Thursday AM May 15th, 2008

Harnessing energy from ocean and tidal waves becomes more attractive…Bush disputes IMF claim that increased biofuel production is causing rising food prices…Smart car earns highest rating in front-end and side-impact testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety…

Harnessing energy from ocean waves and tidal flows is more attractive as energy prices increase. Professor Ian Bruden, chairman of Renewable Energy at the University of Edinburgh, spoke at the recent Offshore Technology Conference about his interest in tidal and marine currents.

“I was looking for something to perform doctoral research in and it wasn’t until well into the 1990s that marine energy wave power became significant again. I became interested in tidal power specifically at that time because I find that I was traveling through the north of Scotland, and in the northern isles of Scotland there are channels with very, very extreme tidal currents. And I remember traveling with my family and watching a fishing vessel with full power—you could hear the engine revving—and yet, it was going backwards. It was being driven backwards by the tidal currents. So much to the annoyance of my family, I actually got a pen and paper out and I worked out the energy flowing through that channel, and realized that it was comparable to the production of oil and gas at that time!”

Dr. Bruden leads the Marine Energy and Coastal Defence research theme with the Institute for Energy Systems.

“This is a test center for full-scale prototype wave and tidal current power devices. It’s in the island group of Orkney off the north coast of Scotland. Within that we have representative wave conditions for the North Atlantic, and we also have excellent tidal channels, really within about 20 miles of each other–very unusual. It means that we can have a centralized management and data collection center collecting data from two sites, each of which are either four or five test locations. In principle, at least, you could export electricity, you could sell the electricity and we would be able to monitor the performance of that device for you over a period of one, two, three or more years. Consider it to be roughly equivalent to type-testing that the automotive industry has been conducting for many, many decades.”

Dr. Bruden acted as specialist advisor to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee inquiry into wave and tidal current power.

An Energy Department report recently concluded that wind turbines can produce a fifth of the nation’s annual electricity needs within about two decades. That’s about the same share of electricity produced today by nuclear power. Wind energy currently accounts for only about one percent of the nation’s electricity. The government report says by 2030 wind energy could account for 300,000 megawatts of power, or about 20 percent of the total electricity generated. Texas is the nation’s leader in wind-generated power.

The House has passed a $290 billion farm bill with a strong veto-proof majority. The legislation includes more subsidies for farmers, food stamps for the poor and special projects that lawmakers can bring home to voters this election year. The 318-106 vote for the five-year bill came despite President Bush’s promised veto. He says the measure is too expensive and gives too much money to wealthy farmers. About two-thirds of the bill would pay for nutrition programs such as food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy. An additional $40 billion is for farm subsidies while almost $30 billion would go to farmers to idle their land and to other environmental programs.

The Bush administration is disputing the International Monetary Fund’s claim that increased production of biofuels is the biggest factor in rising food prices. The IMF estimates that the shift of crops out of the food supply to produce biofuels accounts for almost half of the recent increases in the global food prices. Rising food prices have made hunger problems in developing countries even more critical of late. But the administration’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Edward Lazear, says that biofuel production has played a small part. The United States has mandated increased production of ethanol from corn to reduce oil consumption. Lazear tells a Congressional hearing that ethanol production accounts for only about 1.2 percent of increases in food prices over the last year.

Sweet sorghum is grown in the U.S. for cooking and as livestock feed. But the tall plant also has a juicier benefit. A sugary sap inside the plant’s stalk, which can grow as tall as 12 feet, can be turned into a potent biofuel. So experts and companies are studying its potential with hopes that farmers will want to plant more of it. Ethanol made from the stalk’s juice has four times the energy yield of the corn-based ethanol, which is already in the marketplace unlike sweet sorghum. It produces about eight units of energy for every unit of energy used in its production. That’s about the same as sugarcane, but four times more than for corn.

The Dupont Chemical Company is working on creating a new form of ethanol fuel that doesn’t use food sources. The company is forming a three-year partnership with the Danish group Genencor. The companies plan an initial three-year investment of $140 million in the U.S.-based venture. Their focus will be on making fuel from leaves and stalks of corn and the remnants of sugarcane stalks. They will eventually look into fuel derived from wheat straw, as well as a variety of energy crops and other biomass sources. Currently, crops such as corn are used to make biofuel. Critics say that has made food more scarce and pushed up prices.

As gas climbs closer to $4 a gallon, more motorists are trying to save money by getting around on motor scooters and smaller motorcycles. Dealers across the nation say sales are way up this spring, particularly for motor bikes and scooters that can get from 75 to 120 miles per gallon. Mike Mount, spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council, says sales of name-brand scooters such as Honda, Yamaha, Vespa and Suzuki rose 24 percent in the first quarter of the year. That’s despite the colder weather most of the country sees at the start of the year. Prices can range anywhere from about $800 for low-end models, to as much as $8,000 for top-of-the-line scooters.

We’ve all received those e-mails promising “free gifts,” only to find that purchases must be made to obtain the so-called “free” merchandise. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has resolved an enforcement action against online incentive marketer World Avenue USA. The company failed to disclose that customers were required to complete purchases with as many as 18 sponsor offers before a free gift is sent. The company says it will make proper disclosures in the future on its Internet pop-ups, banner advertisements and e-mail solicitations. World Avenue USA agreed to pay the state $800,000 to resolve claims against it.

The Texas Attorney General’s office also obtained a temporary restraining order and limited asset freeze against Texas-based Forum Trading for marketing energy devices it falsely claims will reduce electricity consumption and extend the life of household appliances. The $200 and $300 units, according to Attorney General Greg Abbott, are just ordinary capacitors often used in electronic circuits that can be purchased for less than $20.

A year after legislators decided to review what items should be included in a sporting goods sales tax, work has yet to begin. That’s Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst hasn’t named any senators to the task force. Dewhurst, as president of the state Senate, and House Speaker Tom Craddick were supposed to name four legislators each to a joint House-Senate panel created a year ago. That panel is supposed to review the list of items included in a sporting-goods sales tax and recommend changes to the legislature when it convenes in January. Besides reviewing the definition of sporting good items, the task force is to recommend how much sporting goods tax money is needed to support parks and historical sites–and whether some money should be used on other projects, such as combating beach erosion. State Representative Harvey Hilderban–a Republican from Kerrville–is the House presiding officer of the panel. He says “I’m waiting for the lieutenant governor.” Four hours after being first contacted by the Associated Press, a Dewhurst spokesman said the lieutenant governor would likely make the appointments by the end of the week. Asked why it has taken so long for Dewhurst to act, a spokesman said “the lieutenant governor wants to make sure the right people are in the right positions to address the various important issues on various commissions and task forces.”

A group of Texas border mayors and business leaders say the federal government did not properly negotiate with land owners or inform them of their rights when it started surveying property for the border fence. The Texas border coalition plans to claim Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff abused private property rights in a federal lawsuit. Coalition spokeswoman Julie Hillrichs says the lawsuit is to be filed Friday in Washington. The Department of Homeland Security has said it plans to begin building fencing in Texas this summer. The agency wants to build 670 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border by year’s end. Chertoff has said previously the agency properly consulted with land owners.

A Texas appeals court overturns a verdict that Merck & Co. lost in the Vioxx case. A Texas jury two years ago awarded the widow of 71-year-old Leonel Garza $32 million. That later was cut to about $7.75 million under Texas damage caps. Garza, who had a long history of heart disease, died of a heart attack after taking Vioxx briefly. After the trial, a juror admitted borrowing thousands of dollars from the widow, Felicia Garza. Merck, based in Whitehouse station, N.J., pulled Vioxx from the market in September 2004 after research showed the painkiller doubled risk of heart attacks and strokes. That triggered an avalanche of lawsuits against Merck, which has a $4.85 billion settlement pending to end the bulk of the personal injury suits.

The smallest car for sale in the U.S. market has been declared safe by the insurance industry. The 8-foot, 8-inch Smart Fortwo micro car has earned the highest rating in front-end and side-impact testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The tests show how well vehicles stack up against other cars of similar size and weight. The institute’s president, Adrian Lund, says all things being equal, “bigger and heavier is always better.” But he adds, among the smallest vehicles, smart car engineers designed a high level of safety into a very small package. Lund says a small car may be more practical in congested urban areas where serious, high-speed crashes are less likely. The micro car is more than three feet shorter and nearly 700 pounds lighter than a mini cooper. It gets 33 miles per gallon in the city–41 on the highway.

Predictions about cell phone domination are apparently coming true. According to federal figures, the reliance on cells is growing. Nearly three in ten households get all or most of their calls on cell phones. Many don’t even have hard-wired phones. The trends are important to pollsters, which rely chiefly on calls to random landline phone numbers, because federal law forbids unsolicited calls to cell phones made by computerized dialing systems. Other survey highlights: low-income people are more likely to have only cell phones; about a third of those under age 30 have cell phones exclusively; and, households with both types of service who rarely or never get calls on hard-wired phones tend to be better educated with higher incomes.

Ford is recalling more than 655,000 Ford F-150 and Lincoln Mark LT pickup trucks to fix a hose that could affect the vehicles’ braking power. The automaker is issuing the recall of 2005-2006 versions of the trucks with 5.4 liter three-valve engines. That’s according to a posting on the Web site of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood says more than 600,000 of the trucks are in the United States and about 50,000 are in Canada. About 1,500 are in other countries. Ford says there have been 11 minor accidents and no injuries tied to the issue. Dealers will replace the hose at no charge to consumers. Owners are expected to be notified in late June, and the recall is expected to begin in July.

Macy’s says it lost $59 million in the first quarter. It cites lower sales and the cost of consolidating business units, which should save money starting next year. Macy’s booked a $55 million after-tax charge for restructuring. Macy’s also set aside $14 million after tax for a potential settlement of a wage and hour class-action lawsuit in California. Macy’s has struggled with disappointing sales and resistance from shoppers in some markets where the Macy’s name replaced local favorites after it bought department store operator may company in 2005. Macy’s announced in February that it would combine three
regional divisions and cut about 2,300 management jobs to better tailor individual stores to customer needs.

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