BALANCE OF POWER 

President Obama made some big promises during his State of the Union speech this week, but are they realistic? Is it really feasible to have 1 million electric cars on the road within four years? Or to generate 80 percent of U.S. electricity from clean energy by 2035? As the Los Angeles Times reports, many folks in these industries seem hesitant despite the attention, perhaps all too aware that Obama alone can't bring his vision to life. "It's a lofty goal, but it's like the race to the moon in that it's generally achievable," says the CEO of solar developer Silverado Power. "The issue is whether we have the political will and ability to pull together and actually do it."

Of course, Obama also lowered the threshold a bit for some of his goals: He defined "clean energy" rather broadly, including sources like nuclear, natural gas and "clean coal" along with wind and solar power. That's partly a political necessity — Congress is unlikely to limit carbon emissions anytime soon, and many lawmakers are beholden to entrenched energy interests — but environmentalists still bemoan the loosened standards. "Developing clean energy sources ... is another way to skin the carbon cat," a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council tells the AP. "It's important, though, that we do the job right, not simply redefine the cat." Others worry Obama's goals are too conservative — the wind industry, for one, is recovering from a major slump last year, and sees 2035 as an eternity away. "We don't need to wait nearly three decades," says the CEO of the American Wind Energy Association. 

Still, if the U.S. is able to pitch in with more loan guarantees, tax incentives and other subsidies, some in the clean-energy sector see plenty of reason for hope. "The more scale we get for solar, the more the cost comes down for everyone," says the CEO of residential panel installer SolarCity. "If Obama's goal gets the resources it needs, there's no reason we can't do this." Two lawmakers from Michigan are also trying to boost Obama's electric-cars target, proposing a bill to more than double the amount of tax incentives for consumers who buy electric vehicles. These are all important steps, according to a joint statement issued by the NRDC, the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists, but they add that failure could be disastrous: "We can't afford any more false starts on clean energy," the groups write.

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Washington Post)

STEMMING TERRORISM 

Dogs, dolphins and sea lions have all helped out in the war on terror, and as the [skipwords]New York[/skipwords] Times reports today, another nonhuman recruit may soon be joining the ranks: bomb-sniffing plants. Researchers at Colorado State University reported Wednesday they've created plants that change color when exposed to even tiny amounts of TNT in the air. TNT is the most commonly used explosive, and these plants detect levels as low as 1/100th what a bomb-sniffing dog can smell.

When touched by those traces of TNT, the plants drain off their green-tinted chlorophyll, turning white to signify that a bomb is nearby. "It had to be simple, something your mom could recognize," one of the researchers tells the Times, explaining the importance of a visual cue. Plants are in a unique evolutionary position to monitor the chemical makeup of their environment, the researchers add, since doing so can help a plant keep tabs on pests, diseases and other threats. This research, funded mostly by the U.S. Defense and Homeland Security departments, aims to capitalize on that innate ability. While the researchers have already created bomb-detecting plants, though, their main challenge still lies ahead: making those plants fast, reliable and easy to read. 

"Right now, response time is in the order of hours," says an official with the Office of Naval Research, one of many agencies hoping to use the new plants to protect troops. For them to be useful, they'll need to respond to TNT in the air within minutes — and then "reset" back to green just as quickly. "What you want is something that is extreme on-and-off and reliable, and I don't think they're there yet," says one plant cell biologist who wasn't involved in the study. "It's a very interesting work-in-progress." The researchers say they might have the plants ready for military use in three years, but add that five to seven years is more likely.

(Source: New York Times)

SNOW REST FOR THE WEARY 

Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states were slammed with yet another huge snowstorm Wednesday, and while the storm itself is tapering off today, the havoc it created could last for days. Several cities broke daily snowfall records during this most recent onslaught — the 12.3 inches that fell in New York City Wednesday (pictured), for example, erased the day's long-standing record of 9 inches from 1871. Things were even worse in Philadelphia, where Wednesday's 14. 2 inches of snow shattered the day's previous record of 4.4 inches in 1963.

The snow spurred a variety of inconveniences and calamities around the region, stranding hundreds of airline passengers, leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity, and making roads treacherous for drivers trying to get to work this morning. Wind gusts have been blowing as high as 40 to 50 mph in Massachusetts, while parts of New England received rare "thundersnow," in which a thunderstorm dumps heavy snow instead of rain. Swaths of schools remain closed for a second day today, and even President Obama was forced to abandon his Marine One helicopter, the AP reports, and instead spend an hour weaving through traffic in his motorcade. 

This was all the result of two separate storms converging over the region Wednesday, joining the parade of blizzards that have bombarded the Eastern Seaboard for more than a month. Widely blamed on an unusually strong negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation — also the culprit behind last year's "Snowmageddon" —  this has made for a very snowy January in many places. New York City has already seen 19 inches of snow from this week's storm, pushing its monthly total to a record-breaking 36 inches (its previous record was 27.4 inches in January 1925). 

(Sources: CNN, AP, AccuWeather)

RED-HEADED STEPCHILDREN 

The word "orangutan" means "men of the forest" in the native language of the Penan people, who have shared space with the great apes in Sumatra and Borneo for millennia. And as a new study points out this week, orangutans do share 97 percent of their DNA with humans. Yet the study also reveals something else intriguing: Even though hunting and habitat loss are pushing the species near the brink of extinction, orangutans are somehow much more genetically diverse than we are. Published today in the journal Nature, these findings could help the effort to protect the highly endangered species, and might even offer insights into human health. 

"In terms of evolution, the orangutan genome is quite special among great apes in that it has been extraordinarily stable over the past 15 million years," the researchers say in a statement. "This compares with chimpanzees and humans, both of which have experienced large-scale structural rearrangements of their genome that may have accelerated their evolution." Orangutans seem to do everything more slowly — they lumber around lazily in treetops, for example, and they have the longest intervals between births of any mammal, about eight years. This has made them especially prone to population declines, but the surprising fact that they're so genetically diverse offers hope to those trying to save them. 

The researchers aren't sure why orangutans are more genetically diverse than humans, but while it is encouraging, they also warn that genetic diversity alone won't avert extinction. "The average orangutan is more diverse — genetically speaking — than the average human," says the study's lead author. "We found deep diversity in both Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, but it's unclear whether this level of diversity can be maintained in light of continued widespread deforestation."

(Sources: Reuters, USA Today, ScienceDaily)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

A conservation icon dies, the "Knickerbocker Storm" slams D.C., and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (coal-fired power plant next to wind turbines): ZUMA Press

Photo (chlorophyll-filled plant leaves): John Foxx/Getty Images

Photo (snow-covered cars in Manhattan on Jan. 27): ktempest/Flickr

Photo (male Sumatran orangutan): ZUMA Press

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