Saturday, March 29, 2008

Wind Turbine Leader


When the OPEC crisis struck in the 70's, Denmark didn't waste any time seeking out new sources of energy. They immediately embarked on a nationwide initiative to develop wind power and they now own 40 percent of the global market. The country is also a mecca for bicyclists and during a typical commute in busy Copenhagen you will encounter more bicycles than cars.

The Toronto Star reports on the Danish proclivity toward efficiency, compact living arrangements, and smart engineering. When the national leadership falters, the municipal leaders step in.

But even as climate campaigners chide their national government's recalcitrance, most offer high praise for Copenhagen's municipal leadership, which has set itself an ambitious goal for 2015 to become what it calls the world's "Eco-Metropole" – the cleanest, greenest, lowest-emitting city on the planet.

"The things we've already achieved show us that Copenhagen doesn't need national legislation to go even further. We can do most of this on our own," said Klaus Bondam, the city's mayor of technology and the environment. "Cleaning up our harbour so that you can swim and catch cod fish, enhancing our cycling network to where it is today, becoming one of the first in the world to convert the wasted heat of electrical generation into heat for our homes – Copenhagen has done all this. And now we lead Europe. By 2015, we'll lead the world."

Among the city's goals is a plan to raise to 50 per cent the number of downtown commuters arriving by bicycle. The number seems otherworldly, until you consider that bikes comprise 36 per cent of downtown traffic, compared to only 27 per cent private automobiles.

To fully comprehend how such numbers are possible, the Toronto Star sought a history lesson from Dansk Cyklist Forbund – the Federation of Danish Cyclists – an organization launched in 1905 when the pressing issue of the day was punctures resulting from horseshoe nails littered along Copenhagen's network of horse paths.

"Here in Copenhagen, riding a bike is like wearing shoes," said DCF's Allan Carstensen. "It's normal. It's easy. It's convenient. People ride in their work clothes. And even the people in cars, the chances are they have a bike at home that they use regularly to run errands in the neighbourhood."

As the article points out, the dependence on coal is a sore spot in this picture, but positive steps are underway to lessen coal usage.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Uranium Mining: The Dirty Side of "Clean" Nuclear Power

Those who tout the benefits of "clean" nuclear energy don't usually talk much at all about the dirty sides to this industry: uranium mining. As many of the most abundant sources of ore are on Native American lands, the pressure is on once again to open these lands to mining.

As reported by the Washington Post, Navajos in particular have borne the consequences of mining operations.

Like many Navajos who worked in the mines, Larry J. King didn't know then that there was anything dangerous about it. "We had no respirators; you'd have sweat running down your face with the uranium dust getting in your ears, nose and mouth," said King, who surveyed mine tunnels from 1975 to 1982. "You couldn't help but swallow it."

During mining's peak, from the early 1950s to the early 1980s, about 400 million pounds of uranium were extracted from the region. At the end of the boom, around 1984, the price of uranium languished below $10 a pound. Mines shut down, and the United States began importing nearly all of its uranium, with the bulk coming now from Canada, Russia and Australia. But by last summer, the price had rebounded to a record high of $136 a pound.

Though the mines created numerous jobs and substantial royalties for the Navajo and Laguna tribes, the decades of extraction took a heavy toll: lung cancer, kidney disease, birth defects and other ailments at notably high levels among miners and families who lived among piles of uranium tailings -- the ground-up waste from milling -- and even used the material to build their homes.

All but one of the major companies now seeking to mine in New Mexico are newcomers to the state and have promised to do a better job than their predecessors. In addition, pending state legislation would require them to deposit a small percentage of their profits in a "legacy fund" to clean up existing uranium contamination.

But King said, "I don't believe them one bit."

He blames his recent health problems on uranium. He remembers July 16, 1979, when more than 90 million gallons of uranium-contaminated water burst through the dam of a tailings holding pond and into the Puerco River running by his land. And he remembers seeing his cattle drop dead from, he thinks, drinking polluted mine runoff.

There is other dirt deeply embedded under this industry's fingernails as well, of course. Periodic tritium discharges from the stacks. Fish kills from overheated cooling water effluent. The carbon costs of the coal-fired plants that power the uranium processing facilities.

But, that's another story for another day.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nuclear Power, By the Numbers


Nuclear power, the most expensive technique for boiling water ever invented, is perhaps best described by the numbers.

Amount that a dollar spent on energy efficiency and renewable energy goes toward reducing CO2 emissions compared to a dollar spent on nuclear power: 7 to 10 times

Number of dirty, coal-fired plants required in Kentucky to operate two uranium enrichment plants: 4

Percentage increase in ovarian and testicular cancer among children in Navajo lands adjacent to uranium mining operations performed in the 1950's: 1,500

Year that India's first commercial nuclear power reactor went on line: 1969

Year that India performed its first test of a nuclear bomb: 1974

Number of days the $10-billion French faster breeder reactor, Superphenix, operated during an 11-year span before being permanently shut down following a massive leak of sodium coolant: 287

Number of French reactors that shut down during the heat wave of 2003 because of a rise in the temperature of cooling water from rivers: 17

Number of tons of plutonium oxide powder transported annually to French MOX fuel reprocessing facilities in Belgium and southern France: 10

Number of metric tons of plutonium stored worldwide as of 2003: 240

Number of pounds of plutonium required to make a nuclear weapon: <20

Percentage of CFC-114 gas released into the air as a result of uranium enrichment in the U.S.: 90

Number of times that CFC is more potent as a heat trapper and global warmer than CO2: 10,000 - 20,000

Percentage of citizens in France polled in 2006 who favor a phase-out of nuclear energy: 61

Number of peak early fatalities predicted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in their Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences study if the Salem 2 nuclear plant in New Jersey suffered a meltdown: 100,000

Property damage estimated in the CRAC 2 study from a Salem 2 meltdown (in 1980 dollars): $155,000,000,000

Number of energy companies that Don Hintz, President of Entergy, says can afford the $1.5 - 2 billion cost of building a nuclear reactor right now: 0

Draw your own conclusions...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Food and Climate Change


In discussions about what to do to reverse climate change, most people--whether environmentalists, politicians, or plain ordinary folks--overlook an obvious, yet largely ignored, source of greenhouse gas emissions: the global industrial food system. This elephant in the room seems to escape attention in the media, in legislative chambers, and in coffeeshop discussions, despite the fact that our crop- and livestock-raising practices represent about 33 percent of the greenhouse gas totals generated by human activities.

Anna Lappé, writing for, cites data analysis by the Pew Center on Global Climate that blames the livestock sector by itself for one-fifth of the total world emissions. This represents more emissions than is produced by all the planes, trains, and automobiles on the planet.

We are deeply wedded to a system that is inexorably leading to climate changes that could eventually make the planet uninhabitable.

Industrial farming is particularly problematic because it is a key emitter of methane and nitrous oxide, which have, respectively, 23 and 296 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide. In the United States, widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer, roughly half of which is wasted in leaching and runoff, contributes to approximately three-quarters of the country's nitrous oxide emissions. Globally, agriculture is responsible for nearly two-thirds of methane emissions.

With climate scientists warning we need an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to avert planetary catastrophe, it's clear we need bold action -- and that bold action must include re-thinking food.

The article, despite the grim scenario depicted, has a hopeful tone, highlighting a rapidly emerging counterweight to the excesses of industrial farming: climate-friendly farming practiced on family-scale farms. Miniscule in scope at the moment compared to the overall agricultural behemoths that dominate the landscape, organic gardening as practiced by small farms such as Seattle Tilth, may be our best bet for the future.

As Anna concludes:

An organization such as Seattle Tilth may seem like a tiny drop in the climate-change bucket, but its impact should not be measured in isolation. Dozens of sister efforts are flourishing -- from Austin, Texas, to Ypsilanti, Mich. -- encouraging people to reconnect with their food and giving people the opportunity to get their hands in the dirt.

Yes, the specter of climate chaos is daunting, but day-by-day and garden-by-garden organizations such as Seattle Tilth are showing a homegrown way to address the crisis.

Well said...

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Stackable Cars


From Julia Whitty and The BlueMarble Blog comes a story of a prototype vehicle: an electric car that is designed for shared use. Drive it, return it, and stack it for the next commuter. General Motors is behind the concept for the CityCar, which includes a robotic drive mechanism and omnidirectional wheel configuration.

Whitty says:

Imagine if parking, drive time, congestion, navigation, and your fellow driver was no longer an issue. Imagine what that might do to emotional health, personal time & energy budgets, neighborly love, and the big CO2 footprint in the sky. Imagine if we didn't need to compete for space but could happily piggyback on each other. Okay, call me an idealist but there are days when the future looks good enough for hope... You'll have to navigate on your own through the Smart Cities pages to find the City Car. But it's a really fun ride.

Can Americans escape the notion of a car (or two) in every garage and embrace shared vehicles, like the community bicycle programs that are popular in Amstersdam and have been tried in other cities, as well? Maybe when the price of gasoline reaches $7 per gallon.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Zero-Emission Sports Car


I'm a sucker for a sleek sports car. The rational part of my brain tells me that if we, as a society, don't overcome our obsession with automobiles, our rapid slide toward an unbearable tropical greenhouse climate will accelerate. But, from the time I was thirteen years old and discovered a stash of Car and Driver and Road and Track magazines in the garage of the home my family was renting, I was hooked. The photos of Sunbeam Alpines, Austin Healy 3000's, Morgan roadsters, Triumph TR-3's, and other four-wheeled exotica created a deep-seated love of sports cars that has yet to ebb.

So, although I will probably never own a Tesla or Morgan Lifecar (shown in the photo and styled after the Morgan-8 roadster), I think that the technologies that these automotive marvels are introducing are our best bet for preserving some measure of high-speed, independent mobility in the future. I also think that we should shift our transportation more toward mass transit, bicycling, and walking, with maybe a hybrid electric motorcycle thrown in for good measure, but we have the roads, we have the parking lots. Let's use them wisely as we transition to a people-oriented society rather than one where carbon-emitting motor vehicles dominate.

The Morgan Motor Company has been around since 1906, but their new fuel-cell powered sports car is an undeniable show stopper. It travels 250 miles per tank of hydrogen, accelerates from 0-60 in roughly 7 seconds, tops 90 miles per hour, and is being unveiled at the upcoming Geneva Motor Show on the 6th of March. Morgan will gauge production plans based on the response. As discussed in a BBC News article, Green sports car set for launch, the car was designed to minimize weight, which precludes including some features that typical car owners are accustomed to:

It also doesn't have any of the "luxuries" such as a stereo, central locking or even airbags, found on many modern cars.

"The objective is to get the weight down to 700kg."

There are also other notable omissions such as a gearbox and - as the fuels cells produce little noise - the roar of an engine.

"We may have to supply headphones with the sounds of a five litre V8 linked to the throttle pedal," said Mr Parkin.

Critics will point out that hydrogen fuel cells are a storage system, not a form of energy, but this critique ignores much work that is being done to provide a decentralized means of accumulating energy through wind turbines, solar panels, and other energy sources. What's wrong with driving a car that runs from hydrogen produced from a wind turbine on your garage roof, as described in More Wind Power!. A hybrid approach may be our best means of coping with diminishing fossil fuel reserves.

Using more advanced technologies, electricity from wind turbines can be stored by compressing or heating substances in tanks. One of the most promising ways to store surplus wind power is by producing hydrogen. Hydrogen can be stored under pressure in tanks, to provide fuel for industrial or domestic use or in cars, all without creating pollution. As discussed in more detail in an earlier article, electric vehicles can also run on Lithium-ion batteries that can be recharged from the solar panels on top of the roofs under which they are parked.

Anyway, more electric cars means that we need to generate more electricity, and wind power is one of the easiest and cleanest ways to do so. We can choose the times when best to recharge the batteries or produce the necessary hydrogen, so we can do so when it's windy and when there's little further demand, so it will take little or no electricity away from other usage. Look at it this way and claims that wind power was unreliable and that hydrogen was inefficient do not hold.

Critics will always be found for any proposed transportation solution that doesn't fit their personal intellectual blinders. I personally think that smart technology applied in ways that minimize environmental impact and lower carbon emissions can set us on the road to reversing global warming while still enjoying the occasional top-down drive through the countryside.