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Truckers Protest, The Resistance Begins

Until the beginning of this month, Americans seemed to have nothing to say about their ongoing economic ruin except, “Hit me! Please, hit me again!” You can take my house, but let me mow the lawn for you one more time before you repossess. Take my job and I’ll just slink off somewhere out of sight. Oh, and take my health insurance too; I can always fall back on Advil.

Then, on April 1, in a wave of defiance, truck drivers began taking the strongest form of action they can take – inaction. Faced with $4/gallon diesel fuel, they slowed down, shut down and started honking. On the New Jersey Turnpike, a convoy of trucks stretching “as far as the eye can see,” according to a turnpike spokesman, drove at a glacial 20 mph. Outside of Chicago, they slowed and drove three abreast, blocking traffic and taking arrests. They jammed into Harrisburg PA; they slowed down the Port of Tampa where 50 rigs sat idle in protest. Near Buffalo, one driver told the press he was taking the week off “to pray for the economy.”

The truckers who organized the protests – by CB radio and internet – have a specific goal: reducing the price of diesel fuel. They are owner-operators, meaning they are also businesspeople, and they can’t break even with current fuel costs. They want the government to release its fuel reserves. They want an investigation into oil company profits and government subsidies of the oil companies. Of the drivers I talked to, all were acutely aware that the government had found, in the course of a weekend, $30 billion to bail out Bear Stearns, while their own businesses are in a tailspin.

But the truckers’ protests have ramifications far beyond the owner-operators’ plight –first, because trucking is hardly a marginal business. You may imagine, here in the blogosphere, that everything important travels at the speed of pixels bouncing off of satellites, but 70 percent of the nation’s goods – from Cheerios to Chapstick –travel by truck. We were able to survive a writers’ strike, but a trucking strike would affect a lot more than your viewing options. As Donald Hayden, a Maine trucker put it to me: “If all the truckers decide to shut this country down, there’s going to be nothing they can do about it.”

Image courtesy of The Beaver County Times

More importantly, the activist truckers understand their protest to be part of a larger effort to “take back America,” as one put it to me. “We continue to maintain this is not just about us,” “JB”– which is his CB handle and stands for the “Jake Brake” on large rigs– told me from a rest stop in Virginia on his way to Florida. “It’s about everybody – the homeowners, the construction workers, the elderly people who can’t afford their heating bills… This is not the action of the truck drivers, but of the people.” Hayden mentions his parents, ages and 81 and 76, who’ve fought the Maine winter on a fixed income. Missouri-based driver Dan Little sees stores shutting down in his little town of Carrollton. “We’re Americans,” he tells me, “We built this country, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to lie down and take this.”

At least one of the truckers’ tactics may be translatable to the foreclosure crisis. On March 29, Hayden surrendered three rigs to be repossessed by Daimler-Chrysler – only he did it publicly, with flair, right in front of the statehouse in Augusta. “Repossession is something people don’t usually see,” he says, and he wanted the state legislature to take notice. As he took the keys, the representative of Daimler-Chrysler said, according to Hayden, “I don’t see why you couldn’t make the payments.” To which Hayden responded, “See, I have to pay for fuel and food, and I’ve eaten too many meals in my life to give that up.”

Suppose homeowners were to start making their foreclosures into public events– inviting the neighbors and the press, at least getting someone to camcord the children sitting disconsolately on the steps and the furniture spread out on the lawn. Maybe, for a nice dramatic touch, have the neighbors shower the bankers, when they arrive, with dollar bills and loose change, since those bankers never can seem to get enough.

But the larger message of the truckers’ protest is about pride or, more humbly put, self-respect, which these men channel from their roots. Dan Little tells me, “My granddad said, and he was the smartest man I ever knew, ‘If you don’t stand up for yourself ain’t nobody gonna stand up for you.’” Go to theamericandriver.com, run by JB and his brother in Texas, where you’re greeted by a giant American flag, and you’ll find – among the driving tips, weather info, and drivers’ favorite photos –the entire Constitution and Declaration of Independence. “The last time we faced something as impacting on us,” JB tells me, “There was a revolution.”

The actions of the first week in April were just the beginning. There’s talk of a protest in Indiana on the 18th, another in New York City, and a giant convergence of trucks on DC on the 28th. Who knows what it will all add up to? Already, according to JB, some of the big trucking companies are threatening to fire any of their employees who join the owner-operators’ protests.

But at least we have one shining example of defiance of the face of economic assault. There comes a point, sooner or later, when you stop scrambling around on all fours and, like JB and his fellow drivers all over the country, you finally stand up.

If you would like to help support the truckers in any way, go to http://www.theamericandriver.com/files/TruckersAndCitizensUnited.html

– written by Barbara Ehrenreich

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Big Coal Against the Ropes – From Kansas to Wall Street

So far, 2008 has been a rough year for the coal industry. Just 24 hours after Bush touted clean coal in his January State of the Union address, the Department of Energy pulled the plug on the ambitious FutureGen project, which aimed to build the first zero-emissions coal plant.

Days later, major banks such as Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, stated their concern over coal’s enormous carbon footprint with emissions caps on the horizon, a consideration that “make[s] it less likely the banks will finance other coal-fired plants.”

The next week, Bank of America agreed that coal plants were a bad investment. Soon after, the New York Times reported, “With opposition to coal plants rising across the country — including a statement by three investment banks … saying they are wary of financing new ones,” utilities “are turning to natural gas to meet expected growth in demand.”

Big Coal is now making a stand in Kansas, where it has been trying to get approval for two new coal plants near Holcomb, KS — a fight that has been marked by contention since Kansas’ Department of Health and Environment denied the necessary air quality permits in October. The coal industry is desperate for a win in a year that, so far, has brought bad news.

Sunflower Pressures Sebelius

Sunflower Electric, the company behind the Holcomb coal project, refused to take Kansas’s October decision lying down. Weeks after the state’s Department of Health and Environment’s denial — supported by Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) — Sunflower, working through a front group called Kansans for Affordable Energy (KAE), published newspaper ads comparing Sebelius to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Vladimir Putin, and Hugo Chavez.

The front group was financed almost completely by Peabody Energy, “the world’s largest private-sector coal company.” Of the $145,400 in contributions KAE received, $120,000 came from Peabody and $25,000 came from Sunflower. “In other words, all but $400 of the money provided to this group of Kansans ‘concerned’ about ‘affordable energy’ came from Big King Coal,” notes Kevin Grandia of the site DeSmogBlog.

Sunflower Bribes Legislature

Last week, the Kansas Senate passed a bill allowing the coal plant development, gutting the legislation of the very small carbon tax and modest energy efficiency standards. A different version passed the House, and now the bills move to a conference committee where state representatives are facing enormous pressure to bend to Big Coal’s will.

Kansas State Speaker Melvin Neufeld Tuesday urged his colleagues to approve Sunflower’s plans by reminding them that the state — namely, Kansas State University — had a lot to gain from the bargain. Sunflower has offered a quid pro quo agreement to donate $2.5 million for energy research to the university, but only if the state approves the coal plants first. Rep. Paul Davis (D) called the bribery scheme “in poor taste.”

Ratcheting up the pressure, Sunflower president and CEO Earl Watkins declared this week “that if the Legislature doesn’t approve the project by June 1, it may not go forward.” Legislators should keep in mind a January poll that found that Kansans agreed with the state’s permit denial by a 2-to-1 margin, and a majority of citizens who live in the Holcomb area support the state’s decision as well.

Greenwashing Coal’s Impact

[Cartoon by Spencer Hill

When Kansas Secretary of Health and Environment Roderick Bremby rejected Sunflower’s air quality permits in October, he said, “[I]t would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing.” In response, Sunflower has tried to link its dirty coal with clean energy, in a TV spot promoting the “Holcomb expansion.”

The ad — which never mentions the word “coal” — insists the plant “will be one of the cleanest, most efficient power plants of its kind.” In fact, even with the best available technology, the plant will emit massive amounts of mercury, sulfur dioxide, and ash wastes. Moreover, there are no standards to limit the amount of carbon dioxide pollution emitted, and the new plants are estimated to emit at least 11 millions tons of greenhouse gases ever year.

Some representatives are falling for the misleading, unscientific campaign. Sen. Tim Huelskamp (R) declared, “CO2 is not a harmful substance. It’s an average, ordinary part of our human life anywhere on this Earth. … I’m a farmer, and we love CO2. It’s a good thing.” Rep. Don Myers (R) agreed: “It is all around us and you breathe it.”

This article originally appear on Alternet.org and was written by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Ali Frick and Benjamin Armbruster

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Solar Cell Production Jumps 50 Percent in 2007

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Production of photovoltaics (PV) jumped to 3,800 megawatts worldwide in 2007, up an estimated 50 percent over 2006. At the end of the year, according to preliminary data, cumulative global production stood at 12,400 megawatts, enough to power 2.4 million U.S. homes. Growing by an impressive average of 48 percent each year since 2002, PV production has been doubling every two years, making it the world’s fastest-growing energy source.

Photovoltaics, which directly convert sunlight into electricity, include both traditional, polysilicon-based solar cell technologies and new thin-film technologies. Thin-film manufacturing involves depositing extremely thin layers of photosensitive materials on glass, metal, or plastics. While the most common material currently used is amorphous silicon, the newest technologies use non-silicon-based materials such as cadmium telluride.

A key force driving the advancement of thin-film technologies is a polysilicon shortage that began in April 2004. In 2006, for the first time, more than half of polysilicon production went into PVs instead of computer chips. While thin films are not as efficient at converting sunlight to electricity, they currently cost less and their physical flexibility makes them more versatile than traditional solar cells. Led by the United States, thin film grew from 4 percent of the market in 2003 to 7 percent in 2006. Polysilicon supply is expected to match demand by 2010, but not before thin film grabs 20 percent of the market.

The top five PV-producing countries are Japan, China, Germany, Taiwan, and the United States. Recent growth in China is most astonishing: after almost tripling its PV production in 2006, it is believed to have more than doubled output in 2007. With more than 400 PV companies, China’s market share has exploded from 1 percent in 2003 to over 18 percent today. Having eclipsed Germany in 2007 to take the number two spot, China is now on track to become the number one PV producer in 2008. The United States, which gave the world the solar cell, has dropped from third to fifth place as a solar cell manufacturer since 2005, overtaken by China in 2006 and Taiwan in 2007.

Strong domestic production is not always a good indicator of domestic installations, however. For example, despite China’s impressive production, PV prices are still too high for the average Chinese consumer. China only installed 25 megawatts of PV in 2006, exporting more than 90 percent of its PV production, mainly to Germany and Spain. But large PV projects are expected to increase domestic installations. China is planning a 100-megawatt solar PV farm in Dunhuang City in the northwestern province of Gansu, which would have five times the capacity of the largest PV power plant in the world today.

Despite its skies being cloudy two thirds of the time, Germany has been the leading market for PV installations since it overtook Japan in 2004. In 2006, Germany, adding 1,050 megawatts, became the first country to install more than one gigawatt in a single year. Driven by a feed-in tariff that guarantees the price a utility must pay homeowners or private firms for PV-generated electricity, annual installations in Germany alone have exceeded those in all other countries combined since 2004. There are now more than 300,000 buildings with PV systems in Germany, over triple the initial goal of the 100,000 Roofs Program launched in 1998. Growth is set to remain strong, as a feed-in tariff of 49¢ per kilowatt-hour will remain in place through 2009.

Japan, the United States, and Spain round out the top four markets with 350, 141, and 70 megawatts installed in 2006, respectively. Thanks to a residential PV incentive program, Japan now has over 250,000 homes with PV systems. But the country is currently experiencing a decrease in the growth rate of PV installations resulting from the phase-out of the incentive program in 2005 and a limited domestic PV supply due to the polysilicon shortage.

 

In contrast, the growth in installations in the United States increased from 20 percent in 2005 to 31 percent in 2006, primarily driven by California and New Jersey. The California Solar Initiative was launched in January 2006 as part of the state’s Million Solar Roofs program to provide more than $3 billion in incentives for solar power. The goal is to generate 3,000 megawatts of new solar power statewide by 2017. New Jersey’s Clean Energy Rebate Program, which began in 2001, offers a rebate of up to $3.50 per watt for residential PV systems, contributing to a more than tripling of installations between 2005 and 2006. Other states, such as Maryland, have passed renewable portfolio standards that mandate a certain percent of electricity generation from solar PV. For Maryland, the goal of producing 2 percent of electricity from the sun by 2022 is expected to lead to 1,500 megawatts of PV installations in the state.

Initial estimates for the United States as a whole indicate that PV incentives, including a tax credit of up to $2,000 available under the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 to offset PV system costs, helped to achieve an incredible 83-percent growth in installations in 2007.

Spain tripled its PV installations in 2006 to 70 megawatts. A building code that went into force in March 2007 requires all new nonresidential buildings to generate a portion of their electricity with PV. Spain also initiated a feed-in tariff in 2004 that guarantees that renewable energy will be bought by utilities at three times the market value for 25 years. In September 2007, a 20-megawatt PV power plant, currently the largest in the world, came online in the Spanish town of Beneixama and is producing enough electricity to supply 12,000 homes. By the end of 2008, cumulative PV installations in Spain are expected to exceed 800 megawatts, twice its original 2010 goal.

Of the world’s PV manufacturers in 2007, Sharp (Japan), Q-Cells (Germany), and Suntech (China) claimed the top three positions. But after holding the top spot for more than six years, Sharp, hampered by limited access to polysilicon, is likely to post only a 4-percent growth in production in 2007, well below the 50 percent industry average. However, Sharp’s annual thin-film production capacity is on track to increase from 15 megawatts today to 1,000 megawatts per year in 2010.

Suntech, a relatively new firm started in 2001, was the fourth-largest PV manufacturer in 2006, and eclipsed Kyocera in 2007 to take third place. In the first half of 2007, Suntech produced almost as much PV as it did in all of 2006.

Capitalizing on the polysilicon supply crunch, First Solar in the United States moved into the top 15 global manufacturers in 2006 by producing 60 megawatts of cadmium telluride thin-film PV, triple its production in 2005. In the first half of 2007, First Solar leapt onto the top 10 list, moving up five spots to number eight and continuing its reign as the fastest-growing PV manufacturing company in the world.

The average price for a PV module, excluding installation and other system costs, has dropped from almost $100 per watt in 1975 to less than $4 per watt at the end of 2006. With expanding polysilicon supplies, average PV prices are projected to drop to $2 per watt in 2010. For thin-film PV alone, production costs are expected to reach $1 per watt in 2010, at which point solar PV will become competitive with coal-fired electricity. With concerns about rising oil prices and climate change spawning political momentum for renewable energy, solar electricity is poised to take a prominent position in the global energy economy.

Source: The Earth Policy Institute

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