Friday, February 29, 2008

Getting Energized for Change


From a rural outpost in Ripton, Vermont, Bill McKibben has been waging a tireless campaign against global warming. He started back when only a handful of people were even discussing the issue; the publication of his book, The End of Nature, in 1989 clarified many of the concepts that only today have become almost universally embraced.

McKibben is now working to energize people around the globe to make the necessary changes to avert what he sees as an accelerating disaster, the magnitude of which dwarfs all our other social problems. His Step It Up activities in 2007 rallied a large part of the nation to the cause. But, McKibben's message in 2008, articulated in a recent Yes! magazine article, First, Step Up, is that global warming is happening faster than expected and an enormous social movement will be needed to stop it.

McKibben gave some examples to suggest the scale of the problem:

What exactly do I mean by large? Last fall the scientists who study sea ice in the Arctic reported that it was melting even faster than they’d predicted. We blew by the old record for ice loss in mid-August, and by the time the long polar night finally descended, the fabled Northwest Passage was open for navigation for the first time in recorded history. That is to say, from outer space the Earth already looks very different: less white, more blue.

What do I mean by large? On the glaciers of Greenland, 10 percent more ice melted last summer than any year for which we have records. This is bad news because, unlike sea ice, Greenland’s vast frozen mass sits above rock, and when it melts, the oceans rise—potentially a lot. James Hansen, America’s foremost climatologist, testified in court last year that we might see sea level increase as much as six meters—nearly 20 feet—in the course of this century. With that, the view from space looks very different indeed (not to mention the view from the office buildings of any coastal city on earth).

What do I mean by large? Already higher heat is causing drought in arid areas the world over. In Australia things have gotten so bad that agricultural output is falling fast in the continent’s biggest river basin, and the nation’s prime minister is urging his people to pray for rain. Aussie native Rupert Murdoch is so rattled he’s announced plans to make his NewsCorp empire (think Fox News) carbon neutral. Australian voters ousted their old government last fall, largely because of concerns over climate.

The answer, McKibben thinks, is in building the largest social movement ever known.

Most of all, we need a movement. We need a political swell larger than the civil rights movement—as passionate and as willing to sacrifice. Without it, we’re not going to best the fossil fuel companies and the auto-makers and the rest of the vested interests that are keeping us from change.

Some of us have spent the last couple of years trying to build that movement, and we’ve had some success. With no money and no organization, seven of us launched StepItUp in January 2007. Before the year was out, we’d helped organize 2,000 demonstrations in all 50 states—and helped take our once-radical demand for an 80 percent reduction in U.S. carbon emissions by mid-century into the halls of power.

The conclusion of the article manages to be optimistic. Despite the scope of the challenge, there are many actions we can take collectively and individually to spur the necessary change. But, it's clear we need to start now and the changes need to be deep. Fasten your seat belts; it's going to be a bumpy night.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Harvesting Energy from Compost


The proliferation of small-scale power plants is skyrocketing across New England as many communities are tapping into abundant, natural sources of energy--from Cow Power in Vermont to a plan in Boston to use Fall foliage for something other than to attract tourists.

A staff writer for, Andrew Ryan, revealed the innovative scheme for tapping yard clippings, leaves, and food scraps to produce heat and electrical power. "Urban decay, redefined" describes a plan to generate electricity for up to 1,500 homes and heat for a rooftop greenhouse from the power of compost.

The project, which is still in the early conceptual stage, would take the city's 6,000-ton composting program indoors. For more than a decade, leaves and yard clippings have been collected each spring and fall and trucked to a muddy clearing off American Legion Highway in Roslindale. The undulating mound is almost two stories tall, loaded with tan, brown, and black leaves in various states of decay. On a recent afternoon, white steam gushed from the pile, evidence that microorganisms were hard at work, generating heat that pushes the internal temperature near 130 degrees, said Nora Goldstein, executive editor of BioCycle magazine.

In an enclosed facility, officials would recycle heat and biogas released when leaves, grass clippings, and other organic material decay. Biogas includes methane, which would fuel a turbine, generating up to 1.5 megawatts of power, and carbon dioxide, which would nurture plants in the greenhouse.

"There have been pieces of this that have been done other places, so there isn't as much of a worry that it would fail," said Tom L. Richard, director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment at Penn State University. "But it is new enough and innovative enough that it would hopefully be an example that other places in the country could follow."

The move toward collecting energy from materials we normally consider "waste"--whether cow pies or maple leaves--is an indicator that we can solve many of our energy needs simply through resourcefulness and ingenuity. Why build more coal and nuclear power plants when abundant renewable energy sources surround us?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Profitability in Clean Energy Technology


Fighting climate change can be profitable. An article in the Christian Science Monitor, Business begins to see profit in going green, refutes the argument that combatting climate change will cripple the economy. Instead, clean energy technologies and the carbon-trading market appear likely to drive profitability and re-invigorate the economy.

Some of the indicators from the article:

A new study by international consulting firm McKinsey finds that half the necessary cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions can be achieved at a net profit. The study shows that investment in energy efficiency of about $170 billion annually worldwide would yield a profit of about 17 percent, or $29 billion. The Financial Times reports:

"Diana Farrell, director of the McKinsey Global Institute, said: 'It shows just how much deadweight loss there is in the economy in energy use.' She said the most inefficient sector was heavy industry in China, with the second residential housing in the US, where homes are large, poorly insulated ..."

At the United Nations Investor Summit on Climate Risk in New York last week, nearly 50 major US and international investors pledged to invest $10 billion in clean technology over the next two years. That's considerably more than two years ago when 26 funds made a $1 billion pledge.

Given the slow response by governments worldwide to taking any kind of action on climate change, it's a promising sign that businesses seem to be taking a leadership role in driving clean energy initiatives.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Take a Ride in the Tesla

There have been some management upheavals at Tesla Motors since this video first aired in November of 2007, but you can still get a sense of what a revolutionary car looks like and how it drives by watching the video. The company plan is to progressively drive the price down from the current $92,000 tag to where subsequent models will penetrate that conventional strata where Accord, Camry, and Taurus drivers now reside. Interesting plan... Will it succeed? Look at the vehicle and you tell me.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Geothermal, the Unsung Power Source


Electricity from geothermal power rarely gets ink in the press the way more glamorous renewables do—including solar, wind, and biomass—but in some places, such as California, it already is making a substantial contribution to power requirements. A recent article in talked about the efforts in The Geysers to harvest energy from underground steam.

The potential for this energy source is signficant:

In all, The Geysers generates 4.7 percent of California's electricity - far more than solar, wind and biomass projects - and its capacity again is growing.

The Geysers is part of a nationwide boom. A recent report from the Geothermal Energy Association in Washington, D.C., showed a 40 percent increase in the number of geothermal projects around the country in just the last year. It said 86 new projects are under way in 12 states with a potential capacity of 3,368 megawatts. In California, one megawatt is enough to power 1,000 homes for a year.

In fact, it's a global phenomenon. "Geothermal is a hot topic around the world," said ThermaSource's Capuano, a big man with a lot of Mississippi still in his voice.

The Union of Concerned Scientists offers a good overview explanation of the geothermal potential in the U.S. here. The summary paragraph reads:

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the geothermal resource base in the United States to be between 95,000 and 150,000 MW, of which about 22,000 MW have been identified as suitable for electric power generation. Unfortunately, only a fraction of this resource is currently utilized, with an installed capacity of 2,800 MW (worldwide capacity is approximately 8,000 MW). But thanks to declining costs and state and federal support, geothermal development is likely to increase. Over the next decade, new geothermal projects are expected to come online to increase U.S. capacity to between 8,000 and 15,000 MW. As hot dry rock technologies improve and become competitive, even more of the largely untapped geothermal resource could be developed. In addition to electric power generation, which is focused primarily in the western United States, there is a bright future for the direct use of geothermal resources as a heating source for homes and businesses everywhere.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Rapid Climate Destabilization

A self-described geeky science teacher updates his previous YouTube argument about climate change action with a well-reasoned risk management slant. The original argument got over a million views. The updated version deals with the fallout and critique of the original. It's a light touch granted to a terrifying issue and the latest video manages to be both entertaining and informative.

For more material from this prolific presenter, visit his home.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Scientific American's Grand Plan

sun power

If you're paying attention, you know that the U.S. desperately needs to transform its energy strategy to reduce fossil-fuel use and minimize carbon emissions. The proposals trickling out of Congress are generally tepid half measures that fail to address the critical nature of the problem.

Scientific American put a group of their analysts to work and crafted a grand plan to eliminate dependence on imported oil. And, best of all, the cost is much less than what the country is spending today on ill-advised military adventures around the world.

The linchpin of the plan is solar electricity. From the article:

Solar energy’s potential is off the chart. The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year. The U.S. is lucky to be endowed with a vast resource; at least 250,000 square miles of land in the Southwest alone are suitable for constructing solar power plants, and that land receives more than 4,500 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of solar radiation a year. Converting only 2.5 percent of that radiation into electricity would match the nation’s total energy consumption in 2006.

The plan also describes how development of wind, biomass, and geothermal energy systems could eventually supply 100 percent of the nation's requirements and 90 percent by the year 2100. Energy independence is within reach, but we also need to dramatically scale down the lost dollars being funneled into military interventions.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Traversing the Biofuels Thicket


An article in Science last week caught everyone's attention. The title says it all: Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change. In a world where many governments are mandating a shift to ethanol, this sounds like trouble. It's trouble on top of trouble, since we're hearing more about how growing corn, soybeans, and sugar cane to convert to ethanol is raising food prices.

The Science article spawned mainstream media interpretations with eye-catching headlines. The Los Angeles Times hollered: Biofuel crops increase carbon emissions. The New York Times warned: Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat. Bloggers and environmental sites picked up the excitement and soon lively discussion threads were debating whether switchgrass, algae, and cropland waste posed the same challenge, and whether co-generation plants could produce the ethanol cleanly when compared to the plants springing up in Iowa that are burning coal to generate ethanol from corn.

Many of the discussions, both in the mainstream media (once clear of the headlines) and blog posts, were knowledgeable and intriguing, posing solutions that only occasionally get a public airing. I was fascinating by descriptions of techniques for modifying your car to run on denatured alcohol and inventive ways you could then distill your own fuel in the backyard. And, if you're worried about destroying croplands, why not make biodiesel from algae using smokestack emissions.

A couple of hours sorting through the voluminous articles, posts, arguments, and counter-arguments left me a bit dazed. What was fairly clear is that we have many possible solutions to our energy needs. Some of them have been viable for 100 years or more (such as alcohol-powered vehicles). But, in spite of a wealth of workable solutions, governments around the world and large corporations hoping to hedge their bets on energy futures are pushing large-scale, often destructive projects. Whether clearing rainforests to grow more sugar cane for ethanol or diverting corn from being a food source to being a fuel, the impacts of these processes are abundantly evident.

And a solution that is immediately at hand, and doesn't require toppling a single tree, is improving energy efficiency. A longtime champion of fuel savings as an unheralded solution to many of our energy needs, Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, sees profitability and smaller carbon footprints in using less fuel. A recent Newsweek article by Lovins, How to Fuel the Country While Saving the World, highlights a realistic path to conversing energy rather than squandering it.

Individual choices as well can make a huge difference as people adopt energy-efficient, low-impact lifestyles. We need to face that fact that change may not come from our prevaricating, slow-to-react national leaders, but local activism and lifestyle changes can induce energy savings from the community grassroots level. And on the individual level, especially when it comes to transportation, much can be done. Take a vacation by train this year instead of flying. Car pool to work. Get a bicycle or walk when running errands around town. Cut your weekly shopping trips to one instead of three. Think about getting an electric car--they're available if you do some hunting and more will be available in the near future. Talk your boss into letting you telecommute one or two days a week. Even simple steps like this can cut down your energy use for personal transportation 20 to 40 percent.

Personally, I'm going to look into converting my old SAAB 900 to run on alcohol and see what kind of vegetable matter already growing around my modest one acre lot might be fodder for the distiller. And, an alcohol-powered motorcycle might be fun...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Enhanced Solar Energy Capture


Stirling Energy Systems, in collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories, has improved solar-to-grid system conversion efficiency to 31.25 percent, using enhanced optics and a more refined focusing system. Stirling has power purchase agreements in place with two Southern California utility companies and is ramping up to commercialize their SunCatcher system.

How does it work?

The solar dish generates electricity by focusing the Sun's rays onto a receiver, which transmits the heat energy to a Stirling engine.

The engine is a sealed system filled with hydrogen. As the gas heats and cools, its pressure rises and falls. The change in pressure drives the pistons inside the engine, producing mechanical power, which in turn drives a generator and makes electricity.

SES owns the dishes and the associated hardware at the Test Facility. Sandia provides technical and analytical support to SES in a relationship that dates back more than 10 years.

More details available through this release from the Environment News Service.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Here Come the Insects


The threats from global warming, at least in the popular imagination, usually involve flooded coastal cities, parched croplands, and extreme weather events. Some researchers at Pennsylvania State University have identified another potent challenge if temperatures rise another few degrees. As described in an article in The Independent, Insect explosion 'a threat to food crops', leaf-eating bugs may ravage plants across the globe, following a pattern documented in fossils from the palaeocene-eocene thermal maximum (PETM) period. Science editor Steve Connor wrote:

The percentage of leaves that suffered extensive insect damage rose dramatically during the PETM as foraging became more intensive. The researchers warned that the same effect might be seen during the present period of global warming caused by man-made emissions of CO2, which could double the pre-industrial concentration of the gas by the end of the century.

The pattern noted by the lead author of the study, Ellen Currano, included hungrier insects and less nutritious plants.

"We think that the warming allowed insect species from the tropics ... to migrate north," Ms Currano said.

In addition to migration from tropical regions, the scientists believe that insects had to eat more because the rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere made leaves less nutritious because they contained relatively smaller concentrations of nitrogen. "With more CO2 available to plants, photosynthesis is easier and plants can make the same amount of food for themselves without having to put so much protein in their leaves," Ms Currano said.

Consequently, when CO2 increases, leaves have less protein and insects need to eat more to acquire the nutrients they need. Plants can grow faster when CO2 levels rise, but they suffer from a disproportionate increase in damage, she said.

No one is quite sure what triggered global warming in the PETM era. But, we do know man-made emissions are causing our present-day temperature increases.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

U.S. Automakers Toy with Plug-In Concepts

Chrysler and GM are jockeying to introduce viable plug-in hybrid vehicles, convinced that the market is finally ready for a practical electric car. The versions appearing at auto shows may not be the same as the vehicles that actually reach production. A Gartner analyst quoted thinks that instead of making a true commitment to the technology, the automotive industry still seems to be dancing around the fringes.

The article, Chrysler rolls out three plug-in concept models, describes these latest concepts:

Chrysler's entries in the concept race are the Chrysler ecoVoyager, Dodge Zeo and Jeep Renegade. Officials say consumer demand isn't generated solely by technology. It also needs to come with distinctive designs - in other words, no one-size-fits all approach.

Frank Klegon, Chrysler's product development chief, said the Zeo concept, which is completely electric, is designed to maintain Dodge's tradition of performance. The ecoVoyager, coupled with a fuel cell, is meant to convey Chrysler's reputation as an "iconic American brand." And the Renegade, combined with a low-emission diesel engine, is envisioned as a vehicle that could "go anywhere" and "go green."
Still, he said, they are purely concepts with no production guarantees.

"With emerging technologies, you don't really know which one is going to be the right solution, or something else that leapfrogs in the meantime," he said. "That's one challenge for us as an industry and a company."

What will emerge from all the chatter is still unknown, but the automakers are at least trying to talk a good game.

Troy Clarke, GM's North American president, said the technological timing is right, and comes at the convergence of three trends: concern over climate change, the need for U.S. energy independence and the high costs of oil.

"You don't really need anybody to convince you that this is the right time to start doubling down on your bets with this type of technology," he said.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Nuclear Energy Hoax and Its Hucksters

FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) just posted an outstanding article, repurposed from their print publication Extra, that chronicles the media's inattention to the glaring problems of nuclear power. The purported revival of nuclear energy is being heralded as a dramatic and important advance in the fight against global warming, but, as this article points out, the problems of nuclear power run the gamut from excessive costs to unacceptable risks. Karl Grossman, a professor of journalism at the State University of New York College, in this article, Money is the Real Green Power, points out:

“With a very few notable exceptions, such as the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. media have turned the same sort of blind, uncritical eye on the nuclear industry’s claims that led an earlier generation of Americans to believe atomic energy would be too cheap to meter,” comments Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “The nuclear industry’s public relations effort has improved over the past 50 years, while the natural skepticism of reporters toward corporate claims seems to have disappeared.”

The risk scenarios are also regularly downplayed, though the potential disasterous effects of a meltdown are mind-numbing.

As to the risks, the mainstream media’s handling—or non-handling—of the U.S. government’s most comprehensive study on the consequences of a nuclear plant accident is instructive. Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences 2 (known as CRAC-2) was done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the 1980s. Bill Smirnow, an anti-nuclear activist, has tried for years to interest media in reporting on it—sending out information about it continually.

The study estimates the impacts from a meltdown at each nuclear plant in the U.S. in categories of “peak early fatalities,” “peak early injuries,” “peak cancer deaths” and “costs [in] billions.” (“Peak” refers to the highest calculated value—not a “worst case scenario,” as worse assumptions could have been chosen.) For the Indian Point 3 plant north of New York City, for example, the projection is that a meltdown would cause 50,000 “peak early fatalities,” 141,000 “peak early injuries,” 13,000 “peak cancer deaths,” and $314 billion in property damage—and that’s based on the dollar’s value in 1980, so the cost today would be nearly $1 trillion. For the Salem 2 nuclear plant in New Jersey, the study projects 100,000 “peak early fatalities,” 70,000 “peak early injuries,” 40,000 “peak cancer deaths,” and $155 billion in property damage. The study provides similarly staggering numbers across the country.

And it's pretty clear that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission plays number games with accident probabilities, as discussed in this well-documented, heavily footnoted article from Greenpeace USA, The Probablility of a Nuclear Accident.

Why are the major media so enthusiastically supportive of nuclear power? Just follow the money trail:

What are the causes of the media nuclear dysfunction? The obvious problem is media ownership. General Electric, for one, is both a leading nuclear plant manufacturer and a media mogul, owning NBC and other outlets. (For years, CBS was owned by Westinghouse; Westinghouse and GE are the Coke and Pepsi of nuclear power.) There have been board and financial interlocks between the media and nuclear industries. There is the long-held pro-nuclear faith at media such as the New York Times.

There are abundant alternatives to nuclear energy that are genuinely clean, safe, and sustainable. But, don't expect to hear this from the mainstream media.

Friday, February 08, 2008

"Gasoline" by Sheryl Crow

For a change of pace, here is a bit of musical dystopia from Sheryl Crow (the just-released album is titled "Detours", the tune, "Gasoline")... The message: "We're soon going to be running on empty..."

The site where this was posted, takepart, steers their audience toward action-oriented participation in solving the problems of the day. It's worth a look... They also provide a link where a good overview of peak oil is provided: The Oil Drum.

Some of the lyrics from Gasoline:

It was the summer of the riots

And London sat in sweltering heat

And the gangs of Mini Coopers

Took the battle to the streets

But when the creed was handed down

For no more trucks and no more cars

They threw cans of petrol through the windows at Scotland Yard…

…When the Mounties stormed the palace of the Saudi family

They held them up for ransom

Without disturbing their high tea

But their getaway was shaky

They stalled in the Riyadh streets

Cause you can’t make it very far

When your tank is on empty

Thursday, February 07, 2008

And the Winning Photovoltaic Is...

In an effort to quantify the efficiency, related emissions, and the hidden energy costs of the leading photovoltaic technologies, the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Columbia University recently conducted an extensive life-cycle assessment. Comparing data from companies that make single-crystal, multicrystal, ribbon silicon solar cells, as well as the thin-film CdTe photovoltaic systems just introduced to the market, the study, described in an Environmental Science and Technology article, produced a clear winner.

The analysis took into account frames, cables, and other necessary support materials, as well as the energy required for manufacturing under three scenarios, each with a different proportion of electricity coming from coal, natural gas, or other sources. The team based their assumptions on ground-mounted systems under southern European light conditions, over 30-year lifetimes.

In the end, the CdTe photovoltaics came out on top. With more efficient energy conversion and the lowest cost, the technology used less energy and had fewer emissions overall, despite some Cd emissions during the manufacturing process. However, emissions from fossil-fuel-powered electricity dwarfed those Cd emissions by orders of magnitude.

For access to the complete manuscript, Emissions from Photovoltaic Life Cycles, click here.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Phenomenal Growth in Wind Power Generation

The year 2007 was a banner year for new wind projects, as reported by the Environment News Service. The total wind power generating capacity rose by 45 percent and bolstered the economy by more than USD 9 billion.

Randall Swisher of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) commented:

"This is the third consecutive year of record-setting growth, establishing wind power as one of the largest sources of new electricity supply for the country.

"This remarkable and accelerating growth is driven by strong demand, favorable economics, and a period of welcome relief from the on-again, off-again, boom-and-bust, cycle of the federal production tax credit for wind power."

In this strong growth climate, wind turbines are selling out as quickly as producers can build them. Growth in 2008, however, will depend strongly on extension on the federal production tax credit, according to AWEA.