Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The flu in the first person

We've written at RaisingIslands.com about the H1N1 flu virus in a somewhat detached way, but now it's gotten personal.

I'm just off of what could have been- (by some symptom-reading systems—more on that later) the virus formerly known as Swine Flu.

If it is, let me just say, about that business about it being a “mild” flu? Harumph!

I felt like someone had tenderized me top to toe with a baseball bat, and overdoses of pain killers didn't do a lot of good.

I am old enough to be in that group that's statistically less likely to get it. That didn't help me.

Parenthetically, there is a level of weirdness about being infected by a bug that's a direct descendant of a bug that may have been inside a Mexican pig less than a year ago.

I've had a few flus and to be clear, this one stands out.

Actually, three things stood out.

One was pain. Body aches, headaches, skin aches, joint aches. Lot of aches, and Aleve barely made a dent.

Another was the sensation that someone on speed was messing with the temperature controls. There were fevers and chills, and chills during fevers, and sweats, and covers on and covers off, ad nauseum. That an pretty significant fatigue—didn't get out of the sack much for the first three days.

Finally there was, to put it as pleasantly as possible, significant intestinal distress.

There were not in my case—and I give thanks for this—significant nasal congestion, coughing or other upper respiratory issues. I had a mild dry cough. I had no appetite.

From what I read, and my doctor reported, you can't really tell which flu you have without a blood test, and in the middle of both flu season and the H1N1 event, there are so many people getting sick that they're not testing for it any more.

According to some sources, H1N1 has a reputation of sneaking up on you and hitting hard, although other flus will do that, too.

In my case, at 7 a.m., I was out on the ocean, paddling a canoe and feeling great. At 9 a.m. I was wondering who'd wrapped me in a blanket and pounded on me with lead pipes. It was rapid.

I managed to get in to see a doctor at the end of the day, with a temperature of 101 degrees Fahrenheit and a fraction, and he prescribed Tamiflu, which I started taking immediately. It comes in 10-capsule packets, and you take one morning and one at night. For me, the five-day dose coincided with the worst of the symptoms.

They say Tamiflu will take a day or two off the symptoms. On day five I was feeling reasonably human, weak but okay. On day seven I was ready to go paddling in the ocean again.

During the process, I was very uncomfortable, but alert enough to read. For some reason television was far more annoying to me than normal, so I ploughed through books. My librarian wife brought me a tall stack of paperbacks, and I needed the whole stack. I was feeling ornery enough that I wouldn't put up with authors who cheated, digressed or got silly. Half the books, even by well-known authors, didn't make the cut. I gave them 20 or 30 pages, and if they started wasting my time, on to the next volume.

Saving all my patience, I suppose, for getting through the disease.

The pain lasted about three days. The severe fatigue four days, with moderate fatigue beyond that. The feverishness and/or sweats also four days. The intestinal stuff started about halfway in and then outlasted everything else.

Can I say for sure it's H1N1? No.

There's tons of credible information at the government flu site, www.flu.gov, and lots of interesting information elsewhere on the web—some of it credible and some less so.

Some resources say you can tell the difference by symptoms. Others disagree.

Some assert, for instance, that very rapid onset (bingo!) is a factor in H1N1, and that body aches and tiredness are more severe with H1N1 than seasonal flu. Most reputable sources, though, say you can't distinguish a particular case accurately by these or other symptoms, and that rapid onset isn't exclusive to H1N1.

Here's a site that argues they're pretty much the same, except that H1N1 has more respiratory/sore throat symptoms, which of course mine didn't. The federal government flu site notes that the respiratory issues only occur in a few of the cases.

The upshot, of course, is that even in laboratory-confirmed cases, the symptoms are different in different people. Because of courses, it's not just about the flu, it's also about you.

As for me, if a flu shot appears on my radar, I'm taking it. I may now be immune this particular strain of influenza, whatever it was, but I don't want to go through anything like this experience again anytime soon.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sisyphean climate battles--Can we just move along?

A few letters to editors in recent weeks recalled for us Sisyphus, and long-ago battles that need continually to be refought.

Sisyphus, you'll recall, was the Greek mythical figure who shoved a giant boulder to the near the top of a hill each day, only to see if roll back down. For all eternity he was forced daily to push it back up.

The letters, all angry, assert that climate change is not happening, that it's a fraud.

From my perspective, that's a little like the guy who stands up to his knees in water, claiming it's not even a little wet.

Set aside the issue of human involvement in warming. If you choose to believe it's about cosmic radiation, about solar activity or some other natural cycle, fine. There is indeed a class of narrowly focused papers that suggest a role for such things--and even then, the authors mostly say it's a limited role. But most reputable scientists, and most nations, agree that human activity—like fossil fuel consumption and forest clearing—are the primary culprits.

Warming itself is well established. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that 95 percent of glaciers are melting. Plants in temperate zones around the world are blooming earlier in the spring. Animals are migrating earlier. Snow melt in California Sierras is occurring two weeks earlier over the past century.

It's even affecting our beer. The Czech Hydrometeorological Institute, in the Journal of Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, reported recently on a decline in the quality of Saaz hops, a delicate variety used to make the finest pilsner beer. They blame rising temperatures.

A friend of mine who denies warming says he's a gauge-reader and mistrusts calculated evidence and computer models. Well, sea levels are measurably rising. Oceans are measurably warming. These are not theories. They don't rely on computer models or guesswork. These are things we can measure directly.

The conservative columnist George Will recently and loudly discovered that in February, there was as much ice in the Arctic Ocean as there was in February 20 years ago. What he either ignored or intentionally failed to report is that that ice was dramatically thinner than it was 20 years ago; or that in summer, there was far, far less ice than there was in summers 20 years ago. Less than at any time since we've been able to measure it.

Whether George Will is embarrassed or mule-headed or just plain doesn't care, I don't know. But to my knowledge, he has not fessed up that he mistook ice coverage for ice volume.

If we want some interesting observations, let's set aside both the journalists and the scientists. Who really knows what's going on up there in the icy north?

Business does. The oil companies, mining companies and the nations that border the Arctic know the ice is melting. They're actively arguing about access to the oil and minerals that are under where the ice used to be.

Captain Cook discovered Hawai'i for Europe while he was on his way to find the Northwest Passage. It was not there to be found in the 1770s. It was iced in, as it has been for most of the time since.

But in 2007, the Northwest Passage was clear for the first time in memory—and shipping companies are looking at it as an alternative to the clogged Panama Canal for getting from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Shipping companies are already taking advantage of the reduced ice cover over the northern side of Asia and Europe. This fall, two German cargo ships became the first commercial vessels ever to cross from east to west, NORTH of Russia, through the Arctic Ocean. These German ships, which were accompanied by an ice breaker just in case, were headed from South Korea to Rotterdam, in Holland.

China Daily columnist Liu Shinan decried the event, not because he doesn't believe it, but because shipping in the Arctic Ocean could threaten the health of Arctic ecosystems.

The point is that climate change is not something we need to worry about in the future. It's here, now. The folks at this maple syrup farm are worried. They're tapping their trees two weeks earlier each year than they did forty years ago. And it's affecting maple sugar production.

The prospect of no maple syrup on your hotcakes not enough to worry you? How about losing that glass of wine before dinner. Stanford researchers say warming weather has already increased temperatures in the West Coast wine growing regions by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit from 1948 to 2002, and that the continued warming will make many current wine areas unsuitable for commercial vineyards.

Now that's serious.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rare native forest bird holding its own; maybe recovering

The Maui Parrotbill, a critically endangered insect-eating forest bird, appears to be holding its own within The Nature Conservancy's actively managed Waikamoi Preserve in the forested uplands of East Maui.

(Image: Maui parrotbill. Source: The Nature Conservancy.)

Scientists are quick to caution that the information is limited to a two-week survey conducted in September of this year, but results suggest that the chunky yellowish bird's numbers are as strong or even stronger than in previous counts.

“The typical storyline with endangered forest birds is one of decline. To have an endangered bird maintain its population and perhaps even show signs of increasing is very encouraging and cause for celebration,” said Dr. Sam Gon, the Conservancy's senior scientist and cultural advisor.

It is a big deal in a world in which the primary direction of many Hawaiian native forest birds is toward extinction. The rarest of them, the po‘ouli, may be extinct. Its last two members have not been seen since 2004 (Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project).

“For populations of an endangered forest bird to remain somewhat stable for nearly 30 years is encouraging,” said the Conservancy’s Maui program director Mark White.

The rare bird survey was led by Dr. Dusti Becker, an ornithologist and project coordinator for the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. Her team estimated that there are about 20 parrotbills per square kilometer of forest between Waikamoi Stream and the Ko‘olau Gap, on the windward slope of Haleakalā.

“I didn't expect that there would be that many birds there,” Becker said. A previous survey had placed the density at less than half that number.

The 5 to 6-inch long birds are olive green on top, yellowish beneath and have a distinctive yellow stripe over their eyes. Their name comes from their short, powerful beaks, which they use to pry open bark and twigs to reach insects and grubs. They are now found at elevations about a mile above sea level, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that only around 500 individual birds survive.

The birds, once more widespread on Maui and also on Moloka‘i, are now only found on Maui, and only within a range of 19 square miles on the high windward slopes of Haleakalā. More than a quarter of the known habitat for the parrotbills is within Waikamoi Preserve. Much of the rest is within the state's Hanawi Natural Area Reserve, where parrotbills occur at a density of about 40 per square kilometer.

The iconic crested honeycreeper, which is also endangered but is more numerous than the parrotbill, was also frequently seen during the bird population study at Waikamoi, Becker said.

In the survey, two-person teams walked numerous trails over a two-week period, stopping at regular intervals to watch for birds and listen for their calls within the 400-acre survey area. They saw or heard dozens of parrotbills, including at least three juveniles.

“We can say with confidence that Waikamoi hosts a breeding population,” White said.

The latest survey suggests a density double that of an earlier count, but the paper warned that the previous count was limited in scope, and may not have accurately represented the actual population. Still, it is possible that removal of pigs and improvement of the understory vegetation growth—which parrotbills use for feeding habitat—has increased population size at Waikamoi.

The Nature Conservancy has been actively managing the 5,230-acre Waikamoi Preserve since acquiring a permanent conservation easement to the property in 1983, from Haleakalā Ranch.

Since that time, the Conservancy has fenced out pigs, removed alien plants and increased native plants that forest birds and other species depend on. A recent vegetation survey in another portion of the preserve found a three-fold increase in native shrub cover over the past 15 years.

That's a good thing for parrotbills, for whom more native shrubs means more food. Their main feeding technique is prying insects and grubs out of dead branches and fruit and the bark of native shrubs and trees.

Becker said their preferred food sources appear to be grubs from the fruit of the native shrub kanawao, and insects and grubs from the dead branches of ‘ōhelo and ‘ākala. They also pull insects and grubs from the bark of ‘ōhi‘a and koa trees, lichen and any woody, rotting surface.

“At Waikamoi, my sense is that it's a growing population, fundamentally because of forest recovery,” Becker said.

If the population is growing, there is some hope of continued increase, since the recovery of the Waikamoi undergrowth is not complete. The forest understory is still more open than in the prime parrotbill habitat at Hanawi.

For more information:

The Nature Conservancy's Waikamoi Preserve: http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/hawaii/preserves/art2358.html

On the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project: www.mauiforestbirds.org

© The Nature Conservancy

Electric cars provide grid storage in two different ways

Changes in technology create problems, and solve them.

The electric car, interestingly, could inadvertently resolve one of the troubling issues in Hawai'i's utility-scale energy picture—in two different ways.

(Image: The all-electric Tesla Roadster. Credit: Tesla Motors.)

Both of them address the issue—important in Hawai'i—of how to blend intermittent power sources into a grid that has a need for reliable, constant energy.

Electric vehicles are viewed by many as the future of personal transportation. Even if fueled from the oil-fired utility's plug, they use far less fossil fuel than a gas-powered car. In large part, that's because big utility-scale powerplants are dramatically more efficient than hundreds of little car engines.

Many visionaries have posited an energy future in which these electric cars serve the community in another way. While they are plugged in, a smart utility grid might draw power from the battery cars to make up for temporary shortages in generation capacity.

You could set your car to always keep enough of a charge for your daily driving, but to allow the utility access to some of your power. You'd get paid for this, of course.

This works nicely if there's a big intermittent utility power source. Example: If the wind stops blowing, the utility can turn to electric cars to keep the grid up in the minutes or hours it takes to bring other generators online.

That's emergency energy storage.

But there's another role for electric cars.

What happens to those vehicle's big battery packs 8 or 10 years and a couple of thousand charges down the road, when they won't hold a full charge any more, and you want to replace them.

They don't need to be recycled yet. They're still capable of holding 80 percent of a charge, and may still handle thousands more recharge cycles. They're just too weak to run your car as far as you need to go.

Those old batteries could be converted to direct utility use. They could become massive battery banks that would, for example, store photovoltaic power for use when the sun isn't shining.

Project Better Place, which has been discussing an electric car future for Hawai'i, said one of their visions for older batteries is for this application.

Now Nissan is suggesting a similar use.

Each company—Better Place and Nissan—has developed a business model to ease the concerns of motorists about battery life cycle.

Better Place would retain ownership of the battery packs, and their system would even allow you to accomplish a quick charge by simply swapping depleted batteries for a fully charged battery pack. Nissan is proposing a battery lease system for its LEAF car, with the batteries available as utility battery banks when they come off lease.

So, waiting in the wings with the electric vehicle future, is one resolution to the problem of intermittent power supply.

This isn't pie in the sky stuff. Some utilities already have battery farms. And others are planning them. Some battery makers are already converting their automotive lithium-ion batteries to utility storage configurations.

The government is putting quite a bit of energy (sorry!) into the concept of utility scale battery storage: This one, from the Sandia National Laboratories, is already couple of years old.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

UH climate collaboration uses raw computing power

Atmospheric and ocean scientists working with one of the world's most powerful computers anticipate that new modeling research will lead to much better predictions of things like the paths and progress of hurricanes.

As well as predictions of climate events that have a less immediate impact on our lives.

One of the issues with computerized climate models is that the models in the past have use such a big grid that it can be difficult to get quality results. If a modeling program is only able to deal with blocks on a map that are 120 miles wide, then fine features smaller than that can get missed.

“In the real world, things occur on much smaller scales,” said Kevin Hamilton, interim director of the University of Hawai'i's International Pacific Research Center (IPRC).

The limitation has been the raw computing power needed to create fine resolution. So along comes Earth Simulator, one of the most powerful computers in the world, to help resolve the issue. Earth Simulator 1 was in 2002 the most powerful computer on the globe, and Earth Simulator 2 is even smarter.

Earth Simulator is operated by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), which collaborates with the IPRC on climate research. The latest IPRC newsletter reviews some of the work they're doing.

With that kind of power, researchers have been able to shrink the grid to two miles or so. At that scale you can almost pick out individual clouds.

For climate scientists, that kind of power is exciting.

“We can run these really high resolution models for hundreds of years,” Hamilton said. “We're on the leading edge of what things you can model.”

The system can also be used to model ocean circulation at finer scales than ever before, including the movement of water through ocean canyons and narrow straits that simply would have been invisible on less powerful computers.

More interesting, perhaps, for Hawai'i residents, is the system's ability to model hurricanes. With the fine scale available, researchers have been able to use the model to compare the behavior of an actual hurricane with the development of a virtual hurricane based on the weather information available when it was just starting out.

“It was very exciting. We can actually see the storm in the model,” Hamilton said.

“We're not saying that all tropical systems are predictable,” but this kind of research is likely to lead to dramatically improved weather forecasting on the scale of a week to a couple of months out.

IPRC and JAMSTEC have been collaborating since 1997, and recently expanded their partnership through 2014. Officials of both agencies met in Honolulu last week to discuss their work.

“It was really to review where we are,” Hamilton said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Meteorites and mammoths: who do you believe?

One of the wonderful things about science is that, well, it's never over.

Those questioning minds keep collecting data, probing and researching—and often what you assumed was settled knowledge isn't, any more.

Take the woolly mammoth.

(Image: That's it. Credit: Image of Woolly Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia courtesy Wikipedia Commons.)

It roamed the Americas alongside modern humans—up to about 13,000 years ago, a time called the Younger Dryas.

And then the wooly mammoth was gone. Same with the fearsome saber-toothed tiger, and a bunch of sloths. Relegated to bone piles and tar pits.

For a long time, their extinction was blamed on a global climate cooling event, whose origins are complex. Some researchers believed it was associated with a slowing of the oceans' circulation patterns.

Then a couple of years ago, scientists, intrigued by finding the element iridium in rock layers from that period, suggested the iridium came from space and that the cooling was caused by an impact by some interstellar object. You know—the impact throws lots of dust into the atmosphere, the sun's radiation is blocked for a time, and things get real cold. And a lot of creatures die out.

But just as the scientific world was getting comfortable with that theory, along comes a team of researchers, led by a Hawai'i-based graduate student, François Paquay, of the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, to challenge that assumption.

His collaborators were a U.S.-Belgium-Canada team made up of Greg Ravizza of University of Hawai'i, Steven Goderis and Philippe Claeys from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Frank Vanhaeck from the Universiteit Ghent, Matthew Boyd from Lakehead University, Todd A. Surovell from the University of Wyoming at Laramie, and Vance T. Holliday and C. Vance Haynes, Jr. from the University of Arizona at Tucson.

They started out expecting to validate the theory, “to add more evidence to what they considered a conceptually appealing theory. However, not only were they unable to replicate the results found by the other researchers, but additional lines of evidence failed to support an impact theory for the onset of the Younger Dryas,” said a University of Hawai'i press release. http://www.hawaii.edu/news/article.php?aId=3280

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Paquay and his team said they looked for other indicators of an impact event. They had a number of problems. They couldn't locate an impact crater. They couldn't other indicators of extraterrestrial impact, notably isotopes of the element osmium. So they searched harder.

“Because there are so many aspects to the impact theory, we decided to just focus on geochemical evidence that was associated with it, like the concentration of iridium and other platinum group elements, and the osmium isotopes. We also decided to look in very high resolution sediment cores across North America,” Paquay said.

They looked at both marine and land-based sediment. They tested their sediment samples in laboratories both at the University of Hawai'i and in Belgium. No luck.

“We could find nothing in our data to support their theory,” he said.

But this debate is hardly over. Other folks are still doing research to support the idea of a meteorite impact.

And that's the way it is with science. The best evidence is only good until something better comes along.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Ford has a 62mpg gasoline car, but of course, you can't buy it here

You can pay a pile of cash for a hot hybrid or a cool electric sportster, but there are still some miles in an old-fashioned gas engine car.

Ford, it turns out, is marketing in Europe a gasoline car that gets 62 miles to the gallon. Better than most hybrids.

(Image: Automotive X Prize entrant team OptaMotive has developed this electric speedster. It's in the competition's alternative class, meaning it's not intended as a standard commuter vehicle. But you knew that. More on these cars later in this story. Credit: Progressive Automotive X Prize.)

That new Ford Focus Econetic has some sexy features normally reserved for hybrids and electrics, like regenerative braking. And you won't be able to buy one for a couple of months. But wow! That's mileage better than a lot of motorcycles get.

The sad news, sigh, is that you can't buy it in the U.S. The Ford Focus you find in the U.S. gets half that fuel economy, in the high 20s and low 30s.

The other sad news is that this Europe-only car promises better fuel economy than any gas-powered car available in the U.S., including hybrids. In Kelley Blue Book's list of the top 2008 cars, based on fuel economy, even the hybrids don't get near that.

The leaders on Kelley's 2008 list are the Toyota Prius at 46 miles per gallon, the Honda Civic hybrid at 42, the Smart fortwo at 36, Nissan Altima hybrid at 34 and the MINI Cooper at 32.

Meanwhile, on the hyper-efficient front, the Progressive Automotive X Prize has 43 teams vying for a $10 million prize to build the best consumer-acceptable, street legal vehicle that gets 100 miles or more to the gallon.

We've looked at a few of these. Some look like futuristic spider craft,some little more than motorcycles with frames or tricked-out golf carts, but a lot look like cars you'd have in your garage and drive to work. Here's an update on that.

The X Prize competition entrants have their cars, and they're moving into performance and safety testing. The X Prize winner is to be announced in September. You can see a list of the teams here.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

LED lights, big prize, big promise

Those fragile spirals of light, compact fluorescents, are likely to have been just a transition in the world of illumination...

That's the transition between incandescent lights and light-emitting diodes, better known as LEDs.

(Image: three LED puck lights.)

It won't be long before the traditional incandescent will be thoroughly a dinosaur, a hugely inefficient device whose heat production costs you as much as the light it emits. Compact fluorescents (CFLs) are attractive because they fit into the same puka as an incandescent and use a quarter the power—but there are some pollution issues, notably toxic mercury in the tubes.

At some point, someone noticed that there might be illumination potential in those little red and green lights that tell you whether your television or computer is on or off.

But they are so tiny, and their initial applications were for cutesy flashlights that could burn for weeks on a flashlight battery, but provided so little light you could barely read by them.

That's changing. The first step was to develop arrays of little lights, so you could get enough LEDs in one place to provide useful illumination. It turns out the LED produces light at a fifth or less of the power of an incandescent, and a half to a third of compact fluorescents.

But it was still quirky, and expensive to make and to buy. Incandescents cost a few dimes. CFLs cost a few dollars. But LEDs of similar illumination cost a few tens of dollars.

Scary expensive... Or is it?

The computer guru Kim Komando makes a case for looking at energy use over the entire life of an LED. (Komando sells the things, so there's a caveat, but she seems to have her facts right.)

There's a big range in prices, so shopping can save lots. Here are some other online bulb sources: here and here and here.

One of the early arguments for CFLs, when they were more expensive than they are now, was to use them in places where the light burned a lot. Like maybe a front door light that you leave on most of the evening.

Same thing applies to LEDs. They use less power, plus, the darn things just don't seem to burn out. And because the thing will outlast dozens of incandescents and a handful of CFLs, screwing in lightbulbs might become a lost art.

But the important numbers are in energy use. And let's assume a 100 watt bulb, with the same light as a 12-watt LED. Let's assume it burns six hours a day, 365 days a year, for 2190 hours.

The incandescent uses 219 kilowatt-hours; the LED uses 26. If we're paying, say, 25 cents a kilowatt-hour, then that incandescent is costing you $54.75 while the LED adds $6.50 to the power bill.

Can that be right? It seems to be. Even at scary high cost, in high-use applications, the darn thing pays for itself in the first year. Even if the LED you buy gets half the efficiency of the one in our example, it remains far more efficient than incandescents.

Still, from a total cost standpoint, right now it still might make more sense to use CFLs. They rival LEDs in efficiency, plus they're considerably cheaper except in really long-burning applications.

A German company, OSRAM Opto Semiconductors, did some research comparing the three kinds of lights.

The research was released last month. It looked at the entire life cycle of the lights. What kind of toxicity was involved, how much it cost to build them, how much electricity they used in transport and in use, and what was involved in eventually disposing of them.

“Today, LEDs are already five times more efficient than incandescent lamps. In the future, however, it is expected that LEDs will become more than ten times more efficient compared to incandescent bulbs,” the report says. Some LED manufacturers already claim efficiency rates eight times those of incandescents—the rate we used in our example above.

The upshot of the study is that the LED uses only about 2 percent of its lifetime energy use in its manufacture, and that at this point in its development, it is many times more efficient than incandescents and about even with the more mature CFL in energy efficiency. But the study says there's still room for improvement in LED technology, and it will eventually be the most efficient lighting technology.

The New York Times this week talked about the issue.

The U.S. Department of Energy wants this technology to improve, because of its obvious benefits, and has offered a massive prize to a company that produces a 60-watt LED light that fits in standard sockets. It's the L-Prize, and it could be worth $10 million to the winner.

The L-Prize, it says, is “the first government-sponsored technology competition designed to spur development of ultra-efficient solid-state lighting products to replace the common light bulb.”

So far, only the electronics firm Philips has entered, with an LED replacement for an incandescent 60-watt bulb. The 60-watter is the key, because half of all incandescent light bulbs are sold at this level of illumination.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Battery breakthroughs II

We've gotten a bit of feedback from readers of our previous battery storage story, arguing that, gosh, there really are big breakthrough battery technologies out there.

(Image: A solar cell at RaisingIslands' testing laboratory—still looking for the right battery.)

And other feedback suggesting that startups announcing massive strides often fail to meet their promises, and in the meantime are sucking the life and the cash out of legitimate research.

Said one correspondent: "Unfortunately, yes, weeds keep growing. And, the weeds suck up more nutrients than what the crop needs to grow - which is endangering the field and the market potential.”

One reader, who chose to remain anonymous, wrote in response to our story: “The author has apparently not heard of Altairnano's lithium titinate(sp) battery.”

Suggesting, one supposes, that we missed this particular technology, which breaks the mold—that it's got all the important stuff: cheap, compact, lightweight, non-toxic, fast-rechargeable and capable of being discharged and recharged thousands of times.

That would be exciting. RaisingIslands could actually use such a battery to store power from our photovoltaic panels. We respond, where can we buy one, and what does it cost?

Well, there's the rub. It appears they're not on the shelf anywhere convenient, and there's no price list.

Altair's battery is lithium-titanate oxide. You can read about it at Altair's website.

The company claims an array of important features in a battery, although inexpensive isn't one of them: “Altairnano is the first company to replace traditional graphite materials used in conventional lithium-ion batteries with a proprietary, nano-structured lithium titanate a process that delivers distinctive performance attributes, including power, fast charge/discharge rates, high round-trip efficiencies, long cycle life, safety, and ability to operate under extreme temperatures.”

The company last month outfitted an electric bus in Washington DC and let politicians drive it around. But Altair's batteries still aren't mainstream. One problem, the bus costs $1 million.

The company claims its technology is applicable to both mobile and stationary applications. You could, arguably, set up a battery bank next to a windmill or solar array, and use it to provide power when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine. The company has had a utility-scale (2 megawatt) battery system tested successfully. And the company has a couple of defense contracts, which are outlined on its website.

So far, the big pieces missing in Altair's literature seem to be price, availability and a real world track record. We'd be happy at RaisingIslands to test it and report our results, but we don't have one, and aside from the KEMA report above, it's not clear who else has been able to independently test this technology.

In its third-quarter financial reports, company president/CEO Terry Copeland is quoted: "We have experienced an increased level of customer requests for quotes in the past couple of months. In addition, we anticipate that potential order activity will begin to gain traction as we enter into 2010. Given the importance of establishing this revenue stream and having referenceable customers for other prospects to speak with, we need to be able to move expeditiously once we have these initial firm orders."

That's good news, but as with the EEStor battery system in the previous article, this firm may be on the verge of big success or big failure, but right now, it's hard to tell which. We wish them both well, because this is important stuff.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009

Battery breakthroughs, grains of salt

Battery technologies are the great holy quest of the energy world, and there is, thankfully, movement in the field.

But most of the real advance is incremental, not breakthrough stuff.

(Image: Lithium Ion batteries are researched at the Argonne National Laboratory. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy.)

For batteries we want the impossible. We want them compact (big power, small package), high voltage, lightweight, non-toxic, fast-rechargeable and capable of being repeatedly discharged and recharged to near full power for the life of the equipment (car, solar cell, radio, computer, cell phone, etc.)

Over at Green Supply Line, Allan Yogasingam reports that “Recent spins on nickel- and lithium-based battery chemistries, such as nickel oxyhydroxide, olivine-type lithium iron phosphate and nanowires, are gunning to displace the venerable but problematic alkaline-manganese dioxide formulation in the AA sockets of tomorrow's gadgets.”

Researchers are not only looking at new chemical formulations, but new internal architecture. Nanowires are a promising field of research, tiny filaments providing tons of surface area on which chemical reactions can take place.

Some companies are moving forward with existing technology instead of waiting. Project Better Place, which proposes to establish electric car fleets in Hawai'i, Israel and Denmark, is talking conventional lithium ion batteries. One of the benefits of using off-the-shelf technology is that you don't make promises you can't keep

Unkept promises are a problem in the battery field. An example: Nearly three years ago the Texas firm EEStor announced a breakthrough battery technology based on ultracapacitors and a barium titanate compound.

The promised batteries hold a huge charge for their size, are inexpensive, charge quickly and use non toxic materials. How much power density? They said 280 watt hours per kilogram, more than twice lithium-iron and more than eight times lead-acid. And ithis battery charges so fast you could complete a full charge during a 10-minute coffee break.

Of course, three years ago, the company said it shipping the battery in as early as late 2007, or maybe 2008. And of course, now we're nearly through 2009 and EEStor is not quite there yet. But the firm keeps announcing progress.

Zenn, the Canadian electric car firm that invested in EEStor and is counting on it to power Zenn ecars, is anxiously waiting.

Elon Musk, the guy whose hot little Tesla ecars are zipping the roads right now, said he's watching carefully.

"I've heard people say it's just B.S., and others say it's a big breakthrough. Until you see something on the road, objectively it's hard to say what's true,” Musk was quoted as saying.

Musk went with existing technology, lithium-ion, and you can buy his hot little sportsters now, with more models on the way.

Lacking the big breakthrough technology, most battery companies are working on incremental improvements in current systems. And incremental improvements do seem to be coming along.

And occasionally, there's news of an immense breakthrough. Here's one. A portable nuclear reactor, just six feet across, the size of a hot tub, available inside two years. So simple to operate that some call it a nuclear battery. Plug it in and it powers 27,000 homes, essentially maintenance-free. (Note: Hawai'i's constitution includes these words: "No nuclear fission power plant shall be constructed or radioactive material disposed of in the State without the prior approval by a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature.")

We'll see.

Remember when Coleman announced you'd be able to buy a home fuel cell off the shelf. That was seven years ago. Popular Science announced breathlessly: "Yes, you can buy this home fuel cell." Cute little white unit, would run your house in an emergency for 8 or 10 hours, like a big battery. Oh, and then you needed to find a source of hydrogen to recharge it. Hmm.

Haven't heard much about these units lately.

One of the key features of the battery world is that there are a lot more promises than there are deliveries.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hawai'i turtles recovering from severe tumor disease

The debilitating tumor disease that racked Hawaiian green sea turtle populations starting in the 1950s appears to have declined since its peak, and some individual turtles seem to be able to overcome it.

It's a hopeful sign in the upbeat story of turtle recovery in the Islands.

(Image: A healthy green sea turtle. Credit: NOAA.)

Hawaiian green sea turtle were so depleted in numbers in the late 1960s that hunting for them was banned four decades ago, and they were placed on the endangered species list. They have since recovered significantly in population.

A new report by Hawai'i researchers an Australian ecologist, in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases, documents their strong recovery, against both their depletion and also against the disease known as fibropapillomatosis or FP.

The paper is “Rise and Fall over 26 Years of a Marine Epizootic in Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles,” by Milani Chaloupka of Ecological Modelling Services at the University of Queensland, George Balazs of NOAA Fisheries' Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and Thierry Work of the U.S. Geological Survey-National Wildlife Health Center's Honolulu Field Station.

The tumor disease has been found worldwide, but nowhere was its severity like Hawai'i's outbreak. The writers call it an epidemic, and cite Hawai'i as the “world's main endemic hot spot.” It is the single most significant cause of turtle stranding and death in Hawai'i.

The disease can result in horrific globular white tumors, some on the outside of the turtle's body, some on the inside. They can grow around the eyes, blinding the animal, and around the mouth, starving the animal, and in the throat, starving the animal, and in the windpipe, choking the animal.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, the tumor-ridden turtles were common sights among those who watched turtles or came across them during marine activities.

During a sampling study over a 26-year period at Pala'au, Molokai, researchers inspected hundreds of green sea turtles. While the disease has been found throughout the Hawaiian chain, it was particularly prevalent off south Molokai.

They found that the tumor disease appeared to spread rapidly through the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then peaked in the late 1990s. Since then, its prevalence has dropped off steadily. At one time, nearly half of turtles showed symptoms, and now that number is around 10 percent.

On top of that, in a remarkable finding, researchers were able to show that some tumor-ridden turtles showed up later tumor-free.

“Not all diseased green turtles die, and our observations suggest that many green turtles with FP in Hawaiian waters can recover,” they wrote.

There are still plenty of mysteries in this story. Researchers don't know just how the fibropapilloma virus, a herpes-type virus, works. They just know that a turtle with tumors also has the virus. And they suspect, since the disease seems to be worse in some areas than others, that there might be environmental factors as well as disease factors at play, causing turtles to be more or less susceptible.

“Because we do not know the cause of FP, the reasons why this disease was absent before the 1950s, peaked in the late 1990s, and has declined since are purely speculative. Two plausible explanations would include the development of herd immunity... to an infectious tumorigenic agent (if herpesvirus is contributing to disease) and/or removal of a tumor-inducing environmental insult in the nearshore foraging habitats around the island of Molokai,” they write.

The Hawaiian green sea turtle population is genetically isolated from those in other areas. And the FP virus may be slightly different in other areas. In Florida, for instance, where the disease has been noticed much longer than in Hawaii, its effects appear to be stable, and not declining like Hawai'i.

But the Hawaiian research suggests that the turtles can thrive, in spite of this debilitating disease.

“The FP epidemic decline at Palaau is encouraging news for other marine turtle populations afflicted more recently with this chronic and often fatal disease,” they write.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A new discovery in the Hawaiian web of life

The Hawaiian islands are connected, not only geologically, but with an intricate web of life.

This fact has been reestablished in the past week with the announcement of the discovery of a series of closely related moths on three islands of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—moths that have been evolving in the Islands for 30 million years.

(Image: The eight new species of moths from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Source: NOAA.)

The moths are new to science, but this kind of connectivity is not.

In the wet forests of the Island, the alani or melicope species are an example. The various species are clearly related, even to an untrained eye. They tend to have large waxy leaves that form a fat oval. They tend to be leggy. Small, delicate flowers.

They are very much the same in many ways. And different.

A Kaua'i species, mokihana, has the famous anise scent, which the other species lack. The four-parted seed pods are tightly closed in some species, but the seed cases spread out like petals on a bloom in others.

There are the cave spiders, hunting spiders with less-developed eyes on the older islands than on the younger ones.

And forest birds with different colors and food preferences on different islands, but otherwise clearly closely related.

On and on. Cousins of a Molokai bug live on Kaua'i alongside bird cousins, plant cousins and so forth.

Perhaps what's most surprising about the new moths is that they have survived long enough to be found, not that they ever existed.

Reseachers Patrick Schmitz and Daniel Rubinoff announced their find in the journal Zootaxa: eight new members of the moth genus Hyposmocoma, all found within islands of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

The genus Hyposmocoma is unique to Hawai'i, but the group is well represented here, with more than 300 species, most of them on the major islands, and one previously known from the northwestern islands—from Necker or Mokumanamana. Some species are from the wet forest, some from aquatic habitats, and the new finds suggest that species have also evolved to handle very arid habitats of the low northwestern islands.

A monument press release included these quotations:

“This is a great snapshot of species endemism, one that indicates how species have evolved on islands throughout the whole archipelago over time,” said Rubinoff. “We are continuing our research now, but it is possible that the ancient ancestor of the now uniquely Hawaiian Hyposmocoma moths may have landed on a young Northwestern Hawaiian Island and evolved over millions of years into several lineages, which hopped down the island chain, spawning a diversity of species.”

“Although only a few of the lineages that were once on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are still holding on there now, these tiny atolls, in a former life, were the crucibles of one of the most diverse groups on the current High Islands. The species we described from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are the descendents of those original, and likely ancient, Hyposmocoma lineages and they have hung on, adapting over time to the islands’ current severe dry conditions. They are the survivors.”

“I am certain more species are waiting to be discovered in the Monument, since we’ve found hard evidence of their caterpillars and know them to be unique,” said Rubinoff. “We also know that Gardner Pinnacles has at least one endemic species and possibly more, but we just haven’t been able to get there yet to document it.”

Among the ways these creatures are distinguished from each other, besides their unique wing coloring, is that their larval cases have very different shapes.

The new species are:

Hyposmocoma laysanensis, named after and found only on Laysan Island

Hyposmocoma ekemamao, a larger species found only on Laysan Island and named for its purselike case (eke in Hawaiian) and the island’s remoteness (mamao in Hawaiian)

Hyposmocoma opuumaloo, found only on Mokumanamana and named from the Hawaiian opu‘u, cone, and malo‘o, dry, referring to its cone-shaped case and the island’s dry habitat (most cone-cased species in the Main Hawaiian Islands are aquatic)

Hyposmocoma mokumana, found on Mokumanamana and named for the island

Hyposmocoma nihoa, found on Nihoa and named for the island

Hyposmocoma kikokolu, found on Nihoa and named from the Hawaiian kiko, spot, and kolu, three, referring to the three spots on its forewing

Hyposmocoma menehune, found on Nihoa and named for the nocturnal Hawaiian legendary menehune

Hyposmocoma papahanau, found on Nihoa and named after Papahanaumokuakea

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, November 1, 2009

KIUC proposes hybrid renewable rate scheme

The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative is proposing a new system to expand the production of electricity by small renewable operations like rooftop solar or small wind generators.

It has the potential to provide a roadmap toward a distributed power generation future for Kaua'i.

(Image: a vertical axis Wind Lotus wind generator. Credit: Leviathan Energy. )

The utility is calling it net energy meeting, although it's not. It appears to be a hybrid rate system. It values excess energy from small power producers less than does traditional net energy metering, but more than what it would cost the utility to produce its own power.

And it aims to support larger renewable energy systems than does net energy metering, which, according to KIUC's own documents, is “intended primarily to offset part or all of the customer’s own electrical requirements.”

In traditional net energy metering, the excess power you produce is valued the same as the power you purchase. If you have photovoltaic panels, the power you produce in the sunshine offsets the power you consume at night, kilowatt for kilowatt. The meter runs backwards when you're producing excess power.

The problem with the system is that it doesn't compensate the utility for its non-generation costs—paying for distribution systems, making repairs, answering phones, sending out bills, etc. That means that other power users in the community are subsidizing you. It's not a sustainable system. If everyone were net metering, the utility would be bankrupt.

The Hawai'i Public Utilities Commission (PUC) limited net energy metering to 1 percent of KIUC's peak power demand, and the utility met that limit last year. Thus no new net energy metering hookups are now being approved.

At KIUC, they have another system called Schedule Q. Here, you buy electricity at the going rate—currently in the neighborhood of $.35 a kilowatt-hour—and you sell power at about $.10. You could call this a wholesale price for power. Or, with Schedule Q, you can simply size your system to meet a portion of your electrical load, so you just avoid buying power when your system is able to produce power. The meter never runs backwards. You just pay for all KIUC power you use.

The new system, which KIUC is confusingly calling a Net Energy Metering (NEM) Pilot Program, is, it says, designed to “analyze the potential benefits of customer generation.” It is similar to the Schedule Q, as best we can determine, although it doubles the rate for excess power to $.20 per kilowatt hour.

Here is how the utility describes it: “KIUC‟s NEM pilot program will allow renewable customer generators to supply their own power needs and be paid $0.20/kWh for power they export to the utility. When they do not have sufficient power to supply their own needs, they will pay regular tariff rates for the power they receive from the utility.”

It still requires PUC approval, and it has certain limitations. The program capacity is limited to no more than 3 megawatts of total capacity. Two-thirds of that, or 2 megawatts of capacity, is set aside for pretty big systems, sized 50 kilowatts to 200 kilowatts. Another sixth, or half a megawatt, is for systems from 10 to 50 kilowatts. And the remaining half a megawatt is for home-sized systems of 10 kilowatts or less.

KIUC customers who are already operating under Schedule Q can upgrade to the new system.

The new system already has the support of them state Consumer Advocate, the Hawai‘i Renewable Energy Association, and the Hawai‘i Solar Energy Association.

On the other islands, the PUC has approved a feed-in tariff, which has not yet been required of KIUC (although it may be at some point). A feed-in tariff generally applies to stand-alone renewable power generation facilities—like a windfarm, or an industrial-scale solar power plant—and it pays a premium for the renewable power to encourage people to build them.

Feed-in tariffs are negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and guarantee renewable power generators a profit, just as the PUC guarantees utilities a rate structure that provides a profit.

KIUC's new system, then, it not quite net energy metering, since your meter never runs backwards, and it's not quite a feed-in tariff, since it allows consumers to offset their own real-time power use while selling power at a higher rate than the wholesale price.

Our editorial comment: It needs a new name.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

Another leap for Hawai'i fish farming: Ahi spheres approved

Ocean farming has had a troubled past, but it's moving forward quickly as technology improves.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources just approved a Conservation District Use Permit for the latest and largest ocean aquaculture venture.

(Image: Artist's rendering of the Hawaii Ocean Technology fish farms, approved Friday by the land board. Credit: Hawaii Ocean Technology LLC)

Already in Hawai'i, you can buy moi from open ocean farms off south O'ahu. It's grown by Grove Farm Fish & Poi, and is served at fine restaurants across the state. Grove Farm Fish & Poi is planning to roughly quadruple its production in Mamala Bay. An early slideshow of predecessor company Cates International is here.

And you can get kahala or Kona Kampachi or Hawaiian yellowtail from Kona Blue Water Farms' ocean cages in waters deeper than 200 feet off Kona on the Big Island. See here.

Kona Blue uses a technology called Sea Station, which creates a flying-saucer-looking netted structure that can be raised and lowered in the water column. But the firm cites transportation costs to Mainland markets for a proposal to cut its production by 40 percent and look to Mexico for future growth.

There's another proposal by a venture called Indigo Seafood to put moi cages off the Big Island.

The most innovative new proposal is Hawaii Ocean Technology's Ahi Sphere project, which would be the largest ocean aquaculture project in the Islands to date. The land board approved the CDUA for the project Friday.

The company this year released its final environmental impact statement for its proposal to grow tuna in a fleet of twelve 160-foot-diameter “ocean spheres” which actually look more like geodesic domes than spheres.

“The company proposes to grow out the tuna to market size in offshore submerged cages, segregated by species, that are self-powered un-tethered 54m diameter 'Oceanspheres.' The proposed ocean lease site is a one square kilometer (247-acre) site, 1,320-feet deep, located 2.6 nautical-miles offshore Malae Point, North Kohala. Twelve Oceanspheres will be deployed incrementally over four years, culminating with an annual production capacity of 6,000 tons,” the report says.

It will be managed out of Kawaihae Harbor, and boats will be on site daily to handle feeding, harvesting and other duties. The baby fish—yellowfin and bigeye tuna-- will be grown at a University of Hawai'i facility.

Critics of sea farming ventures warn of disease among tightly-packed fish that could spread to wild populations. Of pollution from the concentrations of fish scat and uneaten fish food. Of attracting sharks. Of the loss of use of portions of the ocean.

The EIS addresses these issues at some length, but briefly, it argues:

The project will work with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology to monitor and manage the project for disease control. The site has been selected for its strong currents, which will very quickly dilute and sweep away organic matter. The cages have powerful netting that should be impenetrable to sharks. And it says the area selected is not an actively fished zone—it is beyond the ono trolling grounds and deeper than most bottomfish grounds. Boaters will be permitted to transit through the lease area, as long as they stay 100 feet from the spheres, which will be marked with buoys.

The spheres will have GPS capability, will be self-propelled, and capable of maintaining position without being anchored to the sea floor.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

Biofuels: UN cites the good, the bad, the ugly

There's petroleum and there's biofuel. They can do much of the same thing, but they're really quite different, especially in their climate impacts.

As with much in life, it just ain't simple.

That's particularly the case with biofuels, which are playing an increasing role in the Hawaii energy picture. There's still sugar being converted into energy on Maui. There's talk of growing cane for ethanol and electricity on Kauai. And research into growing crops like Jatropha for biodiesel. There's research into oil from algae. And more

The hype has been that:

1) You get a severe climate result when you suck oil or bulldoze coal out of the ground and burn it—dumping a huge load of carbon into the atmosphere; and that,

2) Biofuel is much better--at least carbon neutral. It's made from growing products, so that it sucks up atmospheric carbon as it grows, and releases it back when it is burned.

Biofuels breathe in, and breathe out. Presumably the climate effect is nil. And that's good, right?

Not so fast, says a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme's
Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics, Sustainable Consumption & Production Branch. http://www.unep.fr/scp/rpanel/Biofuels.htm

“They (biofuels) are characterized by some as a panacea representing a central technology in the fight against climate change. Others criticise them as a diversion from the tough climate mitigation actions needed or a threat to food security,” says the preface to the full 120-page report, Assessing Biofuels.

It is available here. http://www.unep.fr/scp/rpanel/pdf/Assessing_Biofuels_Full_Report.pdf

And a summary here. http://www.unep.fr/scp/rpanel/pdf/Assessing_Biofuels_Summary.pdf

This is not new research, but rather a very extensive literature review, aimed at trying to get a handle on biofuels. A key conclusion: this issue is complicated, so don't make casual broad-brush assumptions.

Some of the identified problems with crop-based fuels: They divert us from carbon-negative energy technologies; they divert crop production from needed food resources to fuel; many of them have their own environmental issues like soil runoff, energy intensive fertilizer use, extensive water use and so forth; and some may not be as carbon neutral as they seem.

For instance, if peat-lands and tropical forest are cleared for biofuel farming, the carbon released in that clearing may far-outweigh reduced net carbon emissions. This is a key objection to some oil palm production.

There are many, many reasons to be cautious about blanket support for biofuels, but the report also identifies another piece of the puzzle that discourages blanket opposition. We are now only working with the first generation of biofuel technology, and future biofuels may be much more environmentally acceptable than the worst of the current crop.

“Researchers are already studying advanced biofuels from sources such as algae or the natural enzymes used by termites to dissolve wood into sugars. These second or third generation technologies will require their own life cycle assessments,” the report says.

Meanwhile, for first-generation biofuels, Hawai'i can kick itself in the collective butt. The best of the best in terms of greenhouse gas savings is bioethanol from sugar cane, the crop we have nearly wiped off our landscape. (Sugar has its own issues, like high fertilizer demand.) By contrast, corn, soy and oil palm biofuels can range from greenhouse positive to dramatically negative, depending on how and where they're grown.

A key message of the UN report: Neither should you be kneejerk dazzled by biofuel, nor should you automatically reject the stuff.

It suggests a number of paths to improving things. Among them: identifying and reducing specific biofuel crop issues; using waste more efficiently; and noting that “stationary use of biomass—to generate heat and/or electricity—is typically more energy efficient than converting biomass to a liquid fuel. It may also provide much higher CO2 savings at lower costs.”

© Jan TenBruggencate

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bees and mites: more problems, new investigations

The state's honeybee hives are being damaged by the destructive varroa mite, and the impacts go far beyond reduced honey production.

(Image: Honeybee on a flower. Credit: NOAA Photo Library.)

Aside from the direct effect of the weakening of bees and whole colonies by the bee-blood sucking mites, there are significant indirect impacts.

One is to the bees. The varroa mite not only weakens the bees, but it can also carry bacterial and viral agents that further impact the sick insects.

And for larger society, one of the severe impacts of weak colonies with reduced numbers is that pollination of crops is significantly reduced.

The University of Hawai'i bee project is conducting research into the varroa mite.

“We are interested in developing practical treatment options for local beekeepers and establishing a sound research program that focuses on maintenance and improvement of the Hawaiian honeybees. Reducing the likelihood that the mite will invade other islands, and restricting the big island invasion is also a high priority, and we are investigating procedures for preventing feral bees from being inadvertently transported among islands on ship containers and other vessels,” says the website.

Mark Wright and Ethel Villalobos, of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources' Plant and Environmental Protection Services, are running the bee project. They are asking O'ahu residents to report any wild honeybee hives so they can investigate virus transmission by the mites.

If you come across a wild hive, you can reach the Honeybee Varroa Project at 956-2445 or email uhbeelab@gmail.com.

Have more questions about mites? See the Department of Agriculture's list of frequently asked questions. http://hawaii.gov/hdoa/pi/ppc/varroa-bee-mite-folder/frequently-asked-questions-about-varroa-mites

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hot Hot Hot. Global temperatures still rising, El Nino extending

The period from June to September has been the warmest on record, confirming the continued warming of the global climate.

If you've been hearing people prognosticating about a global cooling trend, well...that wasn't, um, exactly true.

In fact, the first decade of the new century is on pace to be the warmest decade ever--at least for as long as records have been kept.

(Image: NASA graph showing land and ocean temperature changes. The ocean, a bigger heat sink, has less year-to-year variability, but the trend is the same. This graph goes through 2008. The 2009 number, based on mid-year information, will be a significant tick upward. See other NASA temperature data here.

And here in Hawai'i, we have something else to worry about.

The current El Nino event, which has been weak thus far, is now expected to strengthen and last at least through the winter, according to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.

During El Nino events, which occur every three to five years, the waters of the tropical Pacific are significantly warmer than normal. El Nino is associated in the Islands with dry winters and more tropical storms.

Here is the link to the latest forecast.

As for the temperature, NOAA had previously announced that the summer months June to August were the warmest on record. NOAA hasn't yet announced the September data, but NASA's figures here show September 2009 was one of the warmest Septembers ever—so the NOAA announcement of a four-month record heat is inevitable.

(We thank for the tip on this the climate blog, Climate Progress.)

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rooftop solar as the low-cost alternative: An O'ahu example

O'ahu resident and Realtor Tony Kawaguchi started with the low-hanging fruit when he looked for ways to cut down a $625/month power bill in September 2008.

(Images: Top: Solar photovoltaic panels on Kawaguchi's roof. Bottom: “This is the Sunny Boy converter, installed by Mercury Solar. The installation took about 4 hours, and sits next to Hawaiian Electric’s meter, which now spins a lot slower than it used to,” Kawaguchi said. Credit: Tony Kawaguchi.)

He said he changed incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs, which use a quarter of the power for roughly the same amount of illumination. He dropped the temperature on his water heater. He retired one of his three computer monitors.

It didn't create the level of savings he was hoping for. Then he went upstairs.

Kawaguchi put a solar water heater on the roof, essentially removing his electrical cost of heating water.

And he then installed a photovoltaic system.

The electric bill was cut in half in the first month. Kawaguchi has since expanded his photovoltaic system to reap more savings. His bill was $153.47 in September 2009.

Kawaguchi said he was able to make the adjustments with very little cash outlay. He found a solar contractor with a program that financed the cost of the system at 2 percent interest. And he took advantage of a state 35 percent tax credit and federal 30 percent tax credit.

Additionally, Kawaguchi took advantage of a program under which he claimed the tax credits for paying to install solar water heaters on the roofs of low-income residents.

“I also bought another solar water system for a low income family on which I also receive the 65 percent tax credit, but the solar company finances nearly all of it at percent, and the low income family pays the loan off. So I receive the 65 percent tax credit on that $7k system, but don't have any cash out of pocket,” Kawaguchi said.

“So in reality - I paid NOTHING for all my solar power. I simply took money that I would have paid the government and instead purchased enough solar energy for other people to receive tax credits to pay for it all... I had my CPA look at it and he was already familiar with this type of deal through other solar companies,” he said.

Kawaguchi, who blogs on real estate at http://www.alohatony.com, said that from a real estate perspective, these changes make good economic sense.

“Imagine if you were a buyer comparing two similar homes in Hawaii, and one of them allowed you to have almost no power bill. That monthly savings would be a huge factor in the value you would see in that home,” he said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009