all, it has been estimated that the operators of green power plants have been promised more than €200 million.
Such numbers are big enough to exacerbate social inequalities in Germany. Recipients of "Hartz IV" welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed, for example, receive a fixed sum for electricity and can't afford energy-saving fridges or washing machines. At the other end of the scale, the owners of well-located houses install solar panels on their roofs and are paid for the privilege. Meanwhile, industrial companies that use a lot of electricity are being given more and more tax breaks. Indeed, the Federal Network Agency has calculated that the country's biggest electricity guzzlers account for 18 percent of overall consumption, but bear only 0.3 percent of the costs associated with the EEG.
Under these conditions, it's hardly surprising that the ballooning costs have triggered a lively political debate. Even so, this is far from the only problem triggered by the rapid expansion of the renewable energy sector, and Altmaier will have to take all of these elements into account before he can present a coherent reform plan.
But while the environment minister was flying to Germany's first offshore wind farm by helicopter, Andreas Wellbrock was issuing dire warnings of an impending crisis.
The monsters Altmaier calls "cathedrals" can also be found in the port of Bremerhaven, where hammers thud against metal pylons and the air smells of the sea. Soon ships will come to transport these immense structures out to their final resting place.
But Wellbrock is worried. The head logistician at BLG Windenergy Logistics is already predicting a "disruption next summer." Owing to delays in laying the power cables connecting wind farms to the mainland, his company has had no new orders for offshore transports since November 17. Without this connection to the national grid, no one wants to risk investing in new wind farms. "We worked flat out for a year," Wellbrock says, "and now we risk grinding to a complete stop."
More than 3,000 people in Bremerhaven work in the offshore wind sector. Several companies have threatened to switch to short-time work if the chaos surrounding the cables isn't sorted out soon. The environment minister has promised to help. He wants to put a solution to the cabinet this week that would compensate wind-farm operators for losses in earnings owed to a lack of connections. The millions this would cost would once again be passed on to the consumer.
Some Projects are Years Behind Schedule
This compensation scheme is no more than a temporary measure, a stop-gap solution that shows just how uncoordinated Germany's energy revolution is proving to be. Offshore wind farms shouldn't be the only project the government improves through special solutions.
The solar-energy industry, for example, is experiencing such a boom that the number of arrays envisaged to be connected to the grid by 2020 may be achieved as soon as by the end of 2014. However, fluctuations in the amount of electricity generated by solar modules is still putting a strain on the grid. That's why additional land-based power lines need to be installed sooner than anticipated. Unfortunately, in some cases, the expansion of the grid is years behind schedule.
The green-energy boom is also revolutionizing Germany's power plants. Up until recently, most electricity was generated by nuclear and coal-fired plants. Within the old system, they always produced the same amount of electricity. But now this staid behemoth of a system is being shaken to its very core because Germany's politicians have decreed that wind and solar energy must have priority on the grid. As a result, green energy is becoming the new basis of Germany's electricity supply, while the remaining power plants are used merely to overcome bottlenecks. They now only produce electricity when renewable energy can't satisfy the demand or to balance out major fluctuations in solar and wind energy.
Under these circumstances, coal- and gas-fired power plants are having to be more and more flexible, while electricity consumption has to adapt to an ever-changing supply. The hope is that, one day, cold-storage facilities, electric heaters and household appliances will run at full steam whenever lots of energy is available, and that the electricity consumption by millions of such devices will drop when electricity production falls.
Just like the expansion of the country's electricity networks, it was thought the switch-over to such power management would take place over a much longer period. But now the boom in green energy is forcing the system to change far more quickly than planned, and the political framework put in place no longer fits.
The problem is that utilities no longer have any financial incentives to build coal- or gas-fired power plants. Owing to the rise in green energy, utilities have fewer and fewer opportunities to sell their electricity, so they earn less and less. At the same time, the technology for controlling electricity consumption -- so-called "smart grids" -- is still in its infancy. Although suitable equipment is already available, there isn't a market on which to sell them -- or a concept for promoting it.
As a result, many of the projects associated with Germany's energy revolution are developing at the wrong speed and, in the process, spotlighting the glaring lack of government coordination. And it's anybody's guess whether Altmaier's concept can solve this dilemma.
Granted, the rapidly rising proportion of eco-power is the engine powering the energy turn-around as well as driving forward the expansion of the networks and the conversion of the supply system. But, unfortunately, it is moving so rapidly that the costs in the coming years will be far higher than originally planned. To make matters worse, the government is losing control of its ability to steer and coordinate projects, causing them to run awry and costs to keep going up.
Likewise, it's also true that there is little to be gained by slowing the entire process down. On the contrary, the greater the time pressure, the quicker the environment minister, the economics minister, the cabinet, the parliament, the governing coalition and the opposition will reach agreements. Better still, quick reforms give lobbyists far fewer opportunities to water legislation down.
Altmaier Could Become a Hero to Consumers
If he finally manages to rein in the costs, Altmaier could yet become a hero to consumers. However, he could also slow down the entire energy realignment if he reduces the pressure enough to allow political wrangling to drag out the expansion of the networks, the establishment of greater flexibility for power plants and the dawn of smart grids for years.
Altmaier appears to be aware of this. Although he is keeping his cards close to his chest, several ideas for a possible reform of the EEG are making the rounds. One such solution would entail drastically curtailing subsidies so as to make certain plants unattractive in certain regions. Another option would be fostering a kind of regional differentiation that promotes plants in areas where they are especially in demand. The government could also provide targeted support for a specific number of green power plants in a specific region.
The environment minister also has ideas for how to encourage power plants to become more flexible. In the short term, he thinks, he only needs to decide on the construction of two to three gas-fired plants in southern Germany. He says it is strategically wiser not to build too many gas-fired power plants too quickly because they pose an ever-greater competitive threat to flexible coal-fired plants and smart electricity grids. "We don't want to kill the competition between such technologies," he says. "We want to encourage it so that the best, most cost-effective solution prevails."
With this strategy, Altmaier is hoping to bind all the different players into a compromise. He could entice the southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg with the prospect of acquiring gas-fired power plants, offer offshore wind farms to the northern states of Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, win the backing of the central state of North Rhine-Westphalia by securing the demands of its energy-hungry industry, and sell the energy revolution to Germans as the greatest innovation the country has witnessed in decades.
08/30/2012 06:21 PM
Corn-Mania: Biogas Boom in Germany Leads to Modern-Day Land Grab
By Nils Klawitter
Creating energy from corn once seemed like a revolutionary idea in Germany. But subsidies for the biogas industry have led to entire regions of the country being covered by the crop, and investors are eagerly waiting for local farmers' land to go for sale. Some of those farmers who lease their land say they have been "ruined."
Dairy farmer Renate Rahn has made it through a number of industry crises, including the mad-cow disease scare of 2001 and the dramatic fall in milk prices in 2009. "But now we're being brought to our knees," she says.
Low milk prices aren't the only thing threatening her. Rahn lives near the Eider River in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, where she is having an increasingly hard time finding affordable land to lease for grazing her cows and growing their feed. Over the past four years, the average cost of leasing a hectare (2.5 acres) of land has skyrocketed from €250 ($315) to over €600 per year.
She and her fellow dairy farmers just lost even more corn fields to biogas companies. The corn grown there won't be used to feed any cows. Instead, it will be sent to a reactor for refinement. The facility, which functions somewhat like a cow's stomach, will be fed chopped-up corn twice a day. The corn is transformed into gases in the dome of the reactor. Energy-rich methane is then channeled into a combined heat and power unit (CHP) and transformed into electricity.
While dairy farmers like Rahn are being threatened by the low prices that food discounters offer for their milk, the biogas producers have nothing to complain about. Germany's Renewable Energy Act (EEG) has subsidized the energy the biogas companies produce for 20 years.
Rahn is now forced to feed her cows soy meal from Brazil, which is constantly growing more expensive. She knows she will lose the battle over the raw materials, and she blames politicians for having "ruined us."
A Subsidized Gold Rush
The idea of processing foodstuffs into electricity was born when Germany's then-governing coalition was made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party between 1998 and 2005. It was eight years ago, in an age when farmers were being granted so-called "set-aside premiums" because of overproduction, and when renewable raw materials were being particularly promoted. Plans called for transforming Germany into a bio-wonderland by peppering it with numerous small eco-power plants. What resulted was a revolution in the fields, a subsidized gold rush -- and an ecological disaster.
An average-sized biogas facility requires 200 hectares of corn, and needs to be constantly fed. This hunger for corn has transformed the German landscape. Schleswig-Holstein used to be famous as the "land of horizons," but now walls of corn dominate the landscape from north to south. The same holds true in the roughly 160-kilometer (100-mile) stretch of land between Münster and Bremen, in Upper Swabia and in the low mountain ranges of the western Eifel region.
Corn is now being grown on 810,000 hectares in Germany, which is equivalent to half of the area of the eastern state of Thuringia. In 2011 alone, the increase in the amount of land used to grow corn was almost equivalent to the size of the southwestern state of Saarland -- with horrific consequences. For the first time in 25 years, Germany couldn't produce enough grain to meet its own needs.
When asked whether farmland should be used to make food or fuel, Joachim Rukwied said last week: "We can do both." But the new president of the German Farmers' Association (DBV) might be wrong. Feed corn has even had to be imported to meet the needs of the large-scale chicken farms in Lower Saxony because the fields are now being used for what is known as "energy corn."
Unlike in the general debate surrounding biofuels, growing so-called energy crops in Germany isn't necessarily a food-or-fuel issue. The corn isn't processed into fuel, and not much of the corn is grown for human consumption.
But the ongoing run on fields is leading to a scarcity of land for farming and grazing, and crops like potatoes are getting more expensive. Now there are farms used for growing energy crops right next to ones used for raising livestock. Indeed, it's become a duel between power lines and feed troughs.
Take the case of the Hohenwestedt, a small village in Schleswig-Holstein near the town of Rendsburg. There, people were jockeying to get hold of a deceased farmer's fields even before he was buried, says Christoph Lutze, a local dairy farmer. And he isn't the only one telling such stories. He's worried about losing the land he leases, about the "modern robber barons" who are eagerly searching for useable land.
For some time now, it hasn't just been farmers who are getting into the energy business. The investors have names like AgriKultur, Deutsche Biogas and KTG Agrar. These are companies that get hundreds of millions of euros from the Bremer Landesbank, a state-owned bank with branch offices in Bremen and Oldenburg, and that often only need the farmers as front men. In other words, they use them to minimize complications associated with building plants close to farms.
Lutze, the dairy farmer, recently locked horns with a new investor who had taken up residence in a posh new home nearby. Although he worked as a bankruptcy trustee, he had started investing in corn used for energy on the side, and he had also purchased some fields that Lutze had signed a lease for until 2013. For years, Lutze had been using the damp, low-lying grasslands as a source of fodder for his cows.
The area in question wasn't supposed to be cultivated without providing Lutze with compensation. But, Lutze says: "All of a sudden, they came with laser-guided drainage machines, dug into the ground and laid pipes." All of this was for drainage, he explains, to prepare for growing corn in the same way that the surrounding fields had already been prepared for corn monoculture. The investor had claimed that Lutze allowed the soil quality of the fields to degenerate. But even he couldn't explain exactly what that was supposed to mean when it comes to meadows. So, in the end, he provided Lutze with compensation.
Abandoning Crop Rotation
Crop rotation is viewed as a standard element of good farming practice. Instead of planting wheat in the same field year after year, one changes the type of crop in order to maintain soil quality. Although this sensible tradition has been around for centuries, the current corn-mania is plowing it under, as well.
Indeed, it would seem like the rules have changed when it comes to corn. Granted, corn can be consecutively planted in the same fields for 10 to 12 years without any major loss in yields. In fact, some leading figures in agriculture in Lower Saxony will proudly proclaim that they have successfully planted corn in the same fields for 28 years in a row.
But the problem is that society at large pays the price for the environmental damage resulting from this kind of monoculture farming. For example, bird species -- such as the Montagu's Harrier and the Northern Lapwing -- are disappearing because they can no longer find breeding grounds. Likewise, between 2004 and 2010, over 90 percent of the species-rich grasslands in certain areas of Bavaria have vanished -- often being replaced by corn fields.
Corn in the Marshlands
These days, corn is already being planted in marshlands, such as those near the northwestern town of Bremervörde. Although biogas has long been lauded as a means of rescuing the environment, here its devastating effects are on full display.
"In such soils, the carbon captured in the bog is released over the long term," says Uwe Baumert, a senior official with the Lower Saxony branch of the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). NABU estimates that growing corn releases 700 grams (25 ounces) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every kilowatt hour of energy it produces. And this happens for years on end. This is comparable to the carbon-released-to-power-produced ratio of some coal-fired power plants.
Karsten Specht, the managing director of OOWC, the water supplier of Oldenburg and northern coastal region of East Frisia, has grown increasingly worried while watching the boom of corn used for energy. Each biogas facility generates about 20,000 metric tons (44,000 pounds) of fermentation residue each year. This waste is then used as a fertilizer on the fields after the corn has been harvested. And just like pure liquid manure, these residues are nitrate bombs.
Specht has measured the nitrate-pollution levels in groundwater lying near the surface under corn fields. In most cases, it is somewhere between 80 to 120 milligrams per liter of water, which is clearly above the threshold value of 50 milligrams per liter.
"What we are setting in motion here is a big problem," Specht says. "We are tolerating the fact that the quality of the groundwater is going down the drain."
Meanwhile, the approval process for biogas plants seems to have been fast-tracked. In Gross Meckelsen, for example, a municipality lying between Hamburg and Bremen, a nine-reactor, five-megawatt project is underway. It will be the second facility in a small water conservation area.
Local politicians swept the concerns of the local water supplier under the rug. Some of them even have a financial stake in the planned facility, including the son of Hans-Heinrich Ehlen, a former and long-serving agriculture minister in Lower Saxony and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
'No Chance' Against Solar and Wind Energy
Politicians saw this development coming. Already in 2007, the scientific advisory committee of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection advised against this kind of support. Then-Minister Horst Seehofer, now head of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and his successor and fellow party member Ilse Aigner have long ignored such concerns, and the biogas lobby has developed close ties to the CDU and CSU. Indeed, it was only a few months ago that the first adjustments were made to the subsidy regime: Now the state-supported facilities are only allowed to process 60 percent of the corn grown in Germany.
Just over four weeks ago, a group of high-ranking academics repeated their calls for an end to the biogas boom. These were researchers from the German National Academy of Sciences, or Leopoldina. More than anything, they were bothered by the pathetic level of efficiency of the biogas plants in relation to the huge expanses of land they take up.
Indeed, in 2012 some €4.8 billion will be spent on a feed-in tariff to keep alive a technology that, in the words of Leopoldina member Rolf Thauer, "doesn't stand a chance" against solar- and wind-generated energy. When measured in terms of energy in- and outputs, solar energy is five times more efficient than corn-produced biogas, and wind energy is 10 times more efficient.
The transition to renewable energy laid out by Chancellor Merkel in 2011 in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster is very ambitious. It aims to boost renewable energy to 35 percent of total power consumption in Germany by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 while phasing out all of Germany's nuclear power reactors by 2022. But, all things considered, the contribution made by biogas plants seems rather paltry.
At the moment, 80 percent of all the world's biogas plants are in Germany, including the biggest ones in the world, in Penkun and Güstrow, both of which are located in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Each of the plants generates 20 megawatts, or enough to supply 40,000 households with power; and each of them requires 1,000 metric tons of corn per day, which is grown on some 12,000 hectares of fields stretching all the way to Poland. But, in the final calculation, the massive industry is still dwarfed by the major sources of renewable energy.
Felix Hess, the head of the bio-energy company Nawaro, is puzzled by this "corn racism." After all, he says, the idea for biogas was born in an age of set-aside premiums and mountains of surplus grain crops. He blames the problems that the corn-energy plants still face on the fact that they rely on relatively new technology.
Hess says that the facility in Güstrow has a somewhat incredible efficiency factor of over 80 percent. In any case, the facility is no longer dependent on EEG subsidies and feeds its biogas directly into the natural gas network. Still, he admits that the technology hasn't reached its full maturity.
Meanwhile, Hess is facing completely different effects of the boom. Some farmers are taking advantage of the situation to renegotiate their delivery prices. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, he says, things still work. "If we had the prices of Lower Saxony here, we would be broke right away."
09/04/2012 11:34 AM
Germany's Offshore Fiasco: North Sea Wind Offensive Plagued by Problems
By Matthias Schulz
Germany wants to pepper its northern seas with offshore wind turbines as part of its ambitious energy revolution. But strict laws, technology problems and multiple delays are turning the massive enterprise into an expensive fiasco. Investors and the public are losing patience.
In his 1957 work "Book of Imaginary Beings," Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges describes Zaratan, an ocean turtle that was so large that she served as an artificial island. Forests grew on her shell.
The managers of the British offshore firm Seajacks have developed such an affinity for the monster that they named their latest creation after the mythical being. Their Zaratan looks like a giant barge. It has a huge crane and four hydraulic legs, each of them 85 meters (280 feet) long. The legs allow it to lift itself out of the water like an insect.
The vehicle is an "installation vessel," a tool of the offshore wind-power industry that does only one thing: It installs offshore wind turbines that that are sometimes taller than 150 meters.
On a recent Saturday, the ship was waiting at the wharf in the northern German port town of Cuxhaven to take four "monopiles," each weighing 750 metric tons (1.64 million pounds), on board. Monopiles are 70-meter steel masts that serve as foundations for the offshore wind turbines.
The vessel, operated by the firm WindMW, was set to drive the first of these monumental poles 40 meters into the seabed at a site 23 kilometers (14 miles) north of the North Sea island of Helgoland, heralding the beginning of a sea change in German power generation.
The hammers on the installation vessel will generate noise at levels of 160 decibels. Zaratan will hammer 80 monopiles into the sand in the next few months. After that, the Zaratan and its sister ship, the Leviathan, will install the giant rotors on the turbines.
Since harbor porpoises are sensitive to noise while raising their young in the summer, all of this has to happen in the fall and winter, under overcast skies and in heavy seas.
It will also cost a lot of money: at least €1.2 billion ($1.5 billion).
Germany 's Wind-Power Offensive
Jens Assheuer, 37, heads the pioneering project. He is wearing a pink tie as he sits in a leather armchair in his office in the northern German port city of Bremerhaven, gazing out at the Weser River through a large, panoramic window. He hasn't slept much.
For weeks, the CEO of WindMW has been commuting back and forth between government offices in Berlin and his financial backers in Frankfurt. During teleconferences with his offshore planners in Denmark and England, he discusses things like the "Infrastructure Planning Acceleration Law" or the tiresome high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) transmission outlets.
Assheuer, an engineer by training, effortlessly rattles off this industry jargon. In general, he is a fast talker and likes to tear down the Autobahn at 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph) in his Audi A7. He is visibly tense. The entire financial world views with concern Germany's hastily announced energy revolution, which aims to boost renewable energy to 35 percent of total power consumption in Germany by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 while phasing out all of Germany's nuclear power reactors by 2022. Billions are at stake, and many aspects of the energy transition are in sorry shape.
By 2020, these modern pile dwellers plan to build an army of offshore wind turbines in the German Bight, the North Sea bay framed by parts of Germany and the Netherlands to the south and parts of Germany and Denmark to the east. Plans call for them to have a total energy output of 10,000 megawatts, the equivalent of 10 nuclear power plants. But this is only the beginning. But 2030, Germany expects to be producing 25,000 megawatts at its offshore wind farms.
These are audacious plans.
The current maps are laid out on a table in the office of Christian Dahlke at the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH), in Hamburg. Dahlke, who heads the Management of the Sea division, handles maritime claims and issues construction permits. Within the industry, he has been dubbed the "prime minister of the North Sea."
"We've already received applications for 126 wind farms with a total of about 8,900 rotors," Dahlke explains. Some of the proposed wind farms are more than 150 kilometers off the coast, at depths of 50 meters. They have names like "Jules Verne," "Nautilus" and "Neptune." Together, they will create a sea full of electricity-generating beanpoles.
None of these wind farms has actually been built. The small "Alpha Ventus" test field exists north of the island of Borkum, and the "Baltic 1" wind farm has already been built in the Baltic Sea. But Baltic 1 is near the coast.
Only one offshore wind-turbine maker has dared to venture out into the turbulent North Sea, where what German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer calls the "raw material of the North" blows especially powerfully. Prompted by Russian magnate Arngolt Bekker, construction began in 2010 on "Bard 1," a gigantic wind farm that will consist of 80 five-megawatt turbines when complete.
Since then, hundreds of people have been desperately trying to save the project. It has already claimed one life, that of a diver who drowned. Some 40 workers sleep in bunks at the site on a "hotel platform." The project is already three years behind schedule, and it threatens to create €1 billion in losses.
But there is no cause for alarm, at least according to Environment Minister Peter Altmaier, who gave offshore operators a pep talk in Cuxhaven last week. The energy revolution, he says, is "irreversible."
But what happens when the failures and breakdowns begin to pile up? Who is ultimately responsible? Last week, the German cabinet approved a law that will provide favorable compensation provisions for offshore wind turbines that are losing money because of delays in connecting them to the power grid. But the issue is contentious within Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition. Can consumers, who are paying for the subsidized renewable-energy revolution via their electricity bills, be burdened even further?
Kick-off of a Massive Building Phase
In the midst of this squabbling, the first major wave of construction is about to begin. Starting September 1, when the idle period imposed to protect harbor porpoises ends, the noise of pile-drivers will fill the air at many sites. Jack-up platforms like the Thor and the Odin will be operating in the swells, while lay barges will roll out underwater cable.
Six corporations will start construction in the coming days. German electric utilities RWE and E.on are also building large wind farms near the WindMW site. Trianal GmbH, an alliance of municipal utilities, is building a wind farm 45 kilometers north of Borkum, while the Swedish power company Vattenfall will be at work 70 kilometers from the North Sea resort island of Sylt.
Windreich AG has chartered the world's most powerful crane ship, the Innovation, whose crane can lift 1,500 metric tons. In the next few days, the ship will haul steel tripods out to sea, which will serve as the foundations for the "Global Tech I" wind farm more than 90 kilometers offshore.
The entire North Sea coast is gearing up to implement the various monumental projects. Wharfs with heavy-duty hoists and new offshore terminals are being built all along the coast, stretching from the port of Bremerhaven to that of Husum, just south of the Danish border. Behind them are plants where massive lattice frames and pipes are being welded together.
Helgoland's Prominent Role
The red cliffs of Helgoland tower above it all. Soon more than 200 turbines will be rotating near the island. The old pirates' nest is being transformed into a base camp for offshore pipe fitters.
It's ironic that this is happening on Helgoland, an island of lobster shacks and flower boxes made of exposed concrete, where the police ride bikes and the last murder was committed in 1719 -- with a pitchfork.
The so-called "butter ferries" used to bring up to 900,000 visitors a year to the island, nicknamed the "booze rock." Today, Helgoland still gets an average of 300,000 visitors a year. The average age of island residents is 59.
But Helgoland is about to get some fresh blood. The prediction is that about 150 people will constantly be needed on site for service and maintenance. New buildings and quay walls are already going up in the old South Harbor. "This project alone is costing €30 million," says Jörg Singer.
The mayor of the island, a tall man with gelled hair, lived in Florida for many years. He expects a "job miracle." "We'll be the world's first offshore maintenance island," he says. To tame his euphoria, he occasionally glances at the picture of a turbaned Indian guru above his desk.
Behind the next door down the hall, tourism director Klaus Furtmeier is dreaming of boat tours to the choppy waters surrounding the wind farms, a pastime he calls "propeller watching."
The first water bus for the mechanics is already docked at the pier. It's a speedboat that makes the trip to the wind farms in 40 minutes.
The craft has a rubber strip on its bow that allows it to dock directly to a wind turbine mast. From there, the men jump onto a platform and take an elevator about 80 meters up to the nacelle, which houses the turbine machinery itself. Some check lubricant levels and repair generators while others remove rust.
A control room in Cuxhaven monitors each nacelle electronically. In emergencies, rescue personnel can descend from a helicopter, hovering at dizzying heights, down to a "winch-down platform."
Some of the offshore wind farms will cover areas of 70 or more square kilometers, surrounded by choppy seas with high waves.
RWE already has accommodations on Helgoland for its courageous and acrobatic maintenance and repair workers. The company had a complex of 30 apartment built for its offshore personnel. WindMW plans to house its workers at the upscale Atoll Ocean Resort. Every morning, cooks will make sandwiches for the offshore workers.
Unexploded ordnance is a problem on Helgoland. "Until 1951, the British used Helgoland as a training site for the Royal Air Force," Singer explains, pointing to a helicopter flying by outside and saying it holds "the man from the weapons-clearing service." Yet another British bomb was discovered during work in the island's South Harbor.
In addition to the post-war explosives on the island of Helgoland, Allied pilots, in an effort to save fuel, often dumped their unused payloads into the North Sea when returning from bombing missions over Nazi Germany.
As a result, Assheuer's maritime construction site, 23 kilometers from the Helgoland coast, is also contaminated. Early last week, sonar devices were still scanning the seafloor for old bombs, while divers used underwater moored balloons to recover explosives.
The harbor porpoise is also causing problems. To ensure that the mammals don't suffer hearing damage, the authorities recently imposed a noise ceiling of 160 decibels during the ramming process. They'll make sure that it doesn't get any louder than that on Saturday.
To offset the noise, Assheuer has to install a "bubble veil," a sort of curtain of air bubbles around the turbine sites. Then, according to the regulations, the porpoises are to be scared off with hooting noises, followed by vibrations and low-intensity hammering. Only then can the hammers be operated at full force.
All of this slows things down and costs money. In addition, seasickness prevents up to 30 percent of workers from working in rough weather.
The engineers are constantly entering uncharted territory in terms of the technical and logistical challenges. Fritz Vahrenholt, long the head of RWE's green energy division Innogy, likened the project to the "first flight to the moon."
Nothing goes according to plan. For example, in July, RWE tried to load a 550-metric-ton jacket foundation from the wharf in Cuxhaven onto an installer vessel. During loading, the elevated ferry sank into the harbor mud because the cargo was too heavy. Now the transfer has to be completely reconfigured.
Were politicians in Berlin too hasty when they embarked on the energy revolution? Is the dream world of windmills on water even affordable anymore?
The HVDC converter stations are causing the biggest problems. They consist of giant converter platforms directly adjacent to the wind farms, where they collect the alternating current generated by the turbines, convert it into high-voltage direct current and transmit it to land via long cables.
Since the British and the Danes build their wind farms much closer to the coast, they don't need any HVDC converter stations. The Germans, however, who don't want to spoil their views of the horizon with propellers, have to transmit their green energy through up to 200 kilometers of underwater cables. This has to be done with direct current to avoid a tremendous loss of current.
Tennet, the Danish grid operator, has ordered seven of these converter stations. But there have been many problems. "I got half of my gray hair because of the HVDC stations," says Assheuer. Offshore official Dahlke admits: "The situation is terrible."
Some of the fault lies with two companies, ABB and Siemens, which initially jumped at the chance to manufacture the HVDC stations. But now they don't know what to do next, especially with technology that has hardly been tested.
The dimensions of the converter stations are also causing headaches. ABB's first HVDC station, the "Borwin alpha," is a giant yellow box, with dimensions of 52 x 35 x 22 meters. It was hauled out to sea on a crane ship and is now positioned some 80 meters, at its highest point, above the waves.
The goliath was supposed to be working by now, taking up energy from the "Bard 1" turbine field. But because of construction delays at the troubled wind farm, there is not electricity available to test the Borwin alpha. In fact, no one knows whether it actually works.
The operators of Bard 1 -- three years behind schedule, facing problems at every turn and keeping the project surrounded by a veil of secrecy -- are keeping their distance from the press.
Siemens, which is now having its first HVDC station ("Helwin 1") built on a wharf in Wismar, on the Baltic coast, has also cloaked itself in secrecy. Even senior offshore managers are not permitted to photograph anything at the site, and cell phones are banned. The company has already had to pay €500 million in additional costs and penalties because it is more than a year behind schedule.
To make matters worse, even the cables are presenting a problem. The enormous amounts of cable required have led to production bottlenecks.
It is clear that the first wind farms will likely be complete by the end of 2013, but they still won't be transmitting any electricity to the mainland because the necessary outlets will be missing.
Delays and Risks
A battle has been raging over who should pay for the slowdowns. Tennet made an "unconditional grid connection commitment," says Assheuer.
But the company, which is owned by the Dutch government, cannot meet its obligations. According to a letter from the German government, it will cost an additional €15 billion to connect all offshore turbines in the first construction stage to the grid by 2020.
In light of these panic reports, the entire energy revolution has come to a standstill. Many next-generation wind farms have been put on hold for now. The industry is taking a wait-and-see approach, looking on to observe how the pioneers fare.
It is already clear that everything will become more expensive. The offshore operators are already paid up to 19 cents per kilowatt hour in compensation for electricity fed into the grid. It's estimated that the average household will pay an additional €50 next year for electricity because of the many green-energy subsidies.
The full effect of the calamities on the high seas will only become apparent after that -- and driving prices up even further.
Strict laws are to blame. Dahlke's agency, for example, requires an "environmental compatibility test" for each operator. But biologists are only slowing beginning to realize how harmful the wind turbines are to wildlife.
The turbines pose an enormous threat to blackbirds, thrushes and robins. New data show that the migratory birds orient themselves toward illuminated points in bad weather. As a result, large numbers of birds can end up flying into the flashing rotors.
RWE is now realizing how hastily the plans were forged. The company had originally planned to build a second wind farm ("Kaskasi") off Helgoland, and it had already obtained all the necessary permits. It has since emerged that the proposed site is in an important habitat for loons -- meaning RWE can forget about the project.
Optimism in the Face of Challenges
Despite all these problems, everyone remains optimistic. But what else can they do? Germany has made a deal with the devil. "Everyone wants expansion," says Dahlke, "and it will happen."
The mayor of Helgoland agrees. Singer looks tanned as he stands at the sea mole and gazes out onto the horizon. He can look forward to more income and more activity on his island.
"Our beautiful natural environment won't be disturbed," he says. "The windmills are more than 20 kilometers away, and they're almost invisible."
But the fact that the power plants are being built so far away is precisely why the projects are so plagued with problems. "Out there," says Singer, pointing at the choppy, gray water, "is where the fate of energy policy will be decided in the next two years."