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Amid EV Hype, Backers of Natural Gas Cars Vie for Federal Support

Natural gas companies and other proponents are calling for a level playing field in terms of government subsidies for alternative vehicles

By Kari Lydersen, Midwest Energy News

Sep 1, 2011
Fueling a CNG-powered Honda Civic in Los Angeles

Electric vehicles are on a roll, with charging stations popping up in cities nationwide, federal subsidies for car buyers and much anticipation around the rollout of new cars.

But proponents of another type of vehicle say they are quietly laying the groundwork for an alternative to the electric car, and they wish they were getting more attention and federal support.

Vehicles that run on compressed natural gas (CNG) fuel emit about a quarter less carbon dioxide than gasoline engines and very low levels of compounds harmful to public health. Filling up on natural gas currently costs about one fourth to one half as much as traditional gasoline per mile driven. Fueling a natural gas vehicle can take only five to 10 minutes, compared to up to eight hours to recharge an electric car, and vehicles can go much farther on a tank of CNG than an electric battery.

So natural gas companies and other proponents—including energy mogul T. Boone Pickens—are calling for a "level playing field" in terms of government subsidies and urging consumers and automakers to consider natural gas vehicles.

But while the fuel for CNG vehicles may be cheap, the infrastructure is not. It can cost more than $1 million to install a commercial natural gas fueling station, whereas an electric car can plug into a standard household outlet. Even a 480-volt fast-charging station, which can charge a Nissan Leaf's battery in under an hour, costs about $20,000.

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Republican Nebraska Governor Asks Obama to Nix Keystone Pipeline

The State Department should deny the permit on the grounds that the pipeline could put the Ogallala Aquifer at risk, the governor says

Aug 30, 2011

Nebraska's governor urged U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday to block TransCanada's planned Keystone oil pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, saying it could hurt a regional water source.

The State Department could issue a presidential permit for the $7 billion project, which would boost U.S. dependence on Canada's controversial oil sands. Momentum for Keystone picked up last week after the department said the project would have only limited impact on the environment.

The State Department should deny the permit on the grounds that the line could put the Ogallala Aquifer at risk, the Midwestern state's governor, Dave Heineman, said in to the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The aquifer in Nebraska is a main source of water for farmlands in the Midwest.

The State Department said in last week's environmental review that an oil spill from the line would affect a limited area in Nebraska's Sand Hills region, which is part of the High Plains aquifer.

Heineman said he does not oppose pipelines in general, but disagreed about the risks.

"This resource is the lifeblood of Nebraska's agriculture industry," he said in the letter. "I am concerned that the proposed pipeline will potentially have detrimental effects on this valuable natural resource and Nebraska's economy."

Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns echoed Heineman's request. "The proposed route is the wrong route. It's clear to me, after traveling throughout the state, that most Nebraskans agree a better route is needed," Johanns .

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Virginia Quake May Have Exceeded Nuke Plant Design, NRC Says

The U.S. nuclear regulator said that last week's 5.8 magnitude quake mave have caused shaking in excess of what two Va. reactors were built to handle

Ayesha Roscoe,

Aug 29, 2011
North Anna Nuclear Generating Station in Louisa County, Va.

The historic earthquake that shut down Dominion Resources Inc's North Anna nuclear plant in Virginia last week may have shaken the plant more than it was designed to withstand, the U.S. nuclear regulator said on Monday.

The said it has dispatched a special team of inspectors to the Virginia plant that was rocked by the 5.8 magnitude earthquake last week, after initial reviews from Dominion indicated the ground motion may have exceeded the plant's design parameters.

The North Anna plant cannot be restarted until the operator can show that no "functional damage" occurred to equipment needed for the safe operation, the NRC said.

"The company and the NRC will continue to carefully evaluate information to determine if additional actions may be necessary," the regulator said in a statement.

After the earthquake last week, Dominion said the North Anna reactors, which entered service in 1978 and 1980, were designed for an earthquake of up to 6.2 magnitude, but the NRC does not use that scale to measure seismic design specifications. Instead, the commission looks at ground motion measurements.

Dominion spokesman Rick Zuercher said on Monday that more will be known about whether the quake exceeded the station's design by midweek as further analysis is done on seismic plates from the station's containment building.

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Midwest's Largest Solar Farm Dramatically Scaled Back in Illinois

The project's developer scaled down plans due to a lack of funding, underscoring the challenges Midwest states face in bringing solar online

By Brian J. Rogal, Midwest Energy News

Aug 25, 2011

A solar project by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn as helping create "hundreds of sustainable, green-collar jobs and providing an economic boost to the entire state," has had trouble getting financing, and has drastically scaled back its short-term ambitions.

At the time, the proposed Rockford Solar Project in Rockford, Ill., was to have been the Midwest's largest solar farm, but Pin Ni, the chief executive of Wanxiang America, a leading partner in the joint venture building the facility, told Midwest Energy News that in terms of financing, "we're in the middle of nowhere."

The difficulty experienced by even Wanxiang, a company known in the business world for having deep pockets, may illustrate just how tough solar developers will find the Midwest, especially as the economy continues to struggle.

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Climate Shifts Drove Wars in 90-Plus Nations Since 1950, Study Shows

El Nino conditions triggered 21% of conflicts in tropical states from 1950-2004, research suggests, with implications for human-made warming

By Katherine Bagley, SolveClimate News

Aug 24, 2011
North Darfur, March 2011

In the past two decades scientists have concluded that climate shifts helped drive many of history's biggest conflicts—from the collapse of the Mayan civilization around 800 AD to the French Revolution beginning in 1789.

But the impact of climate on violence in modern societies, which are considered more technologically and politically adept at dealing with chaotic weather, remains controversial.

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BP Fund Has Paid Out $5B to Gulf Spill Victims, but Criticism Persists

Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the $20B fund, faces criticism from state attorneys general and others who believe payouts are being made too slowly

By Moira Herbst,

Aug 23, 2011
BP America

BP Plc has paid out more than $5 billion to 204,434 victims of last year's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg said on Tuesday.

The payouts amount to roughly 25 percent of the $20 billion fund, known as the , which was set up a year ago following the April 2010 spill.

So far, 947,892 claims have been filed from all 50 U.S. states and residents of 36 countries. So far, nearly all of the successful claimants come from four states: Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

"The Gulf Coast Claims Facility has largely succeeded in its primary objective: to compensate those individuals and businesses who can demonstrate financial harm due to the oil spill," according to a report by the fund released on Tuesday.

Criticism

While the fund touts its progress, Feinberg and BP face persistent criticism from individuals, several state attorneys general and community groups who believe payouts are being made too slowly and that some spill victims with valid claims are being turned away.

Critics also contend that the fund is pressuring claimants to accept small amounts now, in exchange for their agreement not to sue BP and its partners later for more.

Tuesday's report acknowledged problems. "The compensation program has not been perfect," it said, "but several midcourse corrections have been made."

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Canada Moves Ahead with New Coal-Fired Power Rules

Environment Minister Peter Kent said new regulations will force coal developers to reduce emissions to levels that are comparable to gas-fired plants

By Reuters

Aug 19, 2011
Lambton coal-fired generating station in Ontario, Canada

CALGARY, Alberta—Canada moved ahead on Friday with new regulations for cutting emissions from coal-fired power plants as environmental groups decried one project that they said won a speedy approval just in time to avoid the tighter rules.

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Scientists Suggest End of Arctic Sea Ice in 2060, after Possible Brief Expansion

Study author says she is concerned that climate skeptics will seize upon some of the new findings as evidence against human-made warming

By Katherine Bagley, SolveClimate News

Aug 16, 2011

Includes corrections

Arctic sea ice could disappear completely by 2060 in the summer months due to accelerated warming from both a buildup of human-caused greenhouse gases and the planet's natural greenhouse effect, a group of scientists from the concluded in a new study.

However, the researchers said they still can't predict with certainty whether sea ice will retreat or expand during the next decade.

That finding keeps alive a scientific puzzle that has persisted for years, with implications that reach beyond academic circles.

Getting the question resolved is of mounting interest for businesses and countries, who are eager to tap economic opportunities of the melting Arctic as it opens the region to commercial shipping and oil exploration. By contrast, some climate skeptics opposing greenhouse gas regulation policies in Congress and other governments have an interest in bolstering the scientific uncertainty. 

In an interview with SolveClimate News, Jen Kay, NCAR climate scientist and lead author of the research, said the study shows that predicting what will happen to Arctic sea ice from now until 2020 is tricky, because of the unpredictable effects that winds, clouds and temperature changes have on patterns of atmospheric circulation. These natural fluctuations are too volatile to be trusted when incorporated into climate models, she said.

However, "according to our research greenhouse gases are definitely affecting the ice," Kay said, cognizant of how the study's ambiguity on the politically charged issue may be interpreted.

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Detroit Suburbs Become Unlikely Site for Geothermal Drilling Projects

Despite being in one of the country's worst regions for geothermal power, two Michigan cities are finding ways to tap heat stored far below earth's surface

By Jeff Kart, Midwest Energy News

Aug 16, 2011

Despite being in one of the worst regions in the country for geothermal power, two Michigan cities are nevertheless finding ways to save on energy costs by tapping the earth's natural heat.

In the Detroit suburbs of Wyandotte and Dearborn Heights, local officials are using federal grants and city funds to help reduce the upfront cost for residents to convert to geothermal heating and cooling.

Geothermal systems can cost several times more to install than traditional central air conditioning or natural gas furnaces, but the additional costs are paid back through utility savings in five to 10 years, .

Geothermal energy works by digging wells to a spot in the earth where there’s a relatively constant core temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Water or an antifreeze solution is circulated to the spot through . During the winter, the fluid collects heat from the earth and carries it through the system and into the building. During the summer, the system is reversed, and the building is cooled by pulling heat back into the ground.

The systems work by using , which take the place of a furnace or air-conditioning unit and use less electricity.

 A Shared Resource

, Ron Amen is spearheading a project to convert the city's 33,000-square-foot senior center to geothermal heating and cooling. In a large grassy area next to the center, crews would drill wells to service the building and up to 400 neighborhood homes, said Amen, the city’s director of community and economic development.

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In Congress, Corn Ethanol Subsidies Lose More Ground Amid Debt Turmoil

The challenge of finding $1.3 trillion in budget cuts has forced Congress to re-examine 30 years of federal subsidies for corn ethanol

By Suzanne Goldenberg,

Aug 15, 2011
A cornfield in Illinois

There were times when Arlyn Schipper could almost feel heroic on his family farm in the heart of America's corn belt.

His 4,000 acres, planted almost entirely with corn, were helping to feed a nation — or at least help put fuel in its gas tanks, as his crop was processed into corn ethanol.

Schipper still sees it that way. It's just that he feels the country has moved on, or as he put it: "The country has turned on us."

America's debt crisis, and the challenge of finding $1.3 trillion in budget cuts, has forced Congress to re-examine 30 years of government subsidies for corn ethanol.

Meanwhile, drought and famine in the Horn of Africa have exposed a new negative consequence of biofuel production: the global food crisis. By competing with food crops for land, large-scale biofuel production has constricted supply and so boosted food prices globally. This has led to a backlash against biofuels such as corn ethanol from environmentalists and development charities.

"Ten years ago this was the greatest thing since apple pie – ethanol. A lot of farmers invested in this, and a lot of farmers invested in ethanol plants. Everybody wanted it. Our country wanted it. It was a renewable resource," said Schipper. "And now that we have got all of this money tied up in this, it's kind of turned on us."

Many will feel that corn farmers have had it pretty good. And the ethanol industry still has a mighty hold on America's corn belt. The country is projected to produce 14 billion U.S. gallons of corn ethanol this year at 200 refineries spread across the Midwest.

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