Category Archives: Datelines

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India’s energy subsidy slowdown

The hum of Gurumoorthy Sethuraman’s 10-horsepower (7.46 kW) irrigation pumps joins the murmur of nearby rivers in Arayapuram, India. Sethuraman, an experienced and successful farmer, plants alternating crops of rice and pulses each year in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This bounty has enabled his family to send several of his grandchildren to study abroad in the United States and United Kingdom. Yet, by law, he and other commercial agriculture enterprise owners are not required to pay the utility that powers the 60 or so wells that irrigate his 15 hectares of land.

Sethuraman is representative of the fortunate few around the world —the International Monetary Fund reported in 2013 that the top 40% of the population in most developing countries received six times the energy subsidy received by the bottom 40% (http://go.nature.com/w1qdII). In the short run, he and others are direct beneficiaries, but in the long run, misdirected energy subsidies undermine economic development, according to economists at the International Energy Agency (http://go.nature.com/rPzFNR), the World Bank (http://go.nature.com/RJMxmO) and the International Monetary Fund (http://go.nature.com/E2wjfP). Such policies amount to an undeclared regressive tax that undermines investment in infrastructure, health and education for the poorest citizens. Of 40 countries examined during a Council on Foreign Relations workshop last year, for example, the average energy subsidy approached 30% of government revenue and was often greater than health or education spending (http://go.nature.com/pt37o7).

Yet India is in the midst of an energy subsidy reform. It began reducing its own energy subsidies in 2010 and has earned outside recognition for its progress so far (http://go.nature.com/qAbZkw). Its path to an energy policy that supports its poorest people will be long and complex, but it may now be experiencing a remarkable moment of opportunity to widen access to energy.

Read the full feature in Nature Energy: [html] [pdf].

Julius Rix works on systems that will be used to drill through ice to extract samples.

The Ice Stuff

There is no visible horizon in the waters beneath the Ross Ice Shelf. So electrical engineer Jim O’Sullivan built an artificial one for the pilot of the submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that he and a team of scientists were testing there in 2008. The team didn’t lack for data: The ROV’s orientation, speed, and depth were numerically displayed on the pilot’s screen. But it is difficult to convert numbers into spatial awareness. The ROV was at risk of crashing into the delicate creatures, such as sea spiders, that it was supposed to be observing.

Fortunately, O’Sullivan had come across a similar problem in a different setting: aviation. As a pilot, he had an instrument rating, “which was useful for understanding how to navigate without being able to see,” he recalls. When flying blind, pilots use half a dozen different instruments to maintain their situational awareness, including an artificial horizon. O’Sullivan found open-source software that could convert the ROV’s telemetry data to display an artificial, underwater horizon. This example of engineering on (and under) “the Ice,”—as Antarctica is known—demonstrates the need for ingenuity and improvisation beyond anything training can provide. Continue reading

A grow shop in Madrid sells cannabis seeds labeled as sativa and indica cross-breeds. Genetic research shows such labels rarely match reality. Photo: Lucas Laursen.

The cultivation of weed

Packets of cannabis seeds line the shelves of legal grow shops in Madrid. Many carry labels reporting the percentage of sativa and indica, two types of cannabis. Breeders often label plants that produce a more exciting high as sativa and plants that provide a more mellow feeling as indica, suggesting that cross-breeding tailors that buzz. The conceit is widespread. Botanist Jonathan Page at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, says he sees the same at local grow shops.

For reasons that go beyond assessing the quality of the user experience, botanists such as Page are investigating the evolution and present-day diversity of cannabis. To do this, they must confront centuries-old taxonomic questions, including whether cannabis is one species, Cannabis sativa, with several subspecies or varieties, or if it is several distinct species, such as C. sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. “It’s complicated taxonomically because of its intimate relationship with humans for long periods of time,” Page says. People have long bred cannabis as a source of fibre, food and oil — as well as for its mind-altering effects (see page S10). As governments relax cannabis laws, commercial growers want more clarity about the chemical properties and capabilities of the herb’s many varieties. In parallel, regulatory bodies trying to establish a legal framework want to be able to classify whether a given type of plant is for fibre (hemp) or recreational or medical use (marijuana).

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A New Formula for Formula E

Formula E cars emerge from their team garages with a suddenness that seems incongruous. Even on their way to practice laps, the drivers turn their cars sharply from the garages and accelerate in apparent anger along the asphalt leading to the circuit. When the second season of the electric formula-racing series begins in late October, in Beijing, they may be able to drive with even more aggression: Unlike during the competition’s first season, each team can now choose its own power train and will also employ a host of smaller technology tricks learned from last year’s racing. Continue reading