Month: October 2017

US Trade Panel Recommends Varying Solar Panel Import Restrictions

Members of the U.S. International Trade Commission on Tuesday made three different recommendations for restricting solar cell and panel imports on Tuesday, giving President Donald Trump a range of choices to address injury to domestic producers.

The recommendations range from an immediate 35 percent tariff on all imported panels to a four-year quota system that allows the import of up to 8.9 gigawatts of solar cells and modules in the first year. The president’s ultimate decision could have a major impact on the price of U.S. power generated by the sun.

Both supporters and critics of import curbs on solar products were disappointed by the proposals, which were unveiled at a public meeting in Washington.

Trade remedies were requested in a petition earlier this year by two small U.S. manufacturers that said they were unable to compete with cheap panels made overseas, mainly in Asia. The companies, Suniva Inc and the U.S. arm of Germany’s SolarWorld AG, said Tuesday’s recommendations did not go far enough to protect domestic producers.

“The ITC’s remedy simply will not fix the problem the ITC itself identified,” Suniva said in a statement. The company, which is majority owned by Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy, filed the rare Section 201 petition nine days after seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April. It had sought a minimum price on panels of 74 cents a watt, nearly double their current cost.

One analyst said the stiffest remedy recommended, a 35 percent tariff on solar panels, would add about 10 percent to the cost of a utility-scale project but would have a negligible impact on the price of residential systems because panels themselves make up a small portion of their overall cost.

“It’s not nearly the doomsday impact we were potentially expecting,” said Camron Barati, a solar analyst with market research firm IHS Markit Technology.

But the top U.S. solar trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in a statement on Tuesday that any tariffs would be “intensely harmful” to the industry. The group has lobbied heavily against import restrictions on the grounds that they would undermine a 70 percent drop in the cost of solar since 2010 that has made the technology competitive with fossil fuels.

Recommendations

The ITC will deliver its report to Trump by Nov. 13. He will have broad leeway to come up with his own alternative or do nothing at all. Since only two members agreed on the same restrictions, there was no majority recommendation from the four-member commission.

“There is still plenty to be worried about,” said MJ Shiao, who follows the U.S. solar market for GTM Research.

Trump has vowed to protect U.S. manufacturers from low-priced imports, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has talked about tariff-rate quotas as a flexible way to protect some industries, allowing imports in as needed, but only up to a certain level before high tariffs kick in.

Commissioners David Johanson and Irving Williamson urged the president to impose an immediate 30 percent tariff on completed solar modules, to be lowered in subsequent years, and a tariff-rate quota on solar cells. Imports of cells in excess of one gigawatt would be subject to a 30 percent tariff that would decline after the first year.

ITC Chair Rhonda Schmidtlein recommended an immediate 35 percent four-year tariff on imported solar modules, with a four-year tariff rate quota on solar cells. This would impose a 30 percent tariff on imports exceeding 0.5 gigawatts and 10 percent on imports below that level. These tariffs would decline over a four-year period.

In the most lenient recommendation, Commissioner Meredith Broadbent said the president should impose a four-year quota system that allows for imports of up to 8.9 gigawatts of solar cells and modules in the first year.

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California Wildfire Insurance Claims Top $3.3B

Property damage claims from a series of deadly October wildfires now exceed $3.3 billion, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said Tuesday.

The figure represented claims for homes and businesses insured by 15 companies and was more than triple the previous estimate of $1 billion. Jones said the number would continue to rise as more claims were reported.

The amount of claims now reported means that the fires caused more damage than California’s 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which was previously the state’s costliest, with $2.7 billion in damage in 2015 dollars, according to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Forty-three people were killed in the October blazes that tore through Northern California, including the state’s renowned winemaking regions in Napa and Sonoma counties. They destroyed at least 8,900 buildings as more than 100,000 people were forced to evacuate. It was the deadliest series of fires in California history.

Several dozen buildings were also damaged or destroyed in fires in Southern California’s Orange County.

“Behind each and every one of these claims … are ordinary people, Californians who lost their homes, lost their vehicles, in some cases whose family members lost their lives,” said Jones, a Democrat who is running for attorney general.

Jones said there were just over 10,000 claims for partial home losses, more than 4,700 total losses and about 700 for business property. There were 3,200 claims for damaged or destroyed personal vehicles, 91 for commercial vehicles, 153 for farm equipment and 111 for watercraft.

The figures do not reflect uninsured losses, including public infrastructure and the property of people who were uninsured or underinsured.

Arson suspect’s warning

Meanwhile, a man facing arson charges for a wildfire that destroyed two homes south of the San Francisco Bay Area had an ominous message for a prosecutor during a court hearing Tuesday: “You’re next.”

Marlon Coy, 54, uttered the words while glaring at Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeffrey Rosell while he explained four of the felony charges Coy is facing, the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported.

Coy pleaded not guilty to charges of arson of a nondwelling, arson causing bodily injury and being a felon in possession of a firearm, the newspaper reported.

Witnesses saw Coy start the fire on October 16 near a property in Santa Cruz County connected to someone with whom he had a dispute, sheriff’s officials said.

Coy was arrested in possession of jewelry and a bicycle taken from a home that had been burglarized while under evacuation, according to sheriff’s officials.

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Pruitt to Put New Members on EPA Science Panels

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday he intends to replace the outside experts that advise him on science and public health issues with new board members holding more diverse views.

 

In announcing the changes, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suggested many previously appointed to the panels were potentially biased because they had received federal research grants. The 22 boards advise EPA on a wide range of issues, including drinking water standards and pesticide safety.

 

“Whatever science comes out of EPA shouldn’t be political science,” said Pruitt, a Republican lawyer who previously served as the attorney general of Oklahoma. “From this day forward, EPA advisory committee members will be financially independent from the agency.”

 

Pruitt has expressed skepticism about the consensus of climate scientists that man-made carbon emissions are the primary cause of global warming. He also overruled experts that had recommended pulling a top-selling pesticide from the market after peer-reviewed studies showed it damaged children’s brains.

 

Pruitt said he will name new leadership and members to three key EPA advisory boards soon — the Science Advisory Board, Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Board of Scientific Counselors.

 

It was not clear from the EPA’s media release if all current board members serving out their appointed terms were immediately dismissed. EPA’s press office did not respond to messages seeking clarification on Tuesday.

 

As part of his directive, Pruitt said he will bar appointees who currently in receipt of EPA grants or who is in a position to benefit such grants. He exempted people who work at state, local or tribal agencies, saying he wants to introduce more “geographic diversity” to the panels.

 

The five-page policy Pruitt issued Tuesday makes no mention of other potential conflicts of interest, such as accepting research funding from corporate interests regulated by EPA.

 

Tuesday announcement comes after Pruitt in May said he would not reappoint nine of the 18 members of the Board of Scientific Counselors to serve a second three-year term, as had been customary.

 

Current board chairwoman Deborah Swackhamer said the members were already required to follow rules intended to prevent conflicts of interests.

 

“It obviously stacks the deck against scientists who do not represent corporate special interests,” said Swackhamer, a retired professor who taught environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota. “It speaks volumes that people funded by special interests are OK to be advisers, but not those who have received federal grants.”

 

Senate Environment Committee Chairman John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who shares Pruitt’s skepticism of mainstream climate science, cheered the move. He said EPA’s science boards would now better reflect the views of rural states like his own.

 

But environmentalists worried that Pruitt will now select board members with financial ties to the fossil fuel and chemical industries.

 

“The Trump EPA’s continued attack on science will likely be one of the most lasting and damaging legacies of this administration,” said Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that approves EPA’s funding. “Pruitt is purging expert scientists from his science boards — and replacing them with mouthpieces for big polluters.”

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US Social Media Giants Pledge to Combat Foreign Disinformation

Attorneys for Twitter, Facebook and Google on Tuesday told U.S. lawmakers that Russian entities used their platforms to sow discord and disinformation during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, but downplayed the magnitude of those efforts.

“Foreign actors used fake accounts to place ads in Facebook and Instagram that reached millions of Americans over a two-year period,” Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch said, testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. “Many of these ads and posts are inflammatory. Some are downright offensive.”

Sean Edgett, Twitter’s acting general counsel, said the company studied all tweets posted from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15, 2016, and found that election-related content posted by automated Russian troll accounts “was comparatively small.” He said the Russian troll accounts made up “around 1/100th of a percent of total Twitter accounts” during the time studied.

“Twitter believes that any activity of that kind — regardless of magnitude — is unacceptable and we agree we must do better to prevent it,” he said.

Twitter has taken action against the suspected Russian trolls, suspending 2,752 accounts and implementing new dedicated teams “to enhance the quality of the information our users see,” Edgett said.

Facebook, meanwhile, said it would hire more people to vet and, when necessary, remove content, and verify and publish the identities of election advertisers.

Watch: Social media companies to fight disinformation

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the Senate requiring some of the very steps technology giants say they are implementing on their own.

“These platforms are being used by people who wish us harm and wish to undercut our way of life,” said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“It shouldn’t be news to anyone that Russia interfered in the election,” said California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. “What is really staggering and hard to fully comprehend is how easily and successfully they turned modern technologies to their advantage.”

The social media attorneys said Russian trolling campaigns consistently sought to rile up Americans, first in a way damaging to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. After the election, they said, Russian efforts appeared aimed at sowing doubts about the legitimacy of Republican Donald Trump’s victory at the polls — a point seized upon by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

“Russia does not have loyalty to a political party in the United States; their goal is to divide us and discredit our democracy,” Grassley said.

Representatives from the same social media companies testify Wednesday before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. 

VOA’s Joshua Fatzick contributed to this report.

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Britain Accelerates Brexit Plans; Talks Also to Speed Up

Britain is accelerating preparations for “all eventualities” when it leaves the European Union, but both sides are hopeful an agreement on stepping up talks to unravel more than 40 years of partnership will be sealed soon.

With only 17 months remaining until Britain’s expected departure, the slow pace of talks has increased the possibility that London will leave without a deal, alarming business leaders who say time is running out for them to make investment decisions.

British and EU negotiators met in Brussels on Tuesday to try to agree a schedule for further divorce talks, with an initial proposal from the bloc to hold three more rounds before the end of the year not winning instant approval from London.

The pressure has spurred the British government to step up its Brexit plans, employing thousands more workers and spending millions to make sure customs posts, laws and systems work on day one of Brexit, even without a deal on a future relationship.

At a meeting with her ministers Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May was updated on plans for the tax and customs authority to add 3,000 to 5,000 workers next year and for spending of 500 million pounds ($660.45 million) for Brexit.

Domestic preparations

“Alongside the negotiations in Brussels, it is crucial that we are putting our own domestic preparations in place so that we are ready at the point that we leave the EU,” May’s spokesman told reporters.

“The preparatory work has seen a significant acceleration in recent months. Departments are preparing detailed delivery plans for each of the around 300 programs underway across government.”

May wants to silence critics in her ruling Conservative Party who are pressing her to walk away from talks, which have faltered over how much Britain should pay to leave the bloc.

Brexit campaigners are demanding that Britain leave with no deal if the talks do not move on beyond a discussion of the divorce settlement on a so-called Brexit bill, EU citizens rights and the border with EU member Ireland by December.

Brexit minister David Davis said Tuesday that he thought Britain would agree on some kind of basic deal with the European Union, even in the “very improbable” eventuality that they failed to agree on a trade deal.

Better tone

In a sign that an improved tone between the two sides, struck at a summit earlier this month, was continuing, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier reaffirmed his message in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, that he was ready to “speed up negotiations.”

May’s government has also long said it would welcome an acceleration in the talks. But the sides have yet to agree on how to do that following a top-level meeting in Brussels on October 19-20.

Barnier has proposed three rounds — one that did not take place last week, and two more in the weeks starting November 16 and December 4. London prefers continuous talks.

“We are ready to accelerate, but we must have something to talk about,” said an EU official.

This was what Britain’s Oliver Robbins and Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand, were seeking to agree on in Brussels on Tuesday.

Before leaving the EU, May faces a struggle to get parliamentary support for a law to sever political, financial and legal ties with the bloc — the EU Withdrawal Bill, for which lawmakers have proposed hundreds of amendments.

Asked whether May was preparing to offer a concession over a final vote on any deal struck with the EU, her spokesman said there was “lots of speculation in relation to Brexit.”

“We’ve always said that we’ll do whatever is necessary,” he said.

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Mexico GDP Shrinks Amid NAFTA Uncertainty, Disasters

Mexico announced Tuesday that its economy shrank 0.2 percent in the third quarter compared with the previous period amid uncertainty related to renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement and local slowdowns caused by natural disasters.

 

Alfredo Coutino, Latin America director at Moody’s Analytics, said the contraction came after Mexico posted GDP gains of 0.7 percent and 0.6 percent in the first two quarters and confirms an expected deceleration in the second half of 2017.

 

“Investment decisions were affected by uncertainty over the possibility that NAFTA negotiations would break off,” Coutino wrote in a report. He added that monetary tightening and high inflation “restrained consumption,” while “activity was partially interrupted in cities affected by the two earthquakes in September and the hurricanes that struck the southern part of the country.”

 

The government’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography reported the contraction and said that GDP for the third quarter was 1.7 percent higher than in the same period last year.

 

Coutino forecast that Mexico’s economy will grow about 1 percent in the fourth quarter and hit about 1.8 percent on the year, down from 2017 and short of target.

 

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You Can Stymie the iPhone X Face ID – but it Takes Some Work

Apple is offering a nifty way to unlock its new iPhone X — just stare at it.

Face ID, Apple’s name for its facial-recognition technology, replaces the fingerprint sensor found on other models.

How well does it work — not just technically, but in everyday use? After all, it’s much easier to align your finger with the sensor than to align your face with the phone.

The iPhone X costs about $1,000 — $300 more than the iPhone 8. Advance orders began this past Friday, and Apple is now giving delivery times of five to six weeks. Apple says it will have limited supplies at stores for same-day pickup on Friday, but you’ll have to get there early.

Better face detection

Many rival Android phones already use facial-recognition technology. Samsung also has an unlock feature that scans your iris. But the systems can be tripped with something as simple as eyeglasses.

While Android largely bases its match on a two-dimensional camera shot of you, the iPhone X goes 3-D. During setup, the iPhone guides you to rotate your head so it gets a more complete picture of you — analyzing some 30,000 points on your face, to be specific. So if you’re wearing glasses, the iPhone can still recognize you using other parts of your face. Same goes for wearing a hat.

And Apple’s system continually learns. Each time you use your face to unlock the phone, it automatically keeps tabs on small changes, such as growing a mustache or simply getting older. With Android, you have to go into the settings to teach the phone’s face recognition to get better.

There are limits. If you shave your beard, it’s too big of a change for the iPhone X to be sure it’s you. You’ll need a passcode, but the phone should remember you the next time .

Recognizing you

I tested the iPhone X against Samsung’s iris scanner on the Galaxy Note 8 and face systems on Google’s Pixel 2 and LG’s V30 phones. V30 improves upon the standard Android technology in asking you to turn your head slightly during the setup, though in practice the Pixel was far better at recognition.

Only the iPhone and the Pixel recognized me with standard eyeglasses — important, as I expect the same performance with or without spectacles. That said, Face ID unlocked with just one of the two sunglasses I tried; the other was too big.

Costumes and disguises also challenged Face ID. A Santa hat was OK, but a Santa beard wasn’t. Nor did it like funny glasses and a fake nose. Winter clothing was fine, as long as the scarf wasn’t covering too much of my face.

Face ID worked better than expected in bright sunlight — not every time, but enough to be satisfying. It also worked in the dark, thanks to the use of infrared sensors rather than just the standard camera. That’s important when you wake up in the middle of the night and must absolutely check Facebook or Tinder. For those keeping score, the Pixel worked in sunlight, but not in the dark; it’s the reverse for Samsung. Samsung also worked with the Santa beard, as it’s focused on your eyes.

The iPhone also unlocked after getting a haircut.

I didn’t try to fool the iPhone into unlocking with someone else’s face. I’m sure hackers will spend the coming weeks trying. Apple says Face ID could be unreliable with twins and other siblings who look like you, as well as for children under 13 — though young children don’t really need a $1,000 phone. Give them a $200 iPod Touch — or better yet, a book to read.

No more fingerprint

The home button is gone to increase screen space. Others that have done this have moved the fingerprint scanner to the back. Apple ditches it completely, so Face ID is the only alternative to a passcode. The Olsen twins, among others, will face a hardship.

It’s also tougher to check Facebook during a meeting without getting busted by the boss. You can casually unlock a phone with your fingerprint under the table. It’s much more conspicuous to stare at a screen, especially because your face should ideally be 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 centimeters) away.

Besides unlocking the phone, you can use Face ID to confirm app purchases and log into banking apps. You can also confirm Apple Pay transactions. You don’t have to twist your head awkwardly for facial authorization while the phone is laying sideways on a payment terminal, either. With the iPhone X, you authorize Apple Pay before tapping. It was much faster than fingerprint when paying for lunch.

Bottom line is Face ID works fairly well — though keeping the fingerprint option would have been nice.

 

 

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Slow Flow of Human Migration May Have Doomed Neanderthals

What killed off the Neanderthals? It’s a big debate, and now a study says that no matter what the answer, they were doomed anyway.

 

Our close evolutionary cousins enjoyed a long run in Europe and Asia, but they disappeared about 40,000 years ago after modern humans showed up from Africa.

 

The search for an explanation has produced many theories including climate change, epidemics, or inability to compete with the modern humans, who may have had some mental or cultural edge.

 

The new study isn’t intended to argue against those factors, but just to show that they’re not needed to explain the extinction, says Oren Kolodny of Stanford University.

 

He and colleague Marcus Feldman present their approach in a paper released Tuesday by the journal Nature Communications.   

 

They based their conclusion on a computer simulation that represented small bands of Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe and Asia. These local populations were randomly chosen to go extinct, and then be replaced by another randomly chosen population, with no regard for whether it represented the same species.

 

Neither species was assumed to have any inherent advantage, but there was one crucial difference: Unlike the Neanderthals, the modern humans were supplemented by reinforcements coming in from Africa. It wasn’t a huge wave, but rather “a tiny, tiny trickle of small bands,” Kolodny said.

 

Still, that was enough to tip the balance against the Neanderthals. They generally went extinct when the simulation was run more than a million times under a variety of assumptions.

 

If survival was a game of chance, “it was rigged by the fact that there’s recurring migration,” Kolodny said. “The game was doomed to end with the Neanderthals losing.”

 

Kolodny said the evidence that such migrations actually occurred is suggestive rather than conclusive. Such migrations would not be expected to leave much of an archaeological trace, he said.

 

Experts in human origins said the paper could help scientists pin down the various factors that led to the Neanderthals’ demise. It fits in with other recent attempts to explain the extinction without assuming behavioral differences between Neanderthals and our ancestors, said Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. The notion of such differences is largely disproven, he said.

 

Katerina Harvati of the University of Tuebingen in Germany said while the new work could be useful in solving the extinction mystery, it doesn’t address the question of why modern humans dispersed from Africa into Europe and Asia. It’s important to figure out what was behind that, she said in an email.

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Exxon Promises Air Pollution Controls in Settlement with US Government

ExxonMobil has promised to upgrade pollution controls at eight of its manufacturing facilities along the U.S. Gulf Coast under an agreement it reached with federal authorities.

The petrochemical giant will spend about $300 million to install pollution controls at the plants to settle allegations that it violated U.S. environmental law by failing to properly monitor industrial flares at its petrochemical plants, resulting in illegal air pollution.

The U.S. Justice Department, in a statement, said the Exxon facilities — located in Louisiana and Texas — will operate new air pollution control and monitoring technology to reduce the harmful emissions.

“Once fully implemented, the pollution controls required by the settlement are estimated to reduce harmful air emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by more than 7,000 tons per year,” the DOJ said in a statement. “The settlement is also expected to reduce toxic air pollutants, including benzene, by more than 1,500 tons per year.”

The Justice Department describes VOCs as key components in the formation of smog, which can irritate lungs and inflame respiratory issues like asthma. Chronic exposure can lead to leukemia and adverse reproductive effects in women, the DOJ said.

Exxon also will be required to spend $1 million on a project to plant trees in Baytown, Texas, and purchase a $1.5 million mobile air quality monitoring vehicle for use by Louisiana’s environmental protection agency.

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Dakota Fanning Says ‘Important’ to Speak Up About Assault

Actress Dakota Fanning has told reporters that although she hasn’t experienced the sort of sexual assault that has turned Hollywood on its head, it’s “important to talk about these issues, for women to stand up for themselves.”

 

Fanning, 23, spoke Tuesday at the Rome Film Festival, where she was presenting the film “Please Stand By.” She plays a young autistic woman obsessed with the Star Trek series, who runs away from her home in San Francisco to get to Los Angeles to submit her manuscript for a Star Trek script writing contest.

 

Fanning said she shares her character’s determination in achieving her goal, adding: “you have to fight for what you believe in and stay true to what you are.”

 

 

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