Government, energy & environment

The ocean is a solar energy store

Some of the best scientific ideas come from fiction. Jules Verne was the first to observe that the ocean is a huge, constantly replenishing store for solar energy. Using ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) could provide 4,000 times the energy needs of the whole world each year, with no pollution and no greenhouse gases. It sounds too good to be true, but it is already being done – and by a most unlikely suspect.

Lockheed Martin is about to begin construction of a 10-megawatt OTEC plant, using techniques from bridge- and wind-turbine manufacturing, off the coast of southern China. This is not an ambitious start-up or a bunch of well-financed greenies. They grasp the potential for what is a relatively simple technology.

Most heat is stored in the top 100 metres of the ocean, and the coldest part is 1,000 metres below, fed by polar regions. By pumping warm surface water past pipes containing ammonia (which has a low boiling point), the ammonia boils and the steam powers a turbine to generate electricity. Next, by pumping cold deep water through the steam, the ammonia condenses back into liquid and the cycle starts again. This is an ingenious use of steam.

The process needs a temperature difference of at least 20 degrees C between surface and deep water, found in the subtropics and tropics. OTEC plants can operate 24 hours a day so they can be plugged into a municipal grid to replace fossil fuel plants. If it cost $US790 million to build a 100-megawatt plant, according to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the price of electricity would be 18 US cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 14 to 26 cents for solar energy.

Plants are already being proposed, planned and developed in India, China, Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and the Caribbean. Tropical islands benefit the most because they have warm ocean waters and usually rely on costly imported fuels. Interestingly, these areas are also the least susceptible to climate change (except where they are low-lying).

One scientist has considered using solar energy to warm the ocean water before it is used to boil ammonia – this could triple a plant’s electricity output. It might be particularly valuable in colder climates where the temperature difference is not great enough. OTEC can also be combined with another 24-hour power source like geothermal energy – heat stored deep underground. Ironically, climate change may make cooler areas warm enough for OTEC to be considered.

Some say the future of OTEC is in OTEC ships that go through the ocean for electricity, storing it as liquid hydrogen. There is no shortage of ideas for addressing climate change or reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Given the massive scale and power of our oceans, it seems like the ultimate ‘sea change’.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 1 March 2014, Sea change. Anon.
Search words: ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), pollution, greenhouse gas, solar energy, heat difference, ammonia, turbine, deep water, Lockheed Martin, China, abundant, free, oil, Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation, wind-turbine, offshore gas, Hawaiian Natural Energy Institute, electricity, Japan, hawaii, Caribbean, tropical islands, imported fuel, nutrients, algae, renewable energy, climate change, OTEC ship, hydrogen, oxygen, Steampunk.
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Activism with a click

It is easy to criticize Avaaz, an online organisation with 30 million members, because they make it easy to be an activist, without leaving your chair. All you have to do is click, and potentially you could save Burma, bring in gay marriage, or protect Edward Snowden. You could label Avaaz as a new type of networked protest or just a group of lazy slacktivists indulging in clickactivism.

Whether Avaaz has achieved anything depends on whether you agree with charities – who say they have done most of the groundwork – or with its head, Ricken Patel, who is both pragmatic and passionate about saving the world. Patel has been listed as a “hot humanitarian” but, in many ways, he is a quiet Canadian and that may be half his charm. He says his best achievement was campaigning against the Murdoch takeover of BSkyB. Jeremy Hunt was so afraid of judicial review that Avaaz paid for a judicial review and Avaaz members sent 35,000 legal admissions. The result was no takeover.

Avaaz likes to test campaigns first to see whether they will be popular. Once they find one that could fly, they use part of their $US12 million budget to create as big an impact as they can. This money is donated by individuals. It helped to pay for satellite modems and camera phones for the Syrian opposition and an email campaign, opinion polls and personal approaches to the Maldives president to overturn the sentence of a rape victim.

We suspect the real value of Avaaz is in raising awareness of what is going on in the world. They are using cheap technology to get back at those in power and provide a good example of restoring the balance.

Ref: The Observer (UK), 17 November 2013, Online activism: Can it change the world? C Cadwalladr.
Search words: Avaaz, Ricken Patel, causes, protest, slacktivists, pressure group, membership, clickactivism, Oxfam, networks, international, Skype, campaigns, viral, BSkyB, Murdoch.
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G2G is the new free trade

Free trade keeps evolving into different forms and the latest trend is trade between governments, or G2G. Of course, G2G is not entirely new – colonialism is an early form of it. But today governments are trading lawmaker advice, entire services, and policies, as way of building on strengths and building up others. For example, France manages monetary policy, the CFA franc, for a number of West African nations.

One common kind of trade is in policymaking. One commentator describes G2G advice as ‘fast policy’. After all, there seems little point in doing all the work of policymaking if another government has already done it. This is why we often see the same policies in Britain, Australia and America. In fact, it was Mexico that pioneered the debatable policy of making welfare conditional on having children vaccinated and sending them to school. When China hosted the 2008 Olympics, it consulted the Federal Aviation Administration in the US to improve its air safety regulations.

G2G is particularly valuable during budget cuts and for dispute resolution when an objective third party is needed, for example, Britain will be hosting an arbitration court for Saudi Arabian disputes. Something similar already happens in the Virgin Islands, where a court hears disputes in international joint ventures.

The most extreme version of G2G is the delegation agreement, where one country provides a public service to another and effectively gives up a level of sovereignty, as when the Australian government, in 2003, took over law enforcement in the Solomon Islands.

Interestingly, governments do not like to advertise these kinds of deals, as it can appear weak to have to use the services of another government. It could be perceived as ‘foreign interference’ and there are questions of accountability – whose fault is it if something goes awry? These kinds of problems are less likely to arise when foreign firms help out cities, for example, C40 is a group of mega-cities that works together on policy on carbon emissions, without the problems of sovereignty infringement.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 8 February 2014, Unbundling the nation state. Anon.
Search words: specialisation, free trade, Dubai, Mumbai, Algeria, governments, services, Ottoman Public Debt Administration, France, ‘fast policy’, Mexico, Beijing Olympics, FAA, Nova Scotia, budget cuts, dispute resolution, delegation agreement, ‘Westphalian’ view, foreign interference, sovereignty, Singbridge, Citymart, outsourcing.
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Voters are turning right

The French are angry, and they have been angry for a while. They don’t like capitalism, flexibility, and immigration and there is a sense that nothing works anymore. It explains the popularity of the right wing, anti-immigration National Front of Marine Le Pen, who won 25% of the vote in the European elections and is now looking to lead France.

It is not a pretty sight – almost no growth and the growing pool of disenchanted unemployed. Meanwhile, the governing Socialists and centre-right Union for a Popular Movement have suffered. France has gone from two parties to three, almost overnight.

France is not alone in leaning to the right. Britain, Austria and Denmark all voted for parties that were against Europe, the establishment, immigration and, notably, boredom. In some ways, the European election provides a safer way to protest because it has relatively little power. But it does point in the direction of people’s dissatisfaction with the status quo. Australia has become very right wing too but in a different way – the government wants to lower debt, cut welfare, and open wide for business.

Le Monde, a French daily, said the National Front had 43% of votes from the employed and 37% of votes from the unemployed. Neither has any patience with austerity, stagnation and unemployment – why would it? - it affects them directly every day. They see immigration as threatening their already dwindling job prospects.

The dissatisfaction in Europe is not confined to Europe; as the axis of power shifts East to China. It stems, we think, from lack of trust in governments and uncertainty about national identity in a globalised world. Often, it seems that what is happening in the outside world has no connection with what is going on in people’s lives. See next story, National identity in the shadows.

Ref: International New York Times (US), 27 May 2014, The banality of anger. R Cohen.
Search words: France, globalisation, capitalism, immigration, defeat, National Front of Marine le Pen, growth, European Parliament, Le Monde, EU, power, Berlin Wall, hypercapitalism, anger.
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National identity in the shadows

National identity is a slippery thing, particularly when borders are easily crossed, trade is ostensibly free, and technology creates a sense of the global, rather than the national. It is no surprise that the European identity should prove to be no less intangible. For example, the European Commission has spent, since 2005, 45 million euros to fund research projects on European identity. Do we know what it is?

The Russian government this year sponsored a number of events to mark the 400th anniversary of the powerful Romanov dynasty. Its purpose: “to help our contemporaries re-establish a sense of belonging to our inseparable, shared history”. While this may answer a longing for recognition of their cultural and historical roots, some commentators say it is just a form of brainwashing. Vladimir Putin has even ordered a new unified set of textbooks to help reduce Russian confusion about their history.

Discussion of British identity persists in the press, with a recent Guardian request to readers to define what they mean by ‘Britishness’. When asked this question, people tend to draw on their own history for memories of what makes them feel British, rather than the history they read about.

According to The European, people care about their nation because it protects and empowers them in relation to others. They do expect governments to be there “for the people”. Unfortunately, social scientists seem not to see there is a huge gap and strong dislike between citizens and their rulers. It seems governments are no longer for the people, but at odds with them. No wonder there is confusion about national identity.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 23-24 November 2013, Nostalgic Russians reach for the tsars. K Hille.
The European, 21 February 2014, Smoke and mirrors. S Dutchesne.
Search words: European Commission, national identity, social scientists, citizens, rulers, democracy, Europe, Kremlin, Romanov dynasty, Russia, culture, Mr Putin, events, history, tsar, reforms, brainwashing, communism, KGB, Soviet.
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