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[1THING] Blog: Archive for March, 2012

[ Hoosiers Make a Strong Showing at Shell Eco-marathon 2012 ]

Photo: George Urban Concept vehicle by Mater Dei High School

"George," the gas-powered Urban Concept vehicle built by Mater Dei High School students from Evansville, makes one of his last runs before retirement after five years of competitions. Photo: Brian Clark Howard


“We just keep at it, we don’t give up just because something doesn’t work,” said Collin Gruntman, 17, when asked why so many teams from Indiana compete in the Shell Eco-marathon every year in Houston, Texas.

Gruntman, a junior at Goshen High School in Goshen, Indiana, explained that his team’s fortunes had started looking up by Saturday afternoon. On Friday, the group’s car developed problems with the fuel injection system, so the team worked into the night to change it over to a carburetor.

“After that is was running all right, but then we busted a sprocket,” Gruntman’s teammate, Scot Huf, 15, said. The team was hard at work on the small, gas-powered vehicle in their pit stop inside the George R. Brown Convention Center.

This year, teams from all over the Americas are assembled March 29-April 1 in the “Petro Metro” of Houston to race their hand-built cars around a road course, which encircles the lush (and LEED-certified) Discovery Green downtown.

The drivers shoot for an average speed of 15 mpg, so it’s the most efficient use of fuel that wins, not who gets to the finish line first. Cars are fielded by high school and college teams, and compete in various divisions, including gasoline, diesel, ethanol, electric, and solar modes.

Shell Eco-marathon events for Europe and Asia will be held later this year in Rotterdam and Kuala Lumpur. At the Americas challenge, there are five teams from Brazil, two from Mexico, five from Canada, and 124 from the U.S. Of those, 15 hail from the great state of Indiana, which also happens to be this writer’s homestate.

Hoosier teams include Goshen, two teams from Sullivan High School in Sullivan, Indiana, Paoli High School, Warsaw Area Career Center, three teams from Wawasee High School in Syracuse, and four teams from Mater Dei High School in Evansville, including the returning champions.

At the collegiate level, Indiana teams include three groups from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and the Purdue Solar Racing Team, which operates the only solar-powered car ever to qualify for the event.

While they were prepping their gas Urban Concept (streetworthy) car – affectionately named George —  Mater Dei team members said they thought Indiana’s racing heritage might partially explain the local enthusiasm for the Eco-marathon.

The Indianapolis 500, billed as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, is one of the oldest and most popular motorsports events in the world. An estimated 400,000 people pack into Speedway every May to watch the 500-mile event, which has helped drive innovation in automotive technology for decades, from tires to fuels (Indy cars currently run pure methanol).

A number of the Eco-marathon entrants actually resemble Indy cars past and present, with their open-wheel designs, aerodynamic shapes and ultra low centers of gravity.

In the case of George, although he has won several titles in five years of Eco-marathon competitions, he is being retired after this year’s event. According to team member Craig Wilmes, Mater Dei is going to build an entirely new Urban Concept vehicle for next year, with a more streamlined shape.

Photo: Mater Dei High School prototype vehicle

A Prototype vehicle from Mater Dei completes the road course around Houston's Discovery Green in Shell Eco-marathon 2012. Photo: Brian Clark Howard


Rich Auto History

In addition to the 500, Indiana also boasts a long tradition of auto manufacturing. It’s a little known fact, but Indianapolis once had more car makers than Detroit.

Innovations to come out of the Hoosier state include tilt steering, cruise control, and front-wheel drive. Makers included the storied Duesenberg, Studebaker, and the Stutz Bearcat.

Times and fashions change, factories close, and Michigan lured much of the auto industry north with cheaper taxes. But even today, Indiana hosts major manufacturing facilities by Toyota, Subaru, Honda and others.

Another reason why Indiana schools perform so well in international competitions is because they have a warm-up lap, thanks to a statewide competition held each April by the Indiana Mathematics, Science and Technology Education Alliance (IMSTEA). More than 50 high schools compete in the IMSTEA Super Mileage Challenge in Indianapolis, in stock and unlimited class divisions.  Each vehicle is powered by a 3.5 hp, horizontal shaft Briggs and Stratton engine.

Boilermaker Ingenuity

At the bustling Purdue Solar Racing pit at the Shell Eco-marathon, senior and chief engineer Brian Thompson gave a brief tour to spectators. The Purdue team is a highly oiled machine, with engineering students joined by business and marketing students, who lead fundraising, promotions, and communications.

The Purdue Solar Racing team conducts educational events for Indiana youth, complete with Legos, and makes an annual visit to the statehouse to advocate for clean transportation. The marketing students score lots of ink from media around the world, and they raise serious money from corporate sponsors.

As Thompson explained, Celeritas, the group’s Eco-marathon solar car, was built using $90,000 to $100,000 in materials, including carbon fiber and solar panels. “The only thing that is metal on it is the suspension,” he said. “Everything else is carbon fiber, including the chassis, and it’s lightweight and extremely strong.”

Photo: Celeritas Purdue solar car

Celeritas, the returning champion from Purdue Solar Racing. Photo: Brian Clark Howard


This year, the Purdue team added windshield wipers to Celeritas, to make it street legal. (The car is named after the Latin word for “speed of light,” the “c” in the equation e = mc squared.) Thompson said he had recently called the state department of motor vehicles to get a VIN number, although he had a hard time explaining the futuristic car over the phone.

Thompson said Celeritas has a top speed of 40 mph, based on the 50V power limited by Shell (he said the electric motor can take up to 160 V).  Other Purdue Solar Racing vehicles have reached speeds above 65 mph in cross-country contests.

Earlier this week, another team from Purdue called the EcoMakers was selected by GM to enter the EcoCAR 2 contest to develop a new eco-friendly model.

Thompson said the Celeritas is the only solar-powered car to yet meet all of the Eco-marathon Americas guidelines. “There’s another team here with a solar car, but it’s too heavy,” he said. “We’ve been helping them out.”

In fact, that spirit of cooperation pervades the Shell Eco-marathon. “The atmosphere is really friendly here,” said Thompson. “If you need to borrow something from another team, they help you out.”

Thompson is originally from Evansville, where he went to a rival high school to Mater Dei. He is a senior in mechanical engineering, and plans to keep working in the auto industry.

After he graduates, he is heading to Michigan to work for Chrysler.

There aren’t as many car companies in Indiana as there used to be, but there is still a lot of innovation.


[ Freakonomics Authors Make Controversial Case for Geoengineering ]

“Humans are absolutely terrible at making decisions,” Steven Levitt told the crowd of participants today at the Shell-sponsored Energy Summit 2012 in Houston, Texas.

For two days, the Summit brought together leading business and academic thinkers from the fields of renewable and traditional energy, plus food and water policy. Proceedings were held in the farm-to-table Grove restaurant on the Discovery Green, in the heart of downtown Houston, which is sometimes called the “Petro Metro” because of its leading role in the fossil fuel industries.

There was a lot of talk of legacy fuels over the two days, as well as newer alternatives. Levitt, best known for co-writing the blockbuster book Freakonomics with journalist Stephen Dubner, encouraged the industry leaders to take a data-driven approach to thinking about energy and environmental issues.

Levitt won the prestigious John Bates Clark medal in Economics in 2004, and he continues to hold down a professorship at the University of Chicago, despite a busy speaking and consulting schedule. Freakonomics has sold more than 4 million copies, spawned a sequel (SuperFreakonomics), was made into a documentary film, and launched a successful blog and radio series.

Levitt is best known for applying the tools of neoclassical economics to social problems that had been historically ignored by economists. As he said at the Energy Summit, his technique is to examine underlying incentives that guide behavior.

That approach, and crunching lots of data, led him to demonstrate that real estate agents don’t always act in their clients’ best interests, and that the factor that seems to correlate most highly with falling crime in the 1990s is the legalization of abortion in America a few decades earlier (more abortions meant fewer “unwanted” children, which led to fewer criminals).

Levitt told the audience that successful policies need to reflect data and take into account what motivates people. On the former, he said statistics show that drunk walking is eight times more dangerous per mile than drunk driving. On the latter, he said the Endangered Species Act lacks a prohibition on development on habitat during the comment period before a species is granted protection in a given area, allowing some people to despoil sensitive areas.

(Levitt’s co-author, Stephen Dubner, also pointed out that the duo’s research shows most pundits actually aren’t better than a coin toss at predicting the future.)

“A lot of things I write about have made people angry,” Levitt admitted. “I wrote about the link between abortion and crime, I caught Chicago teachers cheating, and I’m not popular in Japan because I wrote about Sumo wrestlers who collude with each other at tournaments. But nothing could have prepared us for what we wrote about global warming.”

Photo: Freakonomics book

Heated Climate

In their book SuperFreakonomics, Dubner and Levitt largely dismissed conventional approaches to mitigating climate change like reducing carbon emissions, and instead advanced geoengineering solutions, by which scientists hope to cool the Earth. “I figured I’m not a scientist, but I’ll take the science as given and look at the tradeoffs and externalities,” Levitt said.

“After we wrote about it we were criticized by virtually every person on the planet, except my mom, who stood by me,” Levitt joked.

The authors said they came to the conclusion that getting global cooperation on reducing greenhouse gas emissions was highly unlikely. They also argued, controversially, that it could take $1 trillion a year to stave off global warming by curbing emissions.

Instead, they said governments should put their weight behind geoengineering plans, such as pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to block solar rays, mimicking the effects of the 1991 Pinatubo volcano eruption. Levitt pointed to a scientist’s proposal that would allegedly provide enough cooling to offset global warming for $200 million a year.

He added that existing sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants could also be pushed higher up, or that we could send solar-powered dinghies into the seas to spray saltwater into the air. The resulting droplets would form more clouds, which would reduce insolation into the oceans, and therefore cause cooling, the theory goes.

Still, Leavitt admitted that “no one wants to do these things,” because “no one wants to play Mother Nature.”

It’s not hard to see why, given past attempts to introduce invasive species that went awry, or the unintended consequences of DDT and CFCs.

Many environmentalists also blasted Levitt and Dubner for promoting unproven technologies at the expense of what we know works: reducing emissions. They argued that the very idea of a techno-fix could placate the world into inaction and business as usual, or even worse.

Levitt and Dubner now ask what’s so wrong with giving geoengineering research a try, at least so we have something ready if things get really heated. Levitt added, “We had nothing to do with Copenhagen and Kyoto failing completely, that was obvious.”

Setting Aside Morality

The economist admitted that he arrives at his conclusions without giving heed to moral considerations. “My abortion-crime theory is disgusting to everyone, to all sides of the political aisle, but you couldn’t have gotten to that unless you put your revulsion aside,” said Levitt.

“You would never want an economist to run the world, but I think you need one behind the scenes,” he added.

“When Stephen and I approach a problem, we are like children. We walk around knowing nothing about the world, and not seeing the barriers that come with knowing something. Conventional wisdom has obstructed people from seeing it,” he said.

It is that outsider status when it comes to climate change that also so enraged groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace. (The former wrote SuperFreakonomics ”repeats a large number of easily discredited arguments regarding climate science, energy production, and geoengineering.)

Yet, it’s also true that outsiders can sometimes bring fresh ideas.

Can geoengineering save the planet? Perhaps, although it’s far too early to tell, and the amount of research funding is currently puny, in part because of its negative reception thus far.

Levitt and Dubner may not have the answers to everything, but they can suggest that any policies and solutions should be examined with an eye to all available data, and by trying to understand incentives and motives behind behavior. It’s a powerful approach.


Brian Clark Howard is a writer and editor with NationalGeographic.com. He was formerly an editor at The Daily Green and E/The Environmental Magazine and has contributed to many publications, including TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, MailOnline.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN and elsewhere. His latest book, with Kevin Shea, is Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.



[ NPR-A’s Special Areas are worthy of protection ]

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA –The future of Teshekpuk Lake and other Special Areas in the western Arctic’s National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska are at stake today as the Bureau of Land Management releases its draft environmental impact statement for the NPR-A and opens a 60-day public comment period.

This 23.5 million acre reserve is nearly the size of Indiana and is the largest tract of undisturbed public land in the United States. It contains one of the largest wetlands complexes in the Arctic and provides critical habitat for polar bears, caribou herds, and countless migratory birds and waterfowl, in addition to being vital to the subsistence needs of Alaska Native people. But the reserve is under pressure from Congress and the oil industry, both of which are eager to drill there despite the U.S. Geological Survey announcing in the fall of 2010 that the amount of oil in the reserve is only one-tenth of what was estimated in 2002, and more abundant oil resources exist in the Prudhoe Bay industrial complex to the east.

Congress recognized the need to protect important areas of the NPR-A when it transferred these lands from the Navy to the BLM in 1976 and directed the agency to study and create Special Areas in the NPR-A. BLM has since established four such areas, and every presidential administration for the past 35 years has recognized the need to protect the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area from oil and gas development. That’s a tradition that should continue.

“Scientific research at The Wilderness Society has broadened our understanding of the critical importance of the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, as well as other Special Areas of the NPR-A for caribou, migratory birds and climate change adaptation,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, The Wilderness Society’s regional director for Alaska. “We need a balanced management plan for the NPR-A, where the extraordinary ecological and subsistence values of its Special Areas are granted maximum protection while allowing for responsible energy development in other areas.”

“As public review of the DEIS gets underway, all Americans should recognize the need for balancing development and conservation in this unique and irreplaceable Arctic landscape,” Whittington-Evans added.


[ Wilderness bills moving on anniversary of historic public lands bill ]


For months we have been frustrated at Congress for not moving (or passing for that matter!) any wilderness bills. In fact, as our report Wilderness Under Siege makes clear, there are now at least 13 bills pending in the U.S. House of Representatives that would sell off, give away or open our public lands to corporate polluters. 

Yet things have indeed been percolating (and dare I say without jinxing anything) moving in Congress. As we commemorate the 3rd anniversary of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, several bills had hearings or were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate.

Sidebar: In case you need a refresher as to what the Omnibus Public Land Management Act is, here is a great excerpt from The Wilderness Society’s president upon the passage of this landmark bill:

“The scope of the bill cannot be cannot be overstated: Nine states, 2.1 million acres of wilderness, landmark protection for over one million acres of wild landscapes in the Wyoming Range, and the designation of four national conservation areas and a national monument. It also formally establishes the National Landscape Conservation System, the first new system of conservation lands in more than half a century.”

While none of the bills below is nearly as big as the Omnibus, each would be important milestones for land conservation.

This recent surge of movement began March 22nd when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests held a hearing on five wilderness and conservation measures. They included:

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act: Introduced by Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), the Act would add 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas, and would establish a 208,000-acre Conservation Area in the heart of the Rocky Mountain Front.

The San Juan Islands National Conservation Act: Sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Act would provide protection for nearly 1,000 acres of small islands, rocks and reef, headlands, historic lighthouses, and ecologically important areas in the San Juan Islands of Washington.

The Pine Forest Range Recreation Enhancement Act: Introduced by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and co-sponsored by Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), the Act would establish 26,000 acres of Wilderness in the northwest Nevada’s Pine Forest Range.

The Rogue Wilderness Area Expansion Act: Introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden and co-sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley, this legislation would add 58,000 acres to the Wild Rogue Wilderness Area, while establishing dozens of miles of wild and scenic rivers and adding protection to many Rogue River tributaries.

Then, a few days later, the Wasatch Wilderness and Watershed Protection Act was introduced by Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT). The Act would provide valuable protections to the watershed that provides municipal water to over a half-million residents of Salt Lake City while maintaining access for backcountry skiing.

And just one day before the anniversary, the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands held a hearing on two bills:

• Introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), and in the House by Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) with Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) as a co-sponsor, the Rio Grande Del Norte National Conservation Area Establishment Act would protect 24,000 acres of northern New Mexico as Wilderness and 235,000 acres as a National Conservation Area.

• The Maine Coastal Islands Wilderness Act — introduced by Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME) and co-sponsored by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) — would establish over 3,000 acres of new Wilderness on 13 islands off the coast of Maine.

We hope these bills are only the beginning of a new chapter in Congress, and that many more of the like are introduced!

You can see a full list of bills that have been introduced in the 112th Congress here.


[ Université Laval: Pushing Top Performance Even Further With Aerodynamic Design, Light Weight ]

Two years ago, we did not know what kind of challenge was ahead of us.

The Alerion Supermileage team, from Université Laval in Québec City, Canada, already has pushed the boundaries on fuel efficiency, taking first place in Shell Eco-marathon Americas for three consecutive years. Last year, on our winning run in Houston, we achieved 2,564.8 miles per gallon (1,090 kilometers per liter), beating our previous year’s performance by 77 mpg (33 km/l).

But we had already resolved to push further. We decided to design and manufacture a brand new carbon-fiber shell. Our first intention was to be able to use Michelin tires designed especially for the purpose of fuel efficiency. But since these tires are larger than the ones we had used before, we found we had to adapt the design of our shell. Moreover, we desired to incorporate structural wheel covers in order to reduce the weight of our vehicle, which also results in the need for a larger shell.

Would we be able to increase size while maintaining the light weight crucial to the ultra-fuel-efficient performance we were seeking?

Fortunately, we had the opportunity to run numerical simulations which enabled us to know the aerodynamic performance of each of our designs, and to select the most appropriate shape. With the previous shell, no such simulations were made, so we had high hope for significant improvements. Despite  all the constraints we faced, we found a way to reduce the drag by 15 percent, which means the car is now more aerodynamic.

Nevertheless, it takes more than a good design to make a good car. More than a year was needed to go through all the manufacturing steps. Indeed, we had to manufacture a wooden model of the car in order to make a mold out of it. After several hours of work, we were finally ready to laminate our car with carbon fiber. We are very proud of this achievement and we hope it will help us to raise our results at  Shell Eco-Marathon Americas in Houston. [The competition begins today and continues through the weekend.] This competition is important for us, because it helps society to realize the importance of fuel efficiency.


[ Parnell’s Arctic “roads to resources” plan is misguided spending ]

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – Who wants a free driveway? Please raise your hands.

You can’t get a free driveway from the state of Alaska, but state officials want to offer an even sweeter freebie to private oil, gas, and mining companies in the form of expensive, Arctic “roads to resources.”

Using money from the state’s General Fund – rather than relying on thecustomary 90% federal/10% state split for roads – Gov. Sean Parnell plans to spend up to $2.4 billion to build three roads that would provide only speculative benefits to the state.

A new report issued today by three public interest organizations, titled “Easy to Start, Impossible to Finish II: Alaska Spends Millions on Arctic Roads without Financial Plans to Complete the Projects,” provides detailed information on proposed roads to Umiat, Nome and Ambler.  The report calls for starting only projects that have a reasonable expectation of enough resources to be completed, carefully analyzing revenue claims associated with the projects, and re-evaluating projects when significant adverse facts become available.  The organizations issuing the report are The Wilderness Society and the Alaska Conservation Alliance in Anchorage, and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks.

“These billions in state dollars should go to higher priority uses such as fixing existing transportation infrastructure, education, municipal revenue sharing and other important state needs,” said The Wilderness Society’s Lois Epstein, an Alaska-licensed engineer and primary author of the new report, as well as a similar report in 2010.

"If you need a new driveway, you have to pay for it out of your own pocket. But if you own millions of dollars’ worth of drilling or mining equipment, the state is willing to save you enormous amounts of money by building a road for you,” stated Pamela A. Miller, Arctic program director for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

“Road projects need to be prioritized by how they benefit Alaskans and our communities, and not by how well they serve private interests,” said Andy Moderow, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Alliance. “Gov. Parnell has yet to explain how the Road to Umiat – a project with negative community impacts – is a higher priority than safety upgrades to our highways.” 

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[ EPA Makes Historic Announcement: First Greenhouse Gas Rule for New Power Plants ]

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released long-awaited greenhouse gas rules for new power plants this week. Using the Clean Air Act, the agency standard would set the first national limits on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions new power plants can emit. The EPA proposed the rule after delaying it several times since July 2011.

Power plants are the largest source of  COin the nation, accounting for approximately 40 percent of these emissions, according to the Energy Information Administration. The rule basically requires new coal plants to emit the same amount of CO2 as an average plant fueled by natural gas—causing U.S. coal shares to slip following the announcement. While some in Congress already are threatening to nullify the rule, plummeting natural gas prices had much of the same effect, driving the decline of existing coal-fired facilities and giving way to power plants fueled by natural gas.

The news was met with mixed reactions. Some were calling it the “demise of coal-fired power generation” and a “job killer,” while others viewed it as a step in the right direction to fight climate change.

Energy: At What Cost?

The New York Times describes how technological breakthroughs in natural gas and oil extraction, coupled with efficiency, are “inching” the U.S. toward energy independence—but at what environmental cost? Nearly two years after an explosion on an offshore oil platform sent millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, deepwater drilling is picking upBut a leak on an oil rig in the North Sea prompted some to think back to BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon Disaster, the world’s worst marine oil spill. Although this leak doesn’t appear to be as serious as the BP spill, some are predicting it could take six months before the problem is fixed.

Meanwhile a new survey says 63 percent of Americans think it’s possible to develop shale oil reserves without harming the environment. But it appears the controversial drilling method may undermine attempts to store carbon dioxide underground.

Energy and environment also took center stage in Santa Barbara as CEOs of industry and environmental organizations converged at the Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics conference. Repeated throughout the conference was the idea that public policy is inadequate to the task of tackling the world’s energy challenges. Yet when pressed, Tesla Motors founder and clean tech notable Elon Musk said public policies such as a carbon tax are “ideal.”

Carbon Caps: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

In California, where the nation’s only economy-wide cap-and-trade program is moving forward, officials announced plans to postpone the program’s first allowance auction from Aug. 15 to Nov. 14. The later start date will give California more time to link its program with that of its Western Climate Initiative (WCI) partner, Quebec. WCI just appointed Anita Burke as organization’s first executive director. Forward progress will be challenging because of a lawsuit challenging the cap’s use of offsets, or reductions outside the cap. The lawsuit alleges that offsets represent reductions that would have occurred with or without public policies.

Meanwhile the U.S. airline industry dropped its unsuccessful lawsuit against Europe’s cap-and-trade program. The European Union emission trading scheme seeks to bring airlines taking off and landing in Europe under its emissions cap. Airlines would be required to purchase allowances at auction. The move comes as European Union Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard quietly visited Washington this week to discuss transatlantic climate issues, including U.S. airlines’ opposition to the program.

In dueling opinion pieces, the Washington Post renews calls for a carbon tax or cap-and-trade, while the Wall Street Journal says models cannot pin much to climate during the past decade. The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research has attempted to more accurately model the future impacts of climate change.

Extreme weather—the same that may be bringing bats to Texas and causing birds to adjust their ranges—is linked to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to two reports. In fact, climate change is amplifying risk of storms, rising seas and floods—particularly in small island states and poor regions. Reports such as these have spurred an effort to identify trees that could thrive as climate change develops. Human-caused climate change may also further the spread of Chagas’ disease and potentially worsen autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis, impairing cognitive function, according to new studies. The latter study found that warmer temperatures lower mental processing speeds and memory recall.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday for National Geographic’s News Watch by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.


[ UC Santa Barbara Supermileage Team Kicks Off at an Exclusive Conference ]

We survived finals week at UC Santa Barbara and instead of kicking back for Spring Break, we hit the road to Houston, Texas, for the 2012 Shell Eco-marathon Americas competition.

Our car “Eleanor” is looking sharp. The paint job on the aerodynamic fairing was finished in time to exhibit at the Wall Street Journal ECO:nomics Conference last week, where we were invited to display our car and talk to business and technology leaders about the competition. At the conference, people were enthusiastic about the vehicle and the competition all around. Great way to kick off!

This year we’re competing again in the Futuristic Prototype category, meaning you design the most streamlined vehicle possible to reduce drag. Shell Eco-marathon competitors have set world records for fuel economy. Last year, the team from Laval University in Quebec set the bar at 2,564 miles per gallon on a gas engine. We’re definitely aiming to get over 1,000 mpg. We’ve made some modifications on Eleanor this year that should make it one of the best cars in the competition.

We don’t just build the car – for most of us this is our Mechanical Engineering capstone project before graduation. It’s hands-on work, planning for the technology we’re going to use, designing the engine, and tuning it up until the car can run and compete. About twice a week we took the vehicle on trial runs to find and fix problems as we adjusted to a newly designed system.

Mechanical Engineering seniors have raced our car three times in the past. We inherited this project and decided to completely change out the engine. The original car had a 50cc, 2-stroke Aprilia® scooter motor that we replaced with a clean, lighter, and more efficient 4-stroke Honda weedwacker engine. We also put in a CVT – Continuously Variable Transmission. The new transmission also enables us to get a wide range of gear ratios from start-up to running. We adjusted the drivetrain so that it would work with the new engine, according to specs from Shell for this year’s competition, and added some safety features for the driver.

The competition starts today. Everyone on the UCSB Supermileage Team is excited and we’ve been looking forward to this for months. As a team, we have organized and raised funds to make this happen, and it’s something we can definitely say is our project.

Check out our video about building the new system and test-driving our vehicle for the competition:


[ Majority of Senators Vote to End Big Oil Tax Subsidies ]

Today’s vote on repealing subsidies for Big Oil proves there is strong support in the Senate for ending oil subsidies that are wasted on the largest oil companies instead of targeted on future clean energy substitutes that could break our long-term dependence on oil, according to The Wilderness Society.  The following statement can be attributed to David Moulton, senior director of legislative affairs for The Wilderness Society.

“Today’s vote again showed that a majority of the U.S. Senate supports repealing tax breaks that the oil industry doesn’t need.  Standing in the way of this overdue energy policy pivot is a very powerful oil industry and its minority of allies in the Senate who are intent on protecting Big Oil welfare at the expense of consumers and taxpayers.   The measure failed only because arcane Senate rules allow a minority to filibuster and block a bill even when the majority is in favor of the bill. Nevertheless, this bipartisan vote proved the support for innovation into ways to free Americans from the tyranny of the gas pump. 

“The solution to high prices at the pump will not be found at the bottom of yet another oil well.  An AP study showed that increased drilling had no impact on the price at the pump. Meanwhile oil companies have been selling more and more gasoline overseas rather than keep prices low here at home.  On top of that, the oil industry continues to hoard American lands and drilling permits without using them, and still asks for more.  

“We shouldn’t be looking to sacrifice iconic American places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge so that oil industry can pad its profits.  Ending the subsidies and devoting those resources instead to meeting our transportation and energy needs without fossil fuels is the only way to end Americans’ pain at the pump.”

The Wilderness Society documented several myths propagated by the oil industry that were repeated on the Senate floor during the debate – http://wilderness.org/content/gas-price-myths-senate-floor.


[ Dispatches from the DC Environmental Film Festival ]

Dispatches from the DC Enviro Film Fest


Photo: Bruce Guthrie / DCEFF

When the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital kicked off 20 years ago, it was attended by 1,200 people. Now in its 20th anniversary, the festival draws crowds of over 30,000 at venues around the city. This year's festival which wrapped up last weekend was the biggest yet: 180 films; environmental leaders and big name filmmakers like Ken Burns; packed movie houses around the city. We saw only a small fraction of the movies, but even these few generated lots of exciting discussion. Here’s a run-down of what we saw:


Revenge of the Electric Car


Synopsis: Large automakers (GM, Nissan) and small upstarts (Tesla, Greg Abbott) alike roll out their electric vehicle offerings in the face of dwindling oil supplies and a fluctuating economy. The film focuses on the leadership of these companies, their unique, sometimes over-the-top personalities and their reasons for betting their chips on electric vehicles.

Take Home Message: It was neat to see former GM CEO Bob Lutz, long known for producing gas-guzzlers, embrace the Chevy Volt as his company’s crown jewel. Panelist after the film explained that Revenge captures a specific moment in time and that battery and alternative fuel technology is moving at an even faster pace than the movie portrays. Ultimately, though, the design of our cities will be more central to the future of mobility than the design of our cars.

EarthShare members working on the issue: Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (Mark Gorton kicks off “Re-thinking the Automobile” in Delhi); NRDC (Broad coalition shows electric cars can bring relief at pump); Environmental Defense Fund (Timeline: cars and the environment).


Cape Spin


Synopsis: A proposed wind farm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts (Cape Wind) sets off a firestorm of local and national political debate, legal wrangling, media coverage and strange bedfellows for and against the project. A case study of American politics in action, the film gives each side of the debate equal coverage, revealing the difficulty of reaching consensus on environmental and energy issues.

Take Home Message: It’s important to have good communication with local people when planning energy projects. Other coastal states around the U.S. are considering their own projects – will they be as contentious as Cape Wind was? Meanwhile, Europe churns out energy from its own 53 offshore wind farms.

EarthShare members working on the issue: Oceana (Why We Believe in Offshore Wind); Sierra Club Foundation (Sierra Club Applauds Opening of Leasing Process for Offshore Wind).


Surviving Progress


Synopsis: Most of us take the word “progress” for granted, particularly technological and economic progress. This film, produced by Martin Scorsese, proposes that conventional notions of progress are actually putting us on a collision course with environmental disaster. Based on Ronald Wright’s best-selling book, A Short History of Progress, the film is grand in scope and visually stunning.

Take Home Message: The technological solutions that we create to address environmental problems often cause new problems. In the end, the most important changes should come not from technological innovation, but changes to our cultural values. Start by asking yourself what the most important things in your life are (loved ones, strong communities, health, purpose) and build solutions from there.

EarthShare members working on the issue: Friends of the Earth (Global coalition calls for oversight of synthetic biology); Earthjustice (Engineering an Environmental Disaster); Physicians for Social Responsibility (Technology and toxics).


The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom


Synopsis: Shortly following Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, director Lucy Walker travels to the ravaged Tohoku region to interview survivors about their relationship to the country’s steadfast symbol: the cherry blossom.

Take Home Message: Nature’s persistent character provides solace for those suffering under even the most horrible circumstances. To hear survivors talk about their personal reflections on cherry blossoms while in the midst of tragedy captures the sorrow and remarkable tenacity of the human spirit.

EarthShare members working on the issue: American Forests (Signs of Spring); Restore America’s Estuaries (Storms, Tsunamis, Coastal Wetlands, and Carbon); Arbor Day Foundation (Japanese Flowering Cherry).


Waking the Green Tiger: The Rise of the Green Movement in China

Synopsis: A film crew and domestic journalists visit rural villages in China to help local people find their voice in the fight against dam projects. The film also looks at the history of environmentalism in China from its dark days under Mao’s Zedong’s Cultural Revolution to today's glimmers of democratic protest.

Take Home Message: Stories about environmental issues in China tend to focus on global competition for energy resources (where China’s growth is often used as a scapegoat for inaction elsewhere), factory conditions or pollution. Waking the Green Tiger interviews some of the strongest voices in China’s domestic environmental movement, providing a different and hopeful perspective on the country’s challenges. Also shows how closely cultural survival is linked to environmental concerns in places like China’s wild and beautiful west.

EarthShare members working on the issue: Rainforest Alliance (Community Forestry in China); American Rivers (Making Hydropower Dams Work Better); The Jane Goodall Institute (Beijing: Dr. Goodall’s Gombe 50 Tour of Asia).


A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet


Synopsis: Providing much-needed historical and global context to today’s environmental challenges, A Fierce Green Fire charts the origins of the modern environmental movement along with its major players, its setbacks, victories and future challenges.

Take Home Message: Whether it was the Sierra Club working to prevent dams in the Grand Canyon or homeowners fighting for their family’s health during the Love Canal crisis, environmental activists have always had to work against great forces to get their voices heard. Still, contemporary issues like global warming and the rapid loss of biodiversity present an even greater imperative to work together for the future of the planet. Inspiring.

EarthShare members working on the issue: Everyone!


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