Friday, November 7, 2008

Are We Doing Enough to Protect the Ozone Layer?

The gaping upper atmospheric hole over the Antarctic, famously known as the "ozone hole" may be able to repair itself in about half a century or so, but some experts say it’s still fragile and needs our attention. The ozone layer protects us from ultraviolet-B radiation from the Sun, which causes skin cancers and other harmful conditions. As a thinning ozone layer increases ultra-violet radiation, wildlife feels the negative impact, as well.

Important as it is, we’re simply not doing enough to safeguard the ozone layer, or at least according to one of the scientists who first discovered the big hole over Antarctica.

Dr. Joe Farman was one of three British Antarctic Survey scientists who first reported signs of severe damage to the ozone layer in 1985. He is now openly criticizing the agreement that allows developing countries to keep on using ozone-depleting chemicals until 2040, and other policies that he says are counter-productive.

"Frequent reviews rescued the Montreal Protocol from deficiencies in the original draft, and another comprehensive re-examination is clearly needed," Farman has stated.

The Montreal Protocol regulating these substances is 20 years old this week. Member countries of the Montreal Protocol are meeting soon to review progress. Farman says that we need a much faster phase-out of ozone-destroying chemicals, and for the safe destruction of current stockpiles. Senior figures in the UN, as well as European and US politicians, are starting to listen.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol was designed to phase out chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons which were found to be depleting the ozone layer in the Earth's stratosphere. Industrialized nations phased out almost all CFC production in 1995, with developing countries having a deadline of 2010.

Many of the substances, used in applications such as refrigeration, aerosols and fire-fighting, have been replaced with related families of chemicals including hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). These chemicals are less destructive to the ozone layer, but because production in the developing world is now increasing rapidly, there is renewed concern about their impact.

Current regulations mean that in 2015, developing countries will have to freeze their HCFC use at or below the level it is then, phasing out entirely by 2040.

"The rate of HCFC use is skyrocketing," noted Clare Perry, senior ozone campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). "So it's actually going to cost less to phase it out sooner when investment in plant and equipment is at a lower level."

French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said the EU will be push for a faster phase-out at this week's ozone treaty meeting.

"The schedule for eliminating HCFCs must be pushed up by 10 years - that will be the benchmark for deciding if the negotiations are successful," she said.

Accelerating the phase-out would require new funds from the industrialized world, as well as changes to the current funding regulations. Farman also recommends that cash be set aside to combat leakage of ozone-depleting chemicals, such as the fire retardant halon 1301, from developing world installations.

"There is some production in developing countries," he writes, "but the main source is now through leaks from existing installations, and during recycling. It is surely time to consider collecting the existing stockpile, and destroying it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mixed Bag for State Environmental Ballot Initiatives

I seemed to have overlooked an important constitutional amendment passed in Minnesota that established a funding mechanism for conservation programs. My apologies to our friends in the North Star State. See comments for more.]For many Americans, participatory democracy means choosing between the people who will choose for you. But for voters in 36 states, electoral democracy exists beyond the parameters of representative government. In the states where the tools of direct democracy like referendums and ballot initiatives are employed, preferences of voters are gauged directly on amendments to state constitutions, specific policy questions, budgeting issues and more. Of the 153 measures at stake across the country in yesterday’s election, about a dozen dealt with energy and the environment. Below are the results and analysis of eight of the more notable measures (in no particular order):

Missouri Proposition C: Yes - Passing with a robust 64% of voters in favor, Proposition C will require investor-owned electric utilities to generate or purchase 2 percent of their electricity renewable and clean energy sources like wind, solar, landfill gas, biomass, and small hydroelectric projects by 2011 and 15% of their electricity from. Supporters of the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) initiative, Missourians for Cleaner Cheaper Energy, pointed out that 86% of Missouri’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. The passage of proposition C made Missouri the 27th state to pass a renewable energy standard.

Colorado Referendum 58: No - Strongly supported by Governor Ritter, the referendum would have repealed the $300-plus million tax credit oil and gas companies get for extracting mineral resources from the state. The revenue would have funded college scholarships and renewable energy programs.

Colorado Referendum 52: No - Referendum was competed with and would have superceded 58 had they both passed. constitutional proposal that would have funneled millions of dollars from severance taxes into transportation projects — suggested they might return it to the ballot as a statutory amendment, which would erase a major stumbling block. 52 and 58 faced some very well-funded opposition in the form of $12 million worth of industry attack ads that portrayed the measures as “a tax on us.” The oil and gas industry was able to overwhelm counterclaims that it would be very hard for the industry to simply pass on the tax when oil and natural gas are sold in global markets based on supply and demand.

Florida Amendment 4: Yes - Approved by a margin of 68%-32%, the amendment provides a property tax exemption for perpetual conservation easements or other perpetual conservation protections. Conservation easements allow the development rights of a parcel of land to be separated from the title and put into permanent conservation and provide a tax benefit for it. The conservation mechanism has been successful throughout the U.S., though there have been cases where the tax benefit has been abused.

Washington Proposition 1: Still undecided - A regional transit proposal that would extend light rail service from downtown Seattle into the surrounding suburbs was headed for passage behind solid support in Seattle’s King County.

Ohio Issue 2: Yes - With 69% voting in favor and 31% voting against, Ohio’s Issue 2 was a clear favorite. The measure authorizes the state to borrow $400 million for environmental conservation, preservation and revitalization purposes. The amendment is identical to the bond issue passed by the voters in 2000 and will add funding for The Clean Ohio Program.

California Proposition 1A: Yes - Voters on Tuesday approved the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act by a margin of 52 percent to 47 percent. The proposition permits the selling of about $10 billion in state bonds to fund the planning for a system of high-speed rail linking San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.

California Proposition 2: Yes - Proposition 2 creates a new state statute that prohibits the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs. The proposition passed by a robust 63%-37% majority despite strong opposition was from industry groups (’big ag’ if you will) that argued the measure would drive up the cost of food, specifically eggs.

California Proposition 7: No - The Clean and Solar Energy Act of 2008 would have increased the renewable energy portfolio standard for utilities including government-owned utilities to 20% by 2010. It also would have ratcheted up that standard for all utilities to 40% by 2020 and to 50% by 2025. Leading the opposition were two utility companies, PG&E and California Edison that argued the proposal was poorly written and so complicated that it could hurt the cause of renewable energy in the state. The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the state’s Republican, Democratic and Green parties said the measure would actually hurt the growth of renewables in the state.

California Proposition 10: No - Called for the state to raise $5 billion in bonds to fund rebates for the purchase and retrofitting of vehicles to run on alternative fuels including natural gas. 60% of Californians voted against the measure despite the more than $17 million spent to promote the measure. Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens was a chief supporter of the proposition and is a board member of Clean Energy Fuels Corp., the company which sells natural gas as transportation fuel.

What Can the World Expect from President Obama?

is the first day of the next era in America. The U.S. has chosen as its President-Elect Barack Obama, after the most exciting and galvanizing U.S. presidential election in recent memory. The partying will continue for weeks - but now comes the rolling up of sleeves and the fulfilling of promises. If Obama puts his policies where his pledges are, what are the environmental consequences? There are so many challenges we face; here, we take a look at the green ones.

Appropriately for a campaign conducted with such enthusiasm, energy has underpinned everything - and no wonder, when fuel is becoming a problem in itself, never mind its complicated relationship to food. The United States of the next few decades needs to find ways of ridding itself of an unhealthy dependence on unsustainable energy sources - and to undertake a sustainable, ethical approach towards renewable ones. Here's how the new Democratic government intends to tackle this formidable challenge:

A reduction in national oil consumption by at least 35% (or around 10 million barrels a day) by 2030 - and by the same year, a reduction in national energy usage of 50%.

A new Clean Technologies Deployment Venture Capital Fund, supported by $10-15 billion per year for the next 5 years, and an overall investment of $150 billion into energy technology (and therefore green collar employment) over the next decade.

By 2025, a quarter of all energy consumed within the United States must be from renewable sources.

Despite supporting the proposed Biofuel Security Act of 2006, Obama has publicly acknowledged the problems with biofuel. "Food comes first", he says, although it's not yet clear what this means in practice.

Both presidential candidates agreed on the need for nuclear power - however, McCain was in favor of a huge investment of 45 new reactors. Unimpressed, Obama has outlined his plan of supporting and maintaining existing plants, but with the emphasis on investing in new energy sources.

"And I will invest $15 billion a year in renewable sources of create 5 million new energy jobs over the next decade - jobs that pay well; jobs that can't be outsourced; jobs building solar panels and wind turbines and a new electricity grid..."
- Barack Obama, 27th October 2008

The other eco-issue of the presidential race has been pollution.
Both candidates agreed that failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol was a major blunder - and were also of one mind that the government should invest in an emissions trading program. However, Obama differed from McCain in insisting that 100% of emission credits should be auctioned off, ensuring that all pollution is paid for by the people that produced it. (Something Al Gore is sure to like.)

On top of improving the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard to 43 miles per gallon, Obama also intends to reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions by 5% in 2015 and 10% in 2020 - a statement he made at the Detroit Economic club (you can watch it here).

Overall, Obama's campaign pledge was to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050 - a striking contrast to McCain's 60% below 1990 levels by the same date.

If these proposals become reality, they would be unprecedented. Support for them and for Obama has been remarkable. Carl Pope of the grassroots environmental group the Sierra Club - an organization notoriously at odds with previous governments - has declared his support for "the strongest set of positions any candidate has ever offered".

For a man allegedly from Krypton, Obama seems remarkably comfortable with the color green. His administration has 4 years to turn these visionary promises into something tangible, and that's the real challenge - but right now, there's plenty to be optimistic about.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Former EPA investigator blows whistle on Alaska oil spill

SEATTLE - A former top EPA investigator who helped lead an investigation into a giant oil spill in Alaska is blowing the whistle to KING 5 News.

The investigator says it should have been a felony criminal case. So was oil giant BP let off the hook? KING 5's environmental specialist Gary Chittim talked with the investigator in an exclusive report.

In March 2006, a ruptured pipeline stained the Alaskan tundra with 200,000 gallons of North Slope crude oil. It was second only to the Exxon Valdez in spill size and damage in Alaska.

The EPA's lead criminal investigator in Seattle got an immediate phone call.

"I knew I had an investigation now to perform and I dispatched one of our special agents up to the North Slope," said Scott West, EPA Special Agent in Charge, retired.

A year before, West says he met with BP engineers and employees who said they had continually warned their superiors a long section of the pipe was deteriorating and at risk of rupturing.

"And he said OK, that leak's happened at a caribou crossing on the transit line, just like we predicted and there's oil all over the place," said West.

As West prepared for a criminal investigation into BP officials, Congress was already demanding answers in hearings and at first not getting them.

"Based upon the advice from council, I respectfully will not answer questions," Richard Woollam, former head for BP Pipeline Corrosion, had told Congress.

The Congressional panel, including Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., accused the company of failing to properly maintain the lines.

"This was a very willful, deliberate, clear, premeditated if you will, decision not to do this known maintenance," said Inslee.

While Congress kept demanding answers, West was pushing forward his criminal case.

By now, West says his case was picking up speed and strength. The FBI, the Justice Department and some of Alaska's agencies were taking part and investing time, money and energy into the investigation.

"This was one of the largest devotions of manpower to an environmental case," he said.

West says the group was looking at possible felony crimes at high level BP officials in the U.S. and Great Britain.

BP continued to clean up and replace lines and apologize for the spill, but insisted it was an unforeseeable accident.

Then suddenly, West and his investigators were called to Anchorage for an unforeseeable announcement from the Justice Department.

"I was dismissed. My investigation was shut down," said West. "I have never seen the Department of Justice shutdown an investigation this strong, moving ahead with so much momentum."

Case closed? Maybe not.

"You won't be surprised if there is Congressional interest in this to find where this thread leads," said West.

It has led West in a new direction. He's decided to close his 19 year career at EPA by blowing the whistle on his most frustrating case.

BP ended up accepting a misdemeanor charge and paying a $20 million fine.

The following statement is from BP:

We have no record that any concerns about corrosion leading to an oil transit line breach in the foreseeable future ever were communicated to BP -- by BP Alaska workers, by Mr. West, or anyone else.

If the conversations that Mr. West described occurred, then we're disappointed Mr. West or someone in EPA didn't come to us to share this specific concern so that we could have addressed it and possibly prevented this spill.

Our interactions with the Justice Department and EPA were appropriate in every way. We offered and EPA and DOJ received BP's full cooperation in their Alaska investigation.

We were not a party to discussions among EPA, the FBI and the Justice Department and cannot comment on them.
We were provided a detailed summary of comments made by Mr. West to another reporter. We read with interest that after a 17-month investigation, West and other investigators could not "realistically charge" BP with a felony and that the answer was "no" when investigators were asked if they could charge individuals.

BP admitted that its processes and systems for monitoring Prudhoe Bay oil transit lines were inadequate, admitted that negligence on the company's part resulted in the March 2006 spill and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal count.

We are not aware any evidence that anyone at BP violated the law.

The following statement is from the Justice Department:

In October of 2007, BP Exploration Alaska, Inc., agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act to resolve criminal liability relating to pipeline leaks of crude oil. As a result of the guilty plea, BP Alaska agreed to pay $20 million which included the criminal fine, community service payments and criminal restitution.

The allegations by Mr. West that the Department improperly handled the case are not based in fact and are simply not true. Mr. West implies that something sinister took place between June 12 and August 28, 2007. As with any investigation, there comes a point in time when further investigation is no longer warranted if it does not have a realistic chance of generating useful evidence. In this case, the judgment by career prosecutors was that the case had been sufficiently and fully investigated to reach appropriate charging decisions. No further investigation was likely to find evidence that would shed any new light on the essential facts of the case. The investigators from the EPA and FBI agreed with the prosecution’s approach.

This case was an example of an excellent partnership between prosecutors from Washington D.C. and those from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The following statement is from the EPA:

"EPA takes criminal violations of the law very seriously. EPA vigorously investigates and recommends charges for both individuals and corporations whenever appropriate. Over the past two years, 70% of the criminals charged in environmental crime cases were individuals, not corporations.

In the case of BP Alaska, after a robust 18-month criminal investigation, EPA, FBI, and DOT, along with DOJ prosecutors, jointly concluded the corporation was liable for a negligent discharge of oil.

EPA, along with DOJ, also concluded that further investigative efforts were unlikely to be fruitful. At the same time, nothing in the plea agreement for this investigation precludes prosecution of individuals, should events or evidence indicate misconduct.

This case was an example of strong teamwork among the agencies and resulted in the appropriate outcome.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

7 Environmental Problems That Are Worse Than We Thought

With as much attention as the environment has been getting lately, you’d think that we’d be further along in our fight to preserve the world’s species, resources and the beautiful diversity of nature. Unfortunately, things aren’t nearly that rosy. In fact, many of the environmental problems that have received the most public attention are even worse than we thought – from destruction in the rain forest to melting glaciers in the Arctic. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

7. Mammal Extinction

One in four mammals is threatened with extinction. That’s 25%, a huge number that will totally change the ecology of every corner of the earth. We could see thousands of species die out in our lifetime, and the rate of habitat loss and hunting in crucial areas like Southeast Asia, Central Africa and Central and South America is growing so rapidly, these animals barely have a chance.

If you think the extinction of an animal like the beautiful Iberian Lynx is no big deal, and wouldn’t have that much of an effect on the planet, think again. Not only would we be losing – mostly due to our own disregard for our surroundings – so much of the awe-inspiring diversity of nature, mass extinctions like this would cause a serious imbalance in the world’s food chain. When a predator disappears, the prey will multiply. When prey dies out, the predator will see its ranks decrease as well. Many people fail to realize just how interconnected all species on this planet really are.

6. The Ocean Dead Zones

In oceans around the world, there are eerie areas that are devoid of nearly all life. These ‘dead zones’ are characterized by a lack of oxygen, and they’re caused by excess nitrogen from farm fertilizers, emissions from vehicles and factories, and sewage. The number of dead zones has been growing fast - since the 1960’s, the number of dead zones has doubled every 10 years. They range in size from under a square mile to 45,000 square miles, and the most infamous one of all is in the Gulf of Mexico, a product of toxic sludge that flows down the Mississippi from farms in the Midwest. These ‘hypoxic’ zones now cover an area roughly the size of Oregon.

Spanish researches recently found that many species die off at oxygen levels well above the current definition of ‘uninhabitable’, suggesting that the extent of dead zones in coastal areas that support fishing is much worse than previously thought. Robert Diaz, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science biologist, said “Everything is pointing towards a more desperate situation in all aquatic systems, freshwater and marine. That’s pretty clear. People should be worried, all over the world.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, global warming will likely aggravate the problem. A rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will change rainfall patterns, which could create an increase in runoff from rivers into the seas in many areas.

5. Collapsing Fish Stock

Millions of people across the world depend upon fish as a major staple in their diet. As such, commercial fishermen have been pulling such a huge quantity of fish from the oceans that we’re heading toward a global collapse of all species currently fished – possibly as soon as the year 2048. Like large-scale mammal extinction, the collapse of fish species would have a major impact on the world’s ecosystems.

It’s not too late – yet – if overfishing and other threats to fish populations are reduced as soon as possible. Marine systems are still biologically diverse, but catastrophic loss of fish species is close at hand. 29 percent of species have been fished so heavily or have been so affected by pollution that they’re down to 10 percent of their previous population levels. If we continue the way we are fishing today, there will be a 100 percent collapse by mid-century, so we’ve got to turn this around fast.

4. Destruction of the Rain Forest

Saving the rain forest’ has been at the forefront of the environmental movement for decades, yet here we are facing huge losses in the Amazon all the same. You might have thought that, with all the attention the rain forest has gotten, it wouldn’t need so much saving anymore – but unfortunately, global warming and deforestation mean that half of the Amazon rain forest will likely be destroyed or severely damaged by 2030.

The World Wildlife Fund concluded this summer that agriculture, drought, fire, logging and livestock ranching will cause major damage to 55 percent of the Amazon rain forest in the next 22 years. Another 4 percent will see damage due to reduced rainfall, courtesy of global warming. These factors will destroy up to 80 percent of the rain forest’s wildlife. Losing 60 percent of the rain forest would accelerate global warming and affect rainfall in places as far away as India. Massive destruction to the rain forest would have a domino effect on the rest of the world.

The WWF says that the ‘point of no return’, from which recovery will be impossible, is only 15 to 25 years away.

3. Polar Sea Ice Loss

Polar sea ice is melting at an unprecedented rate, and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down. It’s perhaps the most dramatic, startling visual evidence of global warming, and it’s got scientists rushing to figure out just how big of an effect the melting is going to have on the rest of the world.

British researchers said last week that the thickness of sea ice in the Arctic decreased dramatically last winter for the first time since records began in the early 1990s. The research showed a significant loss in thickness on the northern ice cap after the record loss of ice during the summer of 2007.

Scientific American warns that “human fingerprints have been detected” on both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Antarctica had previously appeared to be the only continent on the planet where humanity’s impact on climate change hadn’t been observed. The collapse of the Larsen B and Wilkins ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula shows just how fast the region is warming.

2. CO2 Levels in the Atmosphere

The aforementioned polar sea ice loss is yet another sinister sign of carbon dioxide levels building up in the atmosphere – the main force behind global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions caused by our modern way of life – vehicles, power plants, factories, giant livestock farms – will bring devastating climate change within decades if they stay at today’s levels.

Average temperatures could increase by as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century if emissions continue to rise, a figure that would easily make the world virtually uninhabitable for humans. A global temperature rise of just 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit would cause a catastrophic domino effect, bringing weather extremes that would result in food and water shortages and destructive floods.

The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change represents “the final nail in the coffin” of climate change denial, representing the most authoritative picture to date that global warming is caused by human activity. According to the panel, we must make a swift and significant switch to clean, efficient and renewable energy technologies in order to prevent the worst-case scenario.

1. Population Explosion

Whether we like to admit it or not, our very own rapidly multiplying presence on this planet is the biggest environmental problem there is, and it’s getting bigger by the minute. We voraciously consume resources, pollute the air and water, tear down natural habitats, introduce species into areas where they don’t belong and destroy ecosystems to the point of causing millions of species to become endangered and, all too often, go extinct.

It took nearly all of human history – from the first days of man on earth until the early 1800’s – to reach a global population of 1 billion. In just 200 years, we’ve managed to reach 6.5 billion. That means the population has grown more since 1950 than in the previous four million years. We’re adding roughly 74 million people to the planet every year, a scary figure that will probably continue to increase. All of those mouths will need to be fed. All of those bodies will need clean water and a place to sleep. All of the new communities created to house those people will continue to encroach upon the natural world.

All seven environmental problems detailed above are very serious, and we’ve got to start treating them that way. We may not have easy solutions, but the fact is, we simply can’t continue living our lives as if everything is peachy. These problems aren’t going to magically solve themselves. We should have begun acting generations ago, but we can’t go back in time, and that means we have to step up our efforts. If we want to keep this planet a healthy place for humans to live – for our grandchildren to enjoy – it’s time to buckle down and do everything in our power to reverse the damage we’ve done.

Coating helps solar panels soak up more of the sun

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A new type of reflective coating can make solar panels far more efficient, soaking up nearly all available sunlight from nearly any angle, U.S. researchers said on Monday.

Current solar panels -- which convert energy from the sun into electricity -- absorb only about two-thirds of available sunlight.

But surfaces treated with a coating developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, can harvest 96.2 percent of sunlight.

"That is a tremendous savings," Rensselaer's Shawn-Yu Lin, whose study appears in the journal Optics Letters, said in a telephone interview.

Lin said the technology addresses two main problems in current solar cells. It captures more colors of solar spectrum and it captures light from all angles.

"If you look at a solar panel, it looks a bit bluish," Lin said. That is "telling you not all of the blue color is being absorbed. It should look totally dark."

The other problem is that solar panels work best when sun shines directly on them. To solve this, large solar arrays mechanically shift position throughout the day -- much like sunbathers on a beach.

Lin and colleagues think they have found a better solution.

Their coating is made up of seven layers of porous material stacked in such a way that each enhances the antireflective properties of the layer below.

Together they act as a buffer zone, trapping light from all angles. "Your efficiency increases by 30 percent," Lin said.

He thinks the material could be applied to all types of solar cells.

"It's not going to require many added instruments too adopted this technology," he said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen, Editing by Anthony Boadle)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Solar Cells Set New Performance

Researchers have announced a solar energy breakthrough that could lead to its more widespread use with their achievement of the highest efficiency ever for one type of solar cells.

The photovoltaic cells, called dye-sensitized solar cells or Gräztel cells, could expand the use of solar energy for homes, businesses and beyond, the researchers say.

Gräztel cells are cheaper to make than standard silicon-based solar cells, but until now they have had serious drawbacks. They have not been efficient enough at converting light into electricity, and their performance dropped after relatively short exposures to sunlight.

The research, conducted by Peng Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues, including Michael Gräztel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, inventor of this type of cell in 1991, involves photovoltaic cells composed of titanium dioxide and powerful light-harvesting dyes.

The team used a new type of ruthenium-based dye to help boost the solar cells' light-harvesting ability. The new cells showed efficiencies as high as 10 percent, a record for this type of solar cell (efficiency is the ratio of useful energy delivered by a system to the energy initially supplied). Most silicon-based solar cells have efficiencies of around 12 percent. But manufacturing silicon is not cheap. The current cost of electricity from silicon-based solar panels for houses or businesses is 25 cents to 40 cents per kilowatt-hour, roughly triple what most people pay their utility company.

Organic solar cells, another up-and-comer, typically convert only 3 percent of incoming sunlight into electricity.

The new cells also showed greater stability at high temperatures than previous formulas, retaining more than 90 percent of their initial output after 1,000 hours in full sunlight. Gräztel cells can also be made into flexible sheets or coatings.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Space station trash plunging to Earth

By Tariq Malik
Senior editor

A piece of space station trash the size of a refrigerator is poised to plunge through the Earth's atmosphere late Sunday, more than a year after an astronaut tossed it overboard.

NASA and the U.S. Space Surveillance Network are tracking the object — a 1,400-pound (635-kilogram) tank of toxic ammonia coolant thrown from the international space station — to make sure it does not endanger people on Earth. Exactly where the tank will inevitably fall is currently unknown, though it is expected to re-enter Earth's atmosphere Sunday afternoon or later that evening, NASA officials said.

"This has got a very low likelihood that anybody will be impacted by it," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager, in an interview. "But still, it is a large object and pieces will enter and we just need to be cautious."

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NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson threw the ammonia tank from the tip of the space station's Canadian-built robotic arm during a July 23, 2007, spacewalk. He tossed away an unneeded video camera stand overboard as well, but that 212-pound (96-kilogram) item burned up harmlessly in the atmosphere early this year, Suffredini said.

NASA expects up to 15 pieces of the tank to survive the searing hot temperatures of re-entry, ranging in size from about 1.4 ounces (40 grams) to nearly 40 pounds (17.5 kilograms).

If they reach all the way to land, the largest pieces could slam into the Earth's surface at about 100 mph (161 kilometers per hour). But a splashdown at sea is also possible, as the planet is two-thirds ocean.

"If anybody found a piece of anything on the ground Monday morning, I would hope they wouldn't get too close to it," Suffredini said.

Known as the Early Ammonia Servicer, or EAS, the coolant tank is the largest piece of orbital trash ever tossed overboard by hand from the space station. Larger unmanned Russian and European cargo ships are routinely destroyed in the Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean after their space station deliveries, but those disposals are controlled and preplanned.

The recent destruction of the European Space Agency's Jules Verne cargo ship was eagerly observed by scientists hoping to glean new information on how objects behave as they enter Earth's atmosphere. Observers aboard two chase planes caught photographs and video of the double-decker bus-sized spacecraft's demise, but no such campaign is possible with the returning ammonia tank.

The last object to re-enter Earth's atmosphere with prior notice was a small asteroid the size of a kitchen table that exploded in midair as it flew over Africa on Oct. 7.

It's taken more than year for the ammonia tank to slowly slip down toward Earth due to atmospheric drag. During its time aboard the station, the tank served as a coolant reservoir to boost the outpost's cooling system in the event of leaks. Upgrades to the station last year made the tank obsolete, and engineers were concerned that its structural integrity would not withstand a ride back to Earth aboard a NASA space shuttle.

Instead, they tossed it overboard, or "jettisoned" it in NASA parlance.

Suffredini said that while astronauts have accidentally lost a tool or two during spacewalks, the planned jettison of larger items is done with the utmost care to ensure the trash doesn't hit the station or any other spacecraft as it circles the Earth. Engineers also make sure the risk to people on Earth is low, as well.

"As a matter of course, we don't throw things overboard haphazardly," Suffredini said. "We have a policy that has certain criteria we have to meet before you can throw something overboard."

In the event the tank re-enters over land, NASA advised members of the public to contact their local authorities, or the U.S. Department of State via diplomatic channels if outside the U.S., if they believe they've found its remains.

HVAC boot cleared of Asbestos in Los Angeles