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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Battery to Take On Diesel and Natural Gas

Battery building: Aquion Energy recently announced plans to retrofit this factory—which used to make Sony televisions—to make large batteries for use with solar power plants.
RIDC Westmoreland


Aquion Energy says its batteries could make the power grid unnecessary in some countries.

  • By Kevin Bullis
Aquion Energy, a company that's making low-cost batteries for large-scale electricity storage, has selected a site for its first factory and says it's lined up the financing it needs to build it.
The company hopes its novel battery technology could allow some of the world's 1.4 billion people without electricity to get power without having to hook up to the grid.
The site for Aquion's factory is a sprawling former Sony television factory near Pittsburgh. The initial production capacity will be "hundreds" of megawatt-hours of batteries per year—the company doesn't want to be specific yet. It also isn't saying how much funding it's raised or where the money comes from, except to mention that some of it comes from the state of Pennsylvania and none from the federal government.
The first applications are expected to be in countries like India, where hundreds of millions of people in communities outside major cities don't have a connection to the electrical grid or any other reliable source of electricity. Most of these communities use diesel generators for power, but high prices for oil and low prices for solar panels are making it cheaper to install solar in some cases.
To store power generated during the day for use at night, these communities need battery systems that can handle anything from tens of kilowatt-hours to a few megawatt-hours, says Scott Pearson, Aquion's CEO. Such a system could make long-distance transmission lines unnecessary, in much the same way that cell-phone towers have allowed such communities access to cellular service before they had land lines.
Eventually Aquion plans to sell stacks of batteries in countries that have electrical grids. They could provide power during times of peak demand and make up for fluctuations in power that big wind farms and solar power plants contribute to the grid. Those applications require tens to hundreds of gigawatt-hours' worth of storage, so to supply them, Aquion needs to increase its manufacturing capacity. Competing with natural-gas power plants—especially in the United States, where natural gas is so cheap—will mean waiting until economies of scale bring costs down.
The company has said that it initially hopes to make batteries for under $300 per kilowatt-hour, far cheaper than conventional lithium-ion batteries. Lead-acid batteries can be cheaper than Aquion's, but they last only two or three years. Aquion's batteries, which can be recharged 5,000 times, could last for over a decade in situations in which they're charged once a day (the company has tested the batteries for a couple of years so far).
Jay Whitacre, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of materials science and engineering who developed Aquion's technology and founded the company, says the cost will need to drop to less than $200 per kilowatt-hour for grid-connected applications. Reaching this price, and production capacity on the scale of gigawatt-hours, "will take a long time," he says. "But you have to start somewhere."
Whitacre developed the batteries with low cost and durability in mind from the start. In searching for potential electrode materials, he limited himself to cheap, abundant elements, settling on sodium and manganese. He also picked a water-based electrolyte that's safer and cheaper than the organic ones used in lithium-ion batteries. In turn, this allowed him to use cheap manufacturing equipment to make them. To keep costs down, the company is making the batteries with equipment that's normally used to make food or aspirin. Construction on the factory in Pennsylvania will begin immediately, and the first stage is expected to be finished next year.
"Some papers proposing new battery materials look great until you read the fine print about how they're made," Whitacre says. "We focused on manufacturing from the beginning."

Alta Devices: Finding a Solar Solution

Looking to enter a highly ­competitive solar market, Alta Devices hopes to use a combination of technological advances and manufacturing savvy to succeed where many others have crashed and burned.
  • By David Rotman
Suited up: CEO Christopher Norris holds a gallium arsenide wafer used in making Alta’s solar cells. Behind him is a custom-designed reactor used to grow thin layers of the semiconductor. Credit: Gabriela Hasbun
Alta Devices is a small but well-funded startup located in the same nondescript Silicon Valley office building that once served as the headquarters for Solyndra, the infamous solar company that went bankrupt last year after burning through hundreds of millions of dollars in public and venture investments. Whether the location has bad karma is still not clear, jokes Alta's CEO, Christopher Norris. But Norris, a former semiconductor-industry executive and venture capitalist, does know that the fate of his company will hinge on its ability to navigate the risky and expensive process of scaling up its novel technology, which he believes could produce power at a price competitive with fossil-fuel plants and far more cheaply than today's solar modules.
On a table in Alta's conference room, Norris lays out samples of the company's solar cells, flexible black patches encapsulated in clear plastic. They look unremarkable, but that's because the key ingredient is all but invisible: microscopically thin sheets of gallium arsenide. The semiconductor is so good at absorbing sunlight and turning it into electricity that one of Alta's devices, containing an active layer of gallium arsenide only a couple of micrometers thick, recently set a record for photovoltaic efficiency. But gallium arsenide is also extremely expensive to use in solar cells, and thin films of it tend to be fragile and difficult to fabricate. In fact, Alta's innovations lie not in choosing the material—the semiconductor has been used in solar cells on satellites and spacecraft for decades—but in figuring out how to turn it into solar modules cheap enough to be practical for most applications.
The company, which was founded in 2007, is based on the work of two of the world's leading academic researchers in photonic materials. One of them, Eli Yablonovitch, now a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, developed and patented a technique for creating ultrathin films of gallium arsenide in the 1980s, when he worked at Bell Communications Research. The other, Harry Atwater, a professor of applied physics and materials science at Caltech, is a pioneer in the use of microstructures and nanostructures to improve materials' ability to trap light and convert it into electricity. Andy ­Rappaport, a venture capitalist at August Capital, teamed up with the two scientists to found Alta, recruiting fellow Silicon Valley veteran Bill Joy as an investor and, with the other cofounders, building a management team that included Norris. The goal: to make highly efficient solar cells, and to make them more cheaply than those based on existing silicon technology.
It is at this point that many solar startups have gone wrong, rushing to scale up an innovative technology before understanding its economics and engineering challenges. Instead, Alta spent its first several years in stealth mode, quietly attempting to figure out, as Norris puts it, whether its process for making gallium arsenide solar cells was more than a "science experiment" and could serve as a viable basis for manufacturing.
Flexible power: Alta’s solar cells can be made into bendable sheets. In this sample, a series of solar cells are encapsulated in a roofing material. Credit: Gabriela Hasbun
Remnants of the science experiment are still visible in the modest lab at the back of Alta's offices. Small ceramic pots sit on electric hot plates—relics of the company's early efforts to optimize ­Yablonovitch's technique of "epitaxial liftoff," which uses acids to precisely separate thin films of gallium arsenide from the wafers on which they are grown. Elsewhere in the lab the equipment gets progressively larger and more sophisticated, reflecting the scaling up of the process. Near a viewing window that allows potential investors to peer into the lab without donning clean-room coverings is one of the jewels of the company's development efforts: a long piece of equipment in which batches of samples are processed to create the thin-film solar cells. It's convincing evidence that the early work with pots and hot plates can be transformed into an automated process capable of the yields necessary for real-world manufacturing.
When Bill Joy, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems and now a leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist, first saw the business plan for what became Alta Devices, he and his colleagues at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers were already looking for high-efficiency thin-film solar technology. Joy keeps a running list—currently about 12 to 15 items long—of desirable technologies that he believes he has "a reasonable chance of finding." Solar cells that are highly efficient in converting sunlight and that can be made cheaply in flexible sheets could provide ways to dramatically lower the overall costs of solar power. Gallium arsenide technology was a natural choice for efficiency, but Alta's economics were what really interested the investors. "Their core competency was how to make it manufacturable," says Joy, who joined Rappaport as an investor within a few months.
Gallium arsenide is a nearly ideal solar material, for a number of reasons. Not only does it absorb far more sunlight than silicon—thin films of it capture as many photons as silicon 100 times thicker—but it's less sensitive to heat than silicon solar cells, whose performance dramatically declines above 25 °C. And gallium arsenide is better than silicon in retaining its electricity-producing abilities in conditions of relatively low light, such as early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Key to reducing its manufacturing costs is the technique that Yablonovitch helped figure out decades ago. The semiconductor can be grown epitaxially: when thin layers are chemically deposited on a substrate of single-crystal gallium arsenide, each adopts the same single-crystal structure. Yablonovitch found that if a layer of aluminum arsenide is sandwiched between the layers, this can be selectively eaten away with an acid, and the gallium arsenide above can be peeled off. It was an elegant and simple way to create thin films of the material. But the process was also problematic: the single-crystal films easily crack and become worthless. In adapting Yablonovitch's fabrication method, Alta researchers have found ways to create rugged films that aren't prone to cracking. And not only do the thin films use little of the semiconductor material, but the valuable gallium arsenide substrate can be reused multiple times, helping to make the process affordable.
Research by Alta's founding scientists has also led to techniques for increasing the performance of the solar cells. Photovoltaics work because the photons they absorb boost the energy levels of electrons in the semiconductor, freeing them up to flow to metal contacts and create a current. But the roaming electrons can be wasted in various ways, such as in heat. In gallium arsenide, however, the freed electrons frequently recombine with positively charged "holes" to re-create photons and start the process over again. Work done by ­Yablonovitch and Atwater to explain this process has helped Alta design cells to take advantage of this "photon recycling," providing many chances to recapture photons and turn them into electricity.
Thus Alta's efficiency record: its cells have converted 28.3 percent of sunlight into electricity, whereas the highest efficiency for a silicon solar cell is 25 percent, and commonly used thin-film solar materials don't exceed 20 percent. Yablonovitch suggests that Alta has a good chance of eventually breaking 30 percent efficiency and nearing the theoretical limit of 33.4 percent for cells of its type.
The high efficiency, combined with gallium arsenide's ability to perform at relatively high temperatures and in low light, means that the cells can produce two or three times more energy over a year than conventional silicon ones, says Norris. And that, of course, translates directly into lower prices for solar power. Norris says a "not unreasonable expectation" is that the gallium arsenide technology could yield a "levelized cost of energy" (a commonly used industry metric that includes the lifetime costs of building and operating a power plant) of seven cents per kilowatt-hour. At such a price, says Norris, solar would be competitive with fossil fuels, including natural gas; new gas plants generate electricity for around 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. And it would trounce today's solar power, which Norris says costs around 20 cents per kilowatt-hour to generate.
Such numbers are tantalizing. But Norris is quick to bring up another: it costs roughly $1 billion to build a manufacturing facility capable of producing enough solar modules to generate a gigawatt of power, which is roughly the output of several medium-sized power plants. "I don't see any scenario where we would do this on our own," he says.
Silicon Valley has been infatuated with clean tech since the mid-2000s, but it has yet to figure out something crucial: who will supply all the money necessary to scale up energy technologies and build factories to manufacture them? Venture investors might be skilled at picking technologies, but few of them have the deep pockets or the patience required to compete in a capital-intensive business such as the manufacturing of solar modules. The collapse of Solyndra, which built a $733 million factory in Fremont, California, is just the most recent reminder of what can go wrong.
Alta's lead investor Andy Rappaport says he usually stays away from investments in clean tech, including photovoltaics. Many investors in solar, he suggests, have bet that a startup could lower the marginal costs of manufacturing and thus "capture some market share." That's "a recipe for failure," he says, because "you need to spend hundreds of millions to build a factory before you know if you have anything of value." The strategy is especially risky now, because photovoltaics are becoming an increasingly competitive commodity business and prices continue to plummet, creating a moving target for new production. But rather than trying to create value by building manufacturing capacity, Rappaport says, Alta can profit from its intellectual property: "We have said simply and consistently that we can scale capacity faster and build a much stronger company by leveraging partnerships rather than raising and spending our own capital to build factories."
Current investors in Alta include GE, Sumitomo, and Dow Chemical, which recently introduced roofing shingles that incorporate thin-film photovoltaics (see "Can We Build Tomorrow's Breakthroughs?" January/February 2012). Though these companies have invested in several rounds of funding—Alta has so far raised $120 million—eventually Norris would like to see deals, such as licensing agreements or joint ventures, in which manufacturers build capacity to produce Alta's solar cells or use the solar technology in their products. To do that, he says, Alta first needs to "retire the risk" of the production technology, demonstrating to prospective partners that the gallium arsenide solar modules can in fact be produced in an economically competitive way.
Less than a mile from its headquarters, Alta is gutting and renovating a building where Netflix used to warehouse DVDs, turning it into a $40 million pilot facility to test its equipment. Though the facility is far smaller than a commercial solar factory, it is still no small or inexpensive undertaking. Norris warily eyes the new columns required to reinforce the roof, which will need to hold heavy ventilation and emission-control equipment. But the Alta CEO becomes more buoyant as he approaches the nearly completed back section of the facility. There, in several white rooms, are the large custom-designed versions of the lab apparatus used to make the solar cells.
Whether Alta succeeds will depend chiefly on how well these manufacturing inventions perform. The cost of the pilot facility might pale next to the price tag for a commercial-scale solar factory, but it is still a critical investment for the startup. And even as Alta is busily trying to get the facility up and running by the end of the year, Norris says, it is taking a deliberate, methodical approach to the process of scaling up. That contrasts sharply with earlier solar startups that spent hundreds of millions in venture investments to build factories as fast as possible. But Alta's cautious approach should not be confused with a lack of ambition. The goal, says Norris, is to make this a "foundational, transformative technology."
David Rotman is Technology Review's editor. 

Foundation Medicine: Personalizing Cancer Drugs

Foundation Medicine is offering a test that helps oncologists choose drugs targeted to the genetic profile of a patient's tumor cells. Has personalized cancer treatment finally arrived?

  • By Adrienne Burke
It's personal now: Alexis Borisy (left) and Michael Pellini lead an effort to make DNA data available to help cancer patients. Credit: Christopher Harting
Michael Pellini fires up his computer and opens a report on a patient with a tumor of the salivary gland. The patient had surgery, but the cancer recurred. That's when a biopsy was sent to Foundation Medicine, the company that Pellini runs, for a detailed DNA study. Foundation deciphered some 200 genes with a known link to cancer and found what he calls "actionable" mutations in three of them. That is, each genetic defect is the target of anticancer drugs undergoing testing—though not for salivary tumors. Should the patient take one of them? "Without the DNA, no one would have thought to try these drugs," says Pellini. 
Starting this spring, for about $5,000, any oncologist will be able to ship a sliver of tumor in a bar-coded package to Foundation's lab. Foundation will extract the DNA, sequence scores of cancer genes, and prepare a report to steer doctors and patients toward drugs, most still in early testing, that are known to target the cellular defects caused by the DNA errors the analysis turns up. Pellini says that about 70 percent of cases studied to date have yielded information that a doctor could act on—whether by prescribing a particular drug, stopping treatment with another, or enrolling the patient in a clinical trial.
The idea of personalized medicine tailored to an individual's genes isn't new. In fact, several of the key figures behind Foundation have been pursuing the idea for over a decade, with mixed success. "There is still a lot to prove," agrees Pellini, who says that Foundation is working with several medical centers to expand the evidence that DNA information can broadly guide cancer treatment.
Foundation's business model hinges on the convergence of three recent developments: a steep drop in the cost of decoding DNA, much new data about the genetics of cancer, and a growing effort by pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs that combat the specific DNA defects that prompt cells to become cancerous. Last year, two of the 10 cancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration came with a companion DNA test (previously, only one drug had required such a test). So, for instance, doctors who want to prescribe Zelboraf, Roche's treatment for advanced skin cancer, first test the patient for the BRAFV 600E mutation, which is found in about half of all cases.
About a third of the 900 cancer drugs currently in clinical trials could eventually come to market with a DNA or other molecular test attached, according to drug benefits manager Medco. Foundation thinks it makes sense to look at all relevant genes at once—what it calls a "pan-cancer" test. By accurately decoding cancer genes, Foundation says, it uncovers not only the most commonly seen mutations but also rare ones that might give doctors additional clues. "You can see how it will get very expensive, if not impossible, to test for each individual marker separately," Foundation Medicine's COO, Kevin Krenitsky, says. A more complete study "switches on all the lights in the room."
So far, most of Foundation's business is coming from five drug companies seeking genetic explanations for why their cancer drugs work spectacularly in some patients but not at all in others. The industry has recognized that drugs targeted to subsets of patients cost less to develop, can get FDA approval faster, and can be sold for higher prices than traditional medications. "Our portfolio is full of targets where we're developing tests based on the biology of disease," says Nicholas Dracopoli, vice president for oncology biomarkers at Janssen R&D, which is among the companies that send samples to Foundation. "If a pathway isn't activated, you get no clinical benefit by inhibiting it. We have to know which pathway is driving the dissemination of the disease."
Cancer is the most important testing ground for the idea of targeted drugs. Worldwide spending on cancer drugs is expected to reach $80 billion this year—more than is spent on any other type of medicine. But "the average cancer drug only works about 25 percent of the time," says Randy Scott, executive chairman of the molecular diagnostics company Genomic Health, which sells a test that examines 16 breast-cancer genes. "That means as a society we're spending $60 billion on drugs that don't work."
Analyzing tumor DNA is also important because research over the past decade or so has demonstrated that different types of tumors can have genetic features in common, making them treatable with the same drugs. Consider Herceptin, the first cancer drug approved for use with a DNA test to determine who should receive it (there is also a protein-based test). The FDA cleared it in 1998 to target breast cancers that overexpress the HER2 gene, a change that drives the cancer cells to multiply. The same mutation has been found in gastric, ovarian, and other cancers—and indeed, in 2010 the drug was approved to treat gastric cancer. "We've always seen breast cancer as breast cancer. What if a breast cancer is actually like a gastric cancer and they both have the same genetic changes?" asks Jennifer Obel, an oncologist in Chicago who has used the Foundation test.
The science underlying Foundation Medicine had its roots in a 2007 paper published by Levi Garraway and Matthew Meyerson, cancer researchers at the Broad Institute, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They came up with a speedy way to find 238 DNA mutations then known to make cells cancerous. At the time, DNA sequencing was still too expensive for a consumer test—but, Garraway says, "we realized it would be possible to generate a high-yield set of information for a reasonable cost." He and Meyerson began talking with Broad director Eric Lander about how to get that information into the hands of oncologists.
In the 1990s, Lander had helped start Millennium Pharmaceuticals, a genomics company that had boldly promised to revolutionize oncology using similar genetic research. Ultimately, Millennium abandoned the idea—but Lander was ready to try again and began contacting former colleagues to "discuss next steps in the genomics revolution," recalls Mark Levin, who had been Millennium's CEO.
Levin had since become an investor with Third Rock Ventures. Money was no object for Third Rock, but Levin was cautious—diagnostics businesses are difficult to build and sometimes offer low returns. What followed was nearly two years of strategizing between Broad scientists and a parade of patent lawyers, oncologists, and insurance experts, which Garraway describes as being "like a customized business-school curriculum around how we're going to do diagnostics in the new era."
In 2010, Levin's firm put $18 million into the company; Google Ventures and other investors have since followed suit with $15.5 million more. Though Foundation's goals echo some of Millennium's, its investors say the technology has finally caught up. "The vision was right 10 to 15 years ago, but things took time to develop," says Alexis Borisy, a partner with Third Rock who is chairman of Foundation. "What's different now is that genomics is leading to personalized actions."
One reason for the difference is the falling cost of acquiring DNA data. Consider that last year, before his death from pancreatic cancer, Apple founder Steve Jobs paid scientists more than $100,000 to decode all the DNA of both his cancerous and his normal cells. Today, the same feat might cost half as much, and some predict that it will soon cost a few thousand dollars.
So why pay $5,000 to know the status of only about 200 genes? Foundation has several answers. First, each gene is decoded not once but hundreds of times, to yield more accurate results. The company also scours the medical literature to provide doctors with the latest information on how genetic changes influence the efficacy of specific drugs. As Krenitsky puts it, data analysis, not data generation, is now the rate-limiting factor in cancer genomics.
Although most of Foundation's customers to date are drug companies, Borisy says the company intends to build its business around serving oncologists and patients. In the United States, 1.5 million cancer cases are diagnosed annually. Borisy estimates that Foundation will process 20,000 samples this year. At $5,000 per sample, it's easy to see how such a business could reward investors. "That's ... a $100-million-a-year business," says Borisy. "But that volume is still low if this truly fulfills its potential."
Pellini says Foundation is receiving mentoring from Google in how to achieve its aim of becoming a molecular "information company." It is developing apps, longitudinal databases, and social-media tools that a patient and a doctor might use, pulling out an iPad together to drill down from the Foundation report to relevant publications and clinical trials. "It will be a new way for the world to look at molecular information in all types of settings," he says.
Several practical obstacles stand in the way of that vision. One is that some important cancer-related genes have already been patented by other companies—notably BRCA1 and BRCA2, which are owned by Myriad Genetics. These genes help repair damaged DNA, and mutations in them increase the risk of breast or ovarian cancer. Although Myriad's claim to a monopoly on testing those genes is being contested in the courts and could be overturned, Pellini agrees that patents could pose problems for a pan-cancer test like Foundation's. That's one reason Foundation itself has been racing to file patent applications as it starts to make its own discoveries. Pellini says the goal is to build a "defensive" patent position that will give the company "freedom to operate."
Another obstacle is that the idea of using DNA to guide cancer treatment puts doctors in an unfamiliar position. Physicians, as well as the FDA and insurance companies, still classify tumors and drug treatments anatomically. "We're used to calling cancers breast, colon, salivary," says oncologist Thomas Davis, of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, New Hampshire. "That was our shorthand for what to do, based on empirical experience: 'We tried this drug in salivary [gland] cancer and it didn't work.' 'We tried this one and 20 percent of the patients responded.'"
Now the familiar taxonomy is being replaced by a molecular one. It was Davis who ordered DNA tests from several companies for the patient with the salivary-gland tumor. "I got bowled over by the amount of very precise, specific molecular information," he says. "It's wonderful, but it's a little overwhelming." The most promising lead that came out of the testing, he thinks, was evidence of overactivity by the HER2 gene—a result he says was not picked up by Foundation but was found by a different test. That DNA clue suggests to him that he could try prescribing Herceptin, the breast-cancer drug, even though evidence is limited that it works in salivary-gland cancer. "My next challenge is to get the insurance to agree to pay for these expensive therapies based on rather speculative data," he says.
Insurance companies may also be unwilling to pay $5,000 for the pan-cancer test itself, at least initially. Some already balk at paying for well-established tests, says Christopher-Paul Milne, associate director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, who calls reimbursement "one of the biggest impediments to personalized medicine." But Milne predicts that it's just a matter of time before payers come around as the number of medications targeted to people's DNA grows. "Once you get 10 drugs that require screening, or to where practitioners wouldn't think about using a drug without screening first, the floodgates will open," he says. "Soon, in cancer, this is the way you will do medicine."
Adrienne Burke was founding editor of Genome Technology magazine and is a contributor to and Yahoo Small Business Advisor.

The fallout of Rupee depreciation and fuel price increase

Subsidies? Well yes, but make them smart subsidies

Nigeria: Subsidising 
the neighbours
Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamidi Sanusi, had a problem. In a recent live interview with the Aljazeera TV, he said that his country had to raise the retail prices of all petroleum products to match the rising international prices, despite the violent and massive public protests against that move. That was because Nigeria could not afford to subsidise them anymore though Nigeria is a leading petroleum producing country and a net exporter in that commodity.
“We had fixed the retail prices of petroleum prices in Nigeria when the international price of crude oil was $ 50 a barrel” he said. “But the international prices are around $ 110 a barrel now and we still supply petroleum products at the original prices” Then, he came out with his problem, a problem which he raised as an economist and not as a politician. “This was a huge burden on the Nigerian government’s budget because that money could have been used for developing the basic infrastructure of Nigeria which is now far from desired. But the major problem was something else. In all the neighbouring countries where the petroleum prices were at the current international level, it became a very profitable business for some groups to buy those products at the subsidised prices in Nigeria and smuggle the same to those countries and sell still at a lower price than the international prices. So, the demand for petroleum products in Nigeria was higher than their normal level. The government’s subsidy requirements were therefore higher than what it would have otherwise been. Worst was that the Nigerian government was subsidising the petroleum consumers of neighbouring countries as well”
Governor Sanusi’s explanation was the official justification of the government’s decision to raise the retail prices of petroleum products in the market and response to the massive and bloody protests that had brought Nigeria’s economy to a halt.
Sri Lanka: Making money by selling subsidised rice
Nigeria is not alone in this predicament. In all the countries where unmanaged and uncontrolled subsidies have been extended by governments in good public spirit, there had been similar unintended consequences and wastage of scarce resources of the countries concerned. In Sri Lanka, prior to 1977, every citizen of the country, irrespective of the income level, had been supplied with two measures of rice, equal to about two kilograms, at a highly subsidised price. The objective of the government in doing so was noble: Eliminate hunger amongst the poor by supplying them with their staple food. But this system engendered a thriving underground market in which traders started to buy subsidised rice from the franchise holders by making a payment to them and supply the same to hotels in the city where there was a high price for rice in the open market. So, both the poor and the rich got the opportunity of earning an additional income through the subsidy scheme which economists call ‘earning a rent’ meaning that it was earned not by making a worthwhile contribution to the economy but by using the available control and regulatory systems. So, the government wanted people to consume rice. Instead, they made money out of it and spent on other needs.
Fishermen’s demand: Reduce prices or no fishing anymore
After the fuel prices were increased by a significant margin in Sri Lanka recently, there were spontaneous agitations calling for reducing them to the original price levels. The fishermen on the North Western coast of Sri Lanka refused to accept the subsidy that was offered to them by the government on the fear that that subsidy was a temporary measure to placate them and would not be continued. They refused to take their boats to sea until the government met their demand. Similar demands were made by others like three-wheeler taxi men, lorry owners and school van operators. This was not what they were supposed to do because, if their costs had increased due to the fuel price hike, they should have hiked the prices of their individual products as well to compensate for the cost increases. The objective of the fuel price increase by the government was to discourage the excessive use of petroleum products by both consumers and producers and thereby check on the growth of the fuel bill of the country. Economists call this allowing a ‘pass-through’ of the price increase to the rest of the economy forcing everyone to make a painful but necessary adjustment to their consumption pattern. This adjustment is exactly what is needed in Sri Lanka today where everyone, including the government, is notorious for over-consuming beyond their means. Both the private bus operators and the Ceylon Electricity Board in the very first instance and lorry owners subsequently made this pass through by raising bus fares, electricity tariffs and lorry hiring charges, respectively, in line with the increase in the fuel prices.
A price pass-through is not necessarily inflationary
Many have feared that such a pass through will raise the cost of living and contribute to high future inflation. This argument is both right and ill-conceived. It is right because a fuel price increase raises the consumer prices and shrinks the basket of goods and services which a person could buy out of a given income. It in fact puts the poor and those earning fixed incomes to innumerable misery because they are now forced to tighten their belts beyond the minimum consumption needed to maintain them and their families. So, the painful adjustment which the price increase expects everyone to make falls squarely on them. However, this argument of long term inflation is ill-conceived because the initial increase in the cost of living will fizzle out pretty soon if the central bank does not increase money supply and allow the economy to increase its total aggregate demand through a liberal credit expansion. All other groups will be forced to accommodate the initial price increase through an improvement in productivity in the long run. This process which should naturally occur in the economy as per the objective of increasing fuel prices will short-circuit if the central bank allows credit to expand liberally, ostensibly to force-track economic growth beyond the country’s true growth potential. Such a liberal credit expansion, in the opinion of economists, is a subsidy to be extended by the central bank to the economy which a central bank is neither capable of doing nor supposed to do. It is not capable of doing it because merely through money creation it cannot influence people to work hard and deliver prosperity; it is not supposed to do so because it delays the adjustment needed and makes its own life painful.
Offer smart subsidies
to the poor Economists generally agree that the ultra-poor and the vulnerable need support in such an event to wade through the adjustment process successfully. Such support is generally delivered to them through a subsidy scheme, not just a general subsidy system, but a ‘smart subsidy system’.
The general subsidy schemes are not endorsed by economists due to several weaknesses inherent in them. A smart subsidy system is one that eliminates or minimises those inherent weaknesses.
What are the weaknesses in general subsidy systems?
Avoid unintended consequences
First, they generate unintended consequences throughout the economy. A subsidy is not free but paid for by someone else in the economy. For instance, if the government extended a cash subsidy to fishermen or, as demanded by them, reduced the prices of fuel to their original levels without a compensating reduction in costs in the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation or the Indian Oil Company, there are losses to be made by these suppliers. The Indian Oil Company can close shop and go home if these losses are mounting. But the Petroleum Corporation, being a public monopoly, cannot do so easily. It could for some time continue to operate by financing losses by borrowing from banks, especially from state banks. But sooner or later, the loss levels will become too high even for the banks to bear. At that stage, its losses have to be borne by ‘someone else’ and this someone else in this case is the government as its owner. The government has to pay for those losses by increasing taxes, or by cutting expenses elsewhere or by printing money or by increasing public debt. In the past, the government did so by taking over the debt of the Petroleum Corporation by issuing Treasury bonds to the two state banks which is a combination of both printing money (because it increases net credit to government by banks) and by raising public debt (because it adds to the total public debt of the country). Whatever the method of financing, it is an unintended consequence because in the first instance, it reduces the credit granting capacity of state banks to other customers and when the government takes over the debt later, it causes future inflation. A central bank cannot be happy about the Petroleum Corporation running at losses or its losses being financed through bank borrowing or, eventually, those losses being taken over by the government.
The Moral Hazard
Problem: Give subsidies and corrupt them too
Second, subsidies lead to a problem known as the ‘moral hazard problem’ in an economy. A moral hazard is simply a situation where, when one is supported by another without a commensurate sacrifice by the first one, the supported person has no incentive to work for gaining capacity for standing on his own feet one day and, in the absence of this quality, will become a greater burden to the person who chooses to support him. A good example is the case of a child whose home assignments are done by his mother out of pure love for him. But the child does not learn to do it by himself and, as a result, the mother will have to continue to do his assignments at a great burden to herself. This problem is not a new one and had been known for long. As preached by the Buddha in the Chakkavatthi Seehanada Sutra in the Dheegha Nikaya, a king, on being advised by his Ministers that people in his kingdom had resorted to theft and looting because they did not have enough money to undertake their own enterprises, had given them, out of sympathy, free capital from his treasury. After sometime, people had realised that they could get more money from the king if they engaged themselves in more theft and looting. So, instead of theft and looting subsiding, they had proliferated in his kingdom. So, uncontrolled subsidies, instead of helping people, perpetuate their misery and become a huge burden to the subsidy provider.
Adverse selection: Bad guys get together to be selected
Third, subsidies generate another problem called the ‘adverse selection’ problem by promoting people to flock to get the subsidy though they may not deserve to receive such a subsidy. If fishermen are given a ration of fuel, many will join the bandwagon of fishermen to get the benefit of the subsidy for them. The wrong signal given by the subsidy collects an underserving group together and the selection of that group by the government for granting the subsidy is adverse to the government right from the beginning. That is because the government comes under constant pressure by this group for enhancement and continuation of the subsidy. The subsidy is paid with a good intention, but it does not generate the expected results because it is used by people who have been adversely selected.
Have a timeline for exiting the subsidy
Fourth, subsidies, once granted, have the tendency of becoming a permanent feature in the system and at a later date, when it is no longer necessary to grant that subsidy, it will be difficult for the government to withdraw the same. One good example is the fertiliser subsidy granted to farmers in Sri Lanka. The advocates of the subsidy had justified it on the ground that it is not a waste of resources but an investment because it helps farmers to raise output by reducing their cost of production. However, the unlimited and untargeted subsidy ballooned when the international prices of fertiliser too ballooned since 2007. Accordingly, the fertiliser subsidy which was around Rs 3.6 billion in 2004 shot up to Rs 11 billion in 2007 and further to Rs 26 billion in 2008. It has remained around that level since then draining a significant portion of the country’s scarce resources for the subsidy. Hence, even if the government wants to curtail or eliminate the subsidy now, it is not possible to do so without facing severe resistance from the recipients. Hence, a smart subsidy should have clearly thought out this problem right at the outset and introduced a dateline for exiting the subsidy when it has delivered the desired results.
Have a fall back strategy to hang on when things go wrong
Fifth, subsidies can go wrong due to factors beyond the control of authorities. One possibility is the cost escalation due to increase in the international prices. Sri Lanka’s fertiliser subsidy is a casualty of this adverse development. At the time the open and unrestricted fertiliser subsidy was designed in 2005, the international prices of petroleum products including that of fertilisers were at an affordable level and therefore the authorities could talk very safely of fertiliser subsidy as ‘an investment’ because the total cost was to rise only from Rs 3.6 billion in 2004 to Rs 4.2 billion in 2005. This marginal increase was within the resources of the government. However, the year 2006 ended up with a total subsidy level of Rs 12 billion due to cost escalations. The authorities still stuck to the original plan and continued with their so called ‘investment’ in the agriculture sector. But in 2008, fertiliser prices increased sharply raising the cost of the subsidy to Rs 26 billion and in 2009 to Rs 27 billion. When such mishaps occur, there should be a ‘fall-back strategy’ designed and built into the subsidy model so that the authorities could easily move out of the subsidy for a better alternative. But this has not been there in the fertiliser subsidy and as a result the subsidy levels have remained every year at above Rs 25 billion throughout since 2008.
Offer smart subsidies
So, subsidies could be extended to help those vulnerable groups in the case of a sudden price increase due to international price increases. But those subsidies should necessarily be smart subsidies with clear targeting of the beneficiary groups, avoiding unintended consequences, free from moral hazard and adverse selection issues, an announced timeline for exiting the subsidy after the desired results have been attained and a clearly thought-out fall back strategy in the event of the subsidy becoming untenable.
The general subsidies with no smartness built into them are doomed to failure though they are very much desired by politicians and the public at large.
(W.A. Wijewardena could be reached at )    

A Guide to Integrated Urban Flood Risk Management for the 21st Century

Cities and Flooding

Cities and Flooding
  • Floods are the most frequent among all natural disasters, causing widespread devastation, economic damages and loss of human lives.

  • The East Asia and Pacific region is particularly vulnerable: In the past 30 years, the number of floods in Asia amounted to about 40% of the total worldwide.

  • Urban flooding is becoming increasingly costly and difficult to manage as low- and middle income countries in the region transition to largely urban societies, with a greater concentration of people and assets in urban centers.

  • In addition to direct economic damage, floods have long-term consequences such as loss of education opportunities, disease and reduced nutrition which may erode development goals.

  • Rapid urbanization creates poorer neighborhoods which lack adequate housing, infrastructure and services, making the poor more vulnerable to floods, especially women and children.

  • The most effective way to manage flood risk is to take an integrated approach which combines structural and non-structural measures.

  • This includes:
    • Building drainage channels and floodways;

    • Incorporating “urban greening” such as wetlands and environmental buffers;

    • Creating flood warning systems; and

    • Land use planning for flood avoidance.

  • The key is getting the balance right, because current risks may change in the future as the effects of urbanization and climate change accelerate, requiring flexible solutions.

  • Various aspects of the impact of these measures need to be considered, including environmental degradation, biodiversity, equity, social capital and other potential trade-offs.

  • Successful flood risk management requires robust decision making, with greater coordination between different levels of government, public sector agencies, civil society, educational and private sectors among others.

  • Tools such as flood hazard maps as well as simulation and visualization techniques can help decision makers better understand flood risk and its hazards, predict outcomes and assess costs.

  • Communications also plays a significant role in raising awareness and reinforcing preparedness. The guidebook warns that less severe disasters can be forgotten in less than three years.

  • As flood risk cannot be eliminated entirely, planning for a speedy recovery is also necessary, using reconstruction as an opportunity to build safer and stronger communities which have the capacity to withstand flooding better in the future.

Tear Down This Wall

Prahlada Maharaja“Prahlada Maharaja said: One who is sufficiently intelligent should use the human form of body from the very beginning of life — in other words, from the tender age of childhood — to practice the activities of devotional service, giving up all other engagements. The human body is most rarely achieved, and although temporary like other bodies, it is meaningful because in human life one can perform devotional service. Even a slight amount of sincere devotional service can give one complete perfection.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.6.1)
Among the many issues discussed during a campaign for the office of President of the United States is foreign policy. How will such and such candidate deal with other nations, including those who may be hostile to the country? On the campaign trail it is easy to talk your way through difficult issues. You can say anything, as your words don’t directly affect legislation. The goal of the candidate is to get elected, not necessarily to immediately impact policy. Once you get into office and bring in your handlers, aides, advisers and administrators, you can make more rational decisions.
The general recommendation is for presidents to remain neutral in foreign affairs. Don’t ruffle any feathers. Why would you want to raise hostilities that might get your country into more trouble? The other nations understand that you might talk tough during the campaign season, but once you get into office they expect you to use keen diplomacy to get what you want. Even in the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, punishment, or danda, is not the only means for achieving an end. There are other options such as pacification, giving gifts, and using divide and conquer strategies for rulers to achieve their stated objective.
“After some time, the teachers Shanda and Amarka thought that Prahlada Maharaja was sufficiently educated in the diplomatic affairs of pacifying public leaders, appeasing them by giving them lucrative posts, dividing and ruling over them and punishing them in cases of disobedience. Then, one day, after Prahlada's mother had personally washed the boy and dressed him nicely with sufficient ornaments, they presented him before his father.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.5.19)
Prahlada MaharajaDivide and conquer is one of the more intriguing options because it has a psychological component to it. Dandais straightforward. The aggressor sets the rules in any conflict, so if you have more military might then it is easy to just impose your will on another party. The United States has had the predominant military in the world for the past hundred years or so, but the option for armed conflict is not the one first taken. Rather than anger others, there are paths of lesser resistance like pacification and the giving of gifts. Typically, though, pacification is the resort for the weaker parties.
Division is your way to attack the enemy from within. You inspire rebel forces inside of the enemy camp to fight their way to achieve their interest, which is ideally your interest as well. Division is rarely practiced in the open, as the strong rhetoric required is not considered diplomatic. Why try “cowboy diplomacy” when you can speak softly on the outside and work your way around the edges without the enemy knowing?
One particular world leader in recent times was advised not to openly criticize a regime that had erected a wall in one of its satellite countries. Walls are only built when you want to keep people from coming in or leaving. The influx of people is only a problem when the nation you govern is attractive to outsiders. In the case of this small territory, the problem was the opposite. The people were dying to get out. If you live in an area with tight government controls and limited freedom, you will likely want to flee. The move may be difficult, but in the end you have to do what is right for yourself and your family. The egress is similar to leaving a job that you might be comfortable in. If the boss makes many changes and cuts your salary enough you will have no other choice but to leave and find another job.
The giant wall at the city’s boundary caused a problem for the people wanting to leave. The citizens that wanted to move out couldn’t. They’d have to try to climb the giant wall, which would place them out in the open for the governing bodies to see. The government put up the wall for a reason; they did not want people to leave. If someone did try to escape and then ended up getting caught, they surely wouldn’t be treated well by the authorities. Watching from the outside, many nations thought the government’s behavior was reprehensible. If people want to leave a country, why not allow them to? Why erect a wall?
the Berlin WallThough they were thinking this way, it was difficult for them to openly share their feelings, as a lack of confidence in the proper path often prevents the open sharing of criticism. “For starters, who is anyone to criticize anyone else? If one nation has a wall on its boundary, who am I, an outsider, to criticize? I don’t know their circumstances. I don’t know why they may have put up that wall. What gives me the right to say it should be done differently? Instead, I should kindly ask them to consider shifting gears, being collegial on the outside and then a little stricter when talking to them personally.”
On one visit to this famous wall, the world leader in question went the bold route. To the people gathered at the wall, he assertively advised the leader of that area to “tear down this wall.” The recommendation was straightforward, honest and could not be misconstrued. The message wasn’t, “Please consider getting rid of this wall”, or, “Please try reforming your nation so that people can live happily within these confines.” A few years later, the inspired people of that city would tear down that wall themselves, not waiting for help from the government.
The preacher who knows the true position of the spirit soul and its ideal home also is very bold in presenting their message. The spirit soul is the essence of identity, the spark within every living being. The temporary coverings are like shirts and coats that get put on before a trip and then taken off once the destination is reached. Through the transmigration of the soul, or reincarnation, these dresses are constantly put on and taken off.
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”  (Lord KrishnaBhagavad-gita, 2.22)
The soul remains the same throughout, but since the land inhabited is filled with inhibiting matter, there is no happiness. Through mental speculation and fruitive activity, the living being tries their best to make use of their environment. They are not allowed to escape the impenetrable walls of maya, or illusion, because they are unaware of their proper identity. Thus so many other systems of regulation arise. As the soul’s natural desire is to serve, that propensity follows so many outlets within the confines of maya’s walls. Philanthropy, charity, sense gratification, concern for the material wellbeing of others, protection of the environment, the feverish pursuit of profit, the desire to control people through accepting the reins of government, and so many other ventures are attempted to fill the void for lasting happiness.
Lord KrishnaThe Vaishnava preacher knows both the position of the soul and its link to the Supersoul, who has a personal form in His original feature. The spirit souls come from God and only in His association is there real happiness. The walls of maya are sort of like the perimeter of a large prison house. Through the proper behavior one can escape from confinement by figuratively tearing down maya’s walls. As this is what is best for every spirit soul, the Vaishnava boldly declares that the walls of maya must be brought down, not accommodated.
What is the difference between tearing down maya’s walls and remaining within them? What sort of behavior helps one break free of the prison-like environment? Mental speculation will be of no help in this regard. The human mind has the ability to discriminate, so when accepting the most righteous path of bhakti-yoga, ordevotional service, there certainly must be more than just blind sentiment. Nevertheless, the right path cannot initially be revealed through mental effort alone. One must tap into the storehouse of knowledge that is the Vedic literature, with its most important works being the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam.
The Vedas are non-different from God, so it is difficult to say that some works are more important than others. The Bhagavatam is generally considered the best because it deals exclusively with devotion to the Lord, without hints of procedures for material acquisition, dry renunciation, or mystic perfection. These other pursuits can help elevate one to the platform of God consciousness, but they can also serve as distractions. If the boss that previously treated you horribly one day comes in with a new enticing offer, you may be tempted to stay at the job. The employer’s intent is to make you forget about his past transgressions. But accepting the entreaty is a mistake because within a short period of time the same erratic behavior from the boss will resurface.
In a similar manner, taking shelter of any type of fruitive activity, mental speculation, or mystic perfection may make the living being temporarily comfortable again within maya’s prison, but only in bhakti are the walls eviscerated, with the invigorated spirit soul more anxious than ever to take the right action. The spark of life brings the potential for excelling in spiritual practice. The Vaishnava preacher presents all of this information, giving both the end-goal and the tools necessary for achieving it. The end is really the beginning of an endless pursuit that keeps the soul in ananda, or bliss.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Shri Krishna, is the object of sacrifice. The most potent sacrifice is the sankirtana-yajnachantingthe holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. The recommendation is to take the chanting option right away. At the same time learn about Krishna and His teachings from the Bhagavad-gita. Become fully convinced of the position of the spirit soul, how it transcends birth and death, and how it remains always in Krishna’s association once full God consciousness is reached.
After acceptance of the devotional path read more about Krishna’s personal qualities and pastimes found in the Bhagavatam, which has accounts from great devotees and teachers like Prahlada Maharaja, who as a five year old boy instructed his classmates on the supremacy of vishnu-bhakti. In this way spend the rest of your life immersed in God consciousness, which automatically ensures that maya’s walls will have no influence. Tear down the walls of illusion instead of trying to work within them. Follow the path of bhakti, invite Krishna into your consciousness and soon you will taste the real fruit of your existence, freedom in pure bliss.
Question: What if I fail? What if I try to scale the walls and don’t make it over? Won’t maya punish me again?
In the past many yogis, real transcendentalists trying to perfect consciousness, were unsuccessful in fully scaling maya’s giant walls within their lifetime. If you try to escape from the government and get caught, they will punish you. With maya, she will provide many enticements to get you to stay within her web of illusion - which makes you take objects of matter to be yours and your material body to be your identity - but if the effort is directed at Krishna immediately, there is no need to fear.
Krishna saving DraupadiSeveral sincere devotees of the past were pure of heart and only dependent on Krishna for everything. They were attacked by others opposed to God or were stricken temporarily by the influence of passion, but they were nevertheless saved. Queen Draupadi was helpless in an assembly where other kings tried to strip her naked. At the last moment she finally prayed to Krishna, and the Lord came and took the form of her dress. No matter how much the miscreants pulled, they couldn’t seem to get Draupadi’s sari off of her. Prahlada Maharaja was a five year old practicing devotion, so he had no way of protecting himself. His father tried to kill him so many times, but Krishna was there to save the boy and maintain his devotional standard.
The body must be renounced at some point, so even if we don’t succeed in escaping the material prison house or purifying its influence within this lifetime, if the effort in devotion is sincere, in the next life the process resumes from the same position. It’s like hitting pause while watching a movie, taking care of some work, and then returning to the same spot. This feature is not available outside the realm of devotional service. If you build a house halfway and leave it, there’s no guarantee that the structure will remain there for you to complete. If the house should crumble, all of your past effort goes to waste.
If just one sincere utterance of Krishna’s name is made, there is no chance of ever meeting doom. Even if an accidental fall from grace should take place in the future, the divine consciousness will eventually revive. The spirit soul is capable of amazing things. If you look around and see the complex arrangements created by man, you should know that the people who created them have the same internal qualities that you do. Therefore the potential for action is tremendous, and with bhakti-yoga the potential meets its ideal match, resulting in a synergistic force that is capable of scaling the highest walls.
In Closing:
This wonderful land, don’t you dare leave,
To the almighty government’s will do you cleave.

If fail in your desire for freedom to gain,
Authorities to inflict punishing pain.

This material land home that you do call,
Has similar boundaries, unscalable walls.

But Vaishnava has answer, gives it to you bold,
To be devoted to Krishna and name you’re told.

Maya’s walls tear down, break them with force,
Or remove their influence, follow bhakti’s course.

Scientists Use Stem Cells to Generate Human Eggs in the Lab

The breakthrough could lead to future treatments for infertility (and a lot of controversy)
The Human Ovum via Wikimedia
The conventional line of thinking says that women can produce only a finite number of egg cells over their lifetimes. Some researchers dispute this, but a new study suggests that it might not matter. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital claim they have isolated stem cells from human ovaries and used them to generate egg cells in the lab, a breakthrough that could someday lead to new infertility treatments.
Those treatments are a long way off, but the finding is nonetheless pretty huge. It means that not only could stem cells be isolated from women with fertility problems to produce eggs in the lab, but that biologists could gain whole new insights into the way fertility works--how eggs are impacted by things like nutrition and pharmaceuticals.

The new study comes on the heels of a number of recent animal fertility studies that suggest that adult mice produce the same kind of stem cells that can produce healthy eggs and healthy offspring. Using equipment that can identify a specific protein found on the surfaces of reproductive cells (both male and female), scientists isolated them in the lab. They then showed that the mice cells wold generate viable eggs, capable of producing healthy embryos.
But it was unclear if the same technique would work with humans. To find out, a team of researchers obtained reproductive stem cells donated by Japanese women undergoing gender reassignment because of gender identity disorder. From these stem cells, the team was able to generate immature egg cells that showed the properties of human eggs. The researchers then placed the stem cells into human ovarian tissue and placed that into mice. Within a couple of weeks, these cells generated the proper ovarian structures for producing eggs, as well as egg cells that appear healthy and ready for fertilization.
Of course, there’s no telling yet whether that’s really the case. In the U.S., researchers aren’t allowed to fertilize human eggs in the lab just to see what happens, and there’s no guarantee that a lab-grown cell wouldn’t develop some kind of abnormality (actually, this happens a lot). Initial use of the technique would be to create eggs for research use in the lab (sans fertilization of course). But fertility treatments, while on the distant horizon, aren’t out of the question at some point in the future.