Climate Change

Wind is a Sleeping Colossus

windmills1[1]Since publishing my post on electrifying the Interstate Highway System I’ve been asked where the power to pull off such a sweeping change would come from.  One friend suggested that if the needed power came from coal fired power, there would be little point to such a move.  But I was convinced renewable sources can deliver the energy needed to electrify the interstate highways, and looked for evidence to support that view.  What I found was an environmental blog published by the New York Times in July 2009.  The piece, written by John Lorinc, was provocatively named Study Suggests Wind Power Potential Is Much Higher Than Current Estimates.

Lorinc’s blog refers to a remarkable study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  This study, Global Potential For Wind-Generated Electricity, was produced by Xi Lu, Michael B. McElroy, and Juha Kiviluoma at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard University.  These researchers suggested that the potential wind energy in the lower 48 states is equivalent to 16 times the total electrical demand of the United States!!  By itself such a staggering amount of power would clearly be more than enough to realize the dream of electrifying the interstate highways.

But our sources of renewable energy don’t stop there.  Most of the wind energy in the lower 48 states comes from a huge area in the middle of the country stretching from North Dakota to Texas.  But there is an enormous expanse of land further west in states like California, Arizona, and New Mexico where the sun beats down with merciless regularity.  This area could contribute a huge amount of renewable energy in the form of large solar thermal installations designed to produce electricity by concentrating the sun’s rays.

In Canada, the province of Quebec also has enormous wind energy potential, one that may be even greater than the winds of the American Midwest.  Much of the electricity used in New England and New York already comes from hydroelectric sources in Quebec.  It would be perfectly logical to supply much of the electricity needed to power electric roads on our eastern seaboard from wind power sources based in Quebec.  Canada doesn’t need to disturb its toxic tar sands to become an energy superpower!

In recent years the United States has been called The Saudi Arabia of Wind Power.  When we add the huge solar potential of the American Southwest, and the vast untapped wind energy of Quebec we find three Saudi Arabia’s worth of renewable energy in our corner of the world.  Don’t let the naysayers tell you otherwise — there is more than enough renewable energy available to power the electric road of the future.  Much more!

The Most Important Task of Our Time

THE MOST IMPORTANT TASK OF OUR TIME is to electrify the Interstate Highway system.

The Interstate Highway system is a peerless resource.  It has been called the greatest public works project in history.  Let’s capitalize on this unique American treasure by creating an INTERSTATE 2.0 designed to support electric cars.  We want a network electric and hybrid cars can use to hop cross country 40 miles at a time, if need be.  Such a network will let even the early model electrics we have now go anywhere in the country, painstakingly at first to be sure, but with better and better success as time goes by.

Electricity is a unique form of energy.  It alone makes possible a market in which small players can coexist with large.  Electricity is therefore our most democratic form of energy.  No liquid fuel can compete in this regard.  They all tend to make the public dependent on fuel elites, leading to all sorts of mischief.  Look at how powerful the fossil fuel industry has become.  It has enmeshed the Republican party in a cloud of irrational climate denial, a cloud filled with folks who enjoy the fruits of science every day of the week, yet are somehow inspired to dismiss and disparage scientists when it comes to climate.

We can use the electric road to create a rational energy future for ourselves.  While early electric charging stations will be slow, a cascade of improvements will come in time.  Eventually, these improvements won’t just apply to a set of roads, but to the nation as a whole.  By insisting on the creation of the electric road we can launch our country in a new and fundamentally better direction.

The electric road is our best chance to put America back on her economic feet and help restore the middle class.  The Interstate highway may be the largest infrastructure investment EVER made.  It is a jewel at the heart of the nation’s workbench, a colossal archimedean lever mighty enough to give us a place to stand and move the world.  The electric road is an idea who’s time has come, an idea capable of turning heads around the globe in a new direction, toward a new horizon and a brighter tomorrow.

No one in this election cycle has proposed creating Interstate 2.0.  But it’s too important an idea to leave to politicians.  As citizens who care about the future of our country, we need to push this idea ourselves.  Hundreds of billions of dollars fly out of the pockets of ordinary Americans each year paying for gas, much of it bound overseas.  An electric road would re-route much of that money, keeping it in America in our pockets instead, strengthening both the nation’s and our personal economies.

Electrifying the Interstate will eventually drive down gas prices.  I see no reason the "electric gallon" won’t sell for a dollar someday, even less.  But the electric road is more than a path to cheap gas.  It’s a way to address global warming, which is far worse than most now think!  Over the past century fossil fuel combustion has been poisoning plants worldwide.  We’ve put the forests of the world on a pack-a-day habit, and it’s caused them to stop fixing carbon as they normally do.  We need trees to breathe deeply so they can suck CO2 out of the sky.  Instead here we are, gagging the forests with our exhaust, making things worse instead!  Not good!!

Thus any plan to combat climate change MUST include the retirement of the internal combustion engine as a way of doing business.  The longer we wait to stop burning gas as a way to get around, the more hellish life on earth will become.  It’s that simple.  The Electric Road can not only help to heal our economic woes, but steer civilization onto a better climate path.  It’s a win-win.

The jury is more than “in” on the science of global warming.  Every year for a decade now, the predictions have only grown more dire.  If anything, things are worse than we think and the time to act is shorter than we suspect.  America is being attacked by evil weather NOW, not in some dim future.  We are already taking casualties!  If we want our kids to have a decent planet to live on, we need to act NOW.  We can start by recognizing that it’s late in the game, and we need to get on the stick.

America desperately needs to reinvent herself.  Here’s how the Electric Road can make that happen:

In order to speed market acceptance of electric cars the Federal Government should call for the creation of national standards designed to promote a network of electric-capable roads, meaning highways capable of supplying cars with the electric equivalent of gasoline.  These electric-road standards should include. . .

The objective of the Legacy charging standard is to provide support for older and existing electric and hybrid cars.  At this stage we’re talking about stations using household or 220 volt current.  The worst case scenario would be to hop cross-country 40 miles at a time on a limited battery.  Building a network of legacy charging stations will make this modest beginning a reality.

When paying for electricity on the road we should try to automate the billing process, and make buying juice like anything else on the internet.  A wireless adapter for charging stations would also be welcome, especially a system older car owners can participate in by getting a retrofit kit for their cars.  A wireless approach should make it possible to juice up your vehicle simply by parking in a charger-equipped spot.

As the pace of market development and technological change progresses, opportunities will emerge for newer charging systems.  For example, rumor has it that domestic auto makers are working on a system which will charge a car in 15 minutes.  Sounds great!  Over time it’s likely several future charging standards will emerge as technology improves.

The purpose of a national road battery standard is to support a network of electric "filling stations" based on an interchangeable battery.  We know it’s possible to create the electric equivalent of a "filling station" because an Israeli entrepreneur named Shai Agassi  has already done it!  You can see it in action here:

Better Place Electric Car Switching Station

A network of electric "filling stations" like the one shown in this video can only work if everyone uses an interchangeable battery–hence the need for a national standard!  Companies can still push competing technologies for how the electricity is created or stored, but the form factor must be standardized.  That’s the only way you can be sure a fresh battery will fit your car when you pull into an electric station.

But because vehicles vary so much by weight and load, a One-Size-Fits-All approach could be problematic.  So a modular system in which several battery sizes could be used interchangeably might be desirable.  For example a clever system which could juggle these three batteries might go a long way to keeping everyone happy:

1x Capacity  (Motorcycle),   4x Capacity  (Sedan),   8x Capacity  (Small Truck)

A national road battery standard would help create a market in moveable electricity.  America is blessed with abundant mix of renewable energy resources which could supply the electricity needed to power the electric road.  A large area stretching from southern California through much of the southwest holds major promise as a source of baseline solar power.  A huge area in the middle of the country stretching from Texas to Montana is also a major source of wind power.

A standard road battery would invite the formation of a power market in which small players can coexist with large companies.  People with land in the windy Midwest will enjoy the prospect of generating income by using a few windmills to charge standard road batteries.  The electric road will create a robust market for such batteries, one which ordinary Americans as well as large corporations will be able to profit from, if only because every dollar’s worth of energy from domestic renewable energy resources is one more dollar Americans get to keep.

The ability to conduct wireless power transmission on the highway would solve a host of problems.  A few years ago researchers at MIT came up with a promising technique to transmit power wirelessly over short distances.  A company named WiTricity was spun off from this activity and they are now working with Audi to develop a wireless charging station for electric cars.  The system only transfers power to devices which use a matching operational  frequency.  Unless the frequency of the sender and receiver match on both ends, no power is transferred.  So it should be possible to build an electric road which will power vehicles wirelessly without creating a danger to people or animals who might walk across it.  For those interested in exploring how this technology works, WITRICITY’s home page can be found here:


A working Wireless Highway Standard would go a long way to opening up the electric road.  It should be possible to implement a system which will allow automatic account verification and billing.  In the final analysis creating the electric road will also involve updating our old electric grid.  Most analysts recognize our need to move past the legacy patchwork our current grid is based on.  The development of the electric road will only increase our need to update to a smart grid.  We can’t hope to fully develop one system without addressing the need to upgrade the other.  So the need to reinvent the electric grid is really a plus, not a minus.  It’s an opportunity to address a problem we need to confront anyway, and yet another reason to build Interstate 2.0.

This dream of Eisenhower, this crown of roads, this peerless jewel which keeps America moving is a critical asset in America’s economic future.  It’s a golden key we can decide to turn at any time.  Doing so will help us retire the God-awful No-Can-Do stench that rises from Washington these days like the fumes of a fetid swamp.  We must not be denied on this score.  We must insist on progress!

I urge all Americans who long for the health of the country to push for the electric road.  Let’s make petroleum compete openly with electricity on the open road!  Good things will come from it.  While I offer this advice to all Americans, I have little hope Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will welcome this development.  Romney, and Republicans in general, are firmly devoted to Big Oil and a history of global pollution we can no longer afford.  There’s little cause to think they’ll heed this call.

To President Obama I make the following plea:  LEAD OUR COUNTRY, MAN!  Get out in front of this issue and help us invent a future for ourselves!  The electric road is a specific proposal.  It’s a call for an act of concrete progress which awaits a moment of public clarity, a clarity which you, Mr. President, can do much to promote!

Your campaign is also at risk, Mr. President, due to the apathy of the youth who helped elect you in 2008.  Young people need leaders who will push a vision of the future they can understand and see their part in.  Who does that for them in Washington now?  No one!!  What better way for you to regain the attention of the young than to push for the electric road?  "Without vision, the people perish" the Bible tells us.  Most of all, I submit, it’s the young who suffer from a lack of public vision.  Who more than they have need of dreams?  Here is my dream for the future of our country, Mr. President.  Please make use of it!

I’d also like to address the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Throughout time the wealthy have found ways to rob us.  Today it’s happening on a colossal scale.  Without question terrible, indeed systemic, injustice is involved.  But here’s the thing: The wealthy have always been expert at protecting their booty, and we look back at a long history of frustration in which people waited for economic justice which never came.
So much time has been spent fighting to set things right to no avail, it sometimes seems like a subtle trap.  For one thing it tends to make the OWS movement dependent on the legal system for a judgment.  After the Supreme Court’s vote for Citizens United, it’s hard to have much faith in that strategy!  My advice is to focus on progress instead.  We must INSIST ON IT, in fact! 

Our first obligation to posterity is to MAKE A DIFFERENCE, to be effective in creating positive change.  Our chance to do that improves if we focus on the right objective and insist on progress achieving it.  I suggest that OWS adopt the electric road as this worthwhile objective, primarily because accomplishing it will reach into the lives of Americans in a profoundly positive way.  The electric road is the best difference we are in a position to make.  It is a nexus event in waiting, one with the potential to touch everyone’s life.  Accomplishing it will do more to improve the fortunes of ordinary Americans than any other initiative now proposed.  The electric road deserves our focus.  It is the road to a future worth having.

Finally I’d like to address the climate deniers:  Shame on you!  Your behavior is adolescent.  Adults don’t shy away from the problems life throws at them, they meet them head on.  Climate change is a fact of life, one which only grows more implacably evident with each passing year.  If anything scientist have under-reported the problem because it has become obvious to this group of largely apolitical people that the hot wind of public irrationality await anyone who dares point out that history’s biggest pollution party is coming to an end, one way or the other.

Denial is easy.  Kids do it all the time.  But by engaging in such behavior you have made yourself a burden to your fellow citizens and your children.  The hellish world produced by your inaction and denial will cause them to curse your name!  Please, no more blather about how global warming is a convoluted government conspiracy.  Children routinely find ways to blame others for facts they find inconvenient, just as you are doing now.

The time to grow up is running out for us all.  Either we must find a workable future we can embrace, or the sickening Earth will decide our future for us.  The Electric Road can be a key part of our workable future.  But the challenge is vast, the stakes unimaginably high.  We need all hands on deck.  Especially yours, Mr. President!

Money Monkey Trap

Noted climate change activist, Bill McKibben, recently published an article in Rolling Stone magazine titled Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.  In this piece McKibben encourages us to focus on these three numbers:

1st Number  -  2° Celsius
2nd Number  -  565 gigatons
3rd Number  -  2,795 gigatons

The first number is the limit on temperature rise set as a goal at the international climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009.  A two degrees Celsius rise has long been considered an upper limit on global warming which we must not transgress.  But recent thinking suggests this number may be too high.  Thus far the Earth has only warmed eight tenths of one degree Celsius.  But we’ve already been visited by numerous violent weather events which have created serious economic damage around the globe.  And this is only the beginning!

The second figure is the tons of CO2 scientists predict we can add to the Earth’s atmosphere before bypassing the two degree temperature increase just mentioned.

The third number, 2795 gigatons, is the amount of carbon which will be released into the atmosphere by using the oil, coal, and gas reserves already on the books as assets for major fossil fuel companies and fuel-states, like Venezuela and Kuwait.  The key point is that this massive tonnage is almost five times more than we can afford to actually burn without sending Earth’s climate into a hellish spiral!

The logic of these numbers reminds me of the folklore of the Monkey Trap.  Monkeys are too smart to be caught by most traps.  But it has long been known that most monkeys can be trapped by putting a piece of food inside a coconut or jar.  The container has an opening which is only big enough for the monkey to get his hand in.  As soon as the monkey grabs the bait, the hole is no longer big enough for him to pull his hand out of the container, which has been chained to the ground to keep the monkey in place.

The monkey is free to release the bait at any time, in which case he will be able to extract his hand from the trap.  But in practice the vast majority of monkeys fail this intelligence test.  Greed drives them to desperately hang onto the bait, even though doing so will condemn the monkey to being caught.

The situation today is not so different for the lords of fossil fuel.  They too are trapped by the dire consequences which will flow from hanging onto the resources they have stuck their hands in the Earth to possess.  Like the monkeys, the lords of fossil fuel can escape the trap by letting go of the bait.  Will humans pass the intelligence test which has baffled so many of their fellow primates, or can they learn to let go of the poisoned prize in the trap?

This question concerns us all.  An individual monkey trapped by a refusal to release a handful of food affects only his own fate.  But the human monkeys who insist on exploiting the 2795 gigatons of carbon inside the fossil fuel trap will release a climate catastrophe which will devastate us all.

Have Battery, Will Travel

Moving the American road from gasoline to electricity will require radical common sense. Until now the range of electric cars has paled compared to the gas guzzlers we’re use to. But that’s in the process of changing. Recent developments in nanotechnology are leading to new types of batteries which will have far greater capacity and far quicker recharge cycles than current products. AltairNano of Reno Nevada has created technology capable of producing devices which hold three times the charge of current lithium ion batteries, and which recharge in a matter of minutes while operating safely in a wide range of temperatures. Researchers at Stanford recently announced a nanowire technique capable of holding ten times the charge of current generation lithium ion devices. With such power packs, electric cars could eventually surpass gas powered cars in range.

But it will be a few years before these technologies become widespread and cheap. Right now it’s the cost of fancy batteries which makes electric cars so expensive. For a public used to driving 300 miles on a tank of gas, the limited range provided by current electric technology isn’t attractive. How can we overcome the obstacles presented by these limitations? Shai Agassi’s Better Place is a company working to find answers to these questions. One of their more interesting concepts is to establish Battery Exchange Stations for travelers on long journeys. You would drive to a Battery Exchange Station as if it were any gas station. But instead of "filling up" the station would use an automated procedure to swap out your spent battery, and replace it with a charged one. According to Better Place, you’d be on your way with a fresh battery in less than three minutes.

Battery exchange stations are a great idea, one capable of letting electric car drivers go on long journeys. But we should take the concept a step further by establishing government standards for Universal Road Batteries, or URBs. Such standards would be designed to let owners of different electric cars share common battery types. The idea is to promote the interoperability we now take for granted when fueling our cars. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive today: a two seat sports car, a sedan, SUV, or pickup truck. You can go from coast to coast knowing that in every state you can pull into a gas station where the pump will work with your car, and what comes out will get you on your way. So the URB isn’t a radical concept, but a way to give electric cars the same freedom to operate over long distances that gasoline provides us with now.

URBs would also help us make sense of renewables. Solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy. In power company lingo this type of energy is known as non-dispatchable, meaning that when the energy is available, the grid either needs to accept it, or it will be lost. This differs from traditional forms of energy like coal or oil which stick around until we decide to use them. So a key factor in adopting renewable energy sources is the ability to store that energy when it’s available. URBs would fulfill this objective in spades, and in the process provide a huge incentive to develop renewable energy. Millions of interchangeable electric car batteries would represent an energy sink of formidable proportions, one which would provide instant justification to tap the sun and wind to make electricity.

Unlike traditional forms of energy, much of this activity could take place on a decentralized basis by ordinary people. Having a widely practiced Universal Road Battery standard will help every family with a wind machine or solar roof panel power their own car. People with spare acreage in windy states will have an incentive to start their own wind farms, knowing they can "sell gas" to cross country electric car drivers in the form of URBs. And unlike current day gas station owners, these people won’t be passing most of the profit on to a giant corporation. That’s the thing about an electric-renewable economy which won’t be true for other forms of energy. Both the big and the small will get to play. We’ll have the best competition of all, the kind that lets you make something for yourself when someone else decides to overcharge for it! That’s supposed to be what capitalism is all about. It won’t hurt our democracy one bit either!

Ancient Soil Secret

Conventional wisdom had long held that the soils of the Amazon basin were poor in quality: loose in texture, burdened by too much aluminum, and depleted by torrential rainfall. But in 2001 scientists from several countries became aware of a mysterious substance the locals called Terra Preta, or Dark Earth. Extensive tracts of land in the heart of the Amazon were blessed with rich dark soil where logic suggested none should exist. This soil was not only remarkably fertile, but had endured despite centuries of human inactivity, the result of the local culture’s disruption by early European explorers. For the past eight years scientists have struggled to understand the Black Magic behind these apparent contradictions.

A consensus has emerged about the magic of Terra Preta focused on Biochar, an organic charcoal created with a low oxygen fire which merely chars vegetable matter, rather than burn it completely. While no one has been able to duplicate Terra Preta exactly, it now seems clear that adding biochar to the soil was the key ingredient in its formation. The good news is that we don’t need the precise formula for Terra Preta to get tremendous benefits from biochar. Properly applied, biochar is capable of doubling, even tripling, the fertility of most soils. It also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers by 75%, and reduces greenhouse gases emissions of the land it’s used on. Even better, biochar is the gift that keeps on giving. Unlike fertilizer, it persists in the soil for hundreds, even thousands of years. In the process it removes carbon from the atmosphere. As a result climate change activists are starting to embrace biochar as a potent way to fight global warming.

You too can use biochar to improve your garden this spring! The Gardening With Biochar FAQ web site is filled with helpful information, and is a great place to start. For simple ways to make biochar in the back yard with a steel barrel, check out the Official Biochar Tutorial Video or this Making Charcoal page. An overview of basic techniques to create biochar can also be found at Simple Technologies For Charcoal Making, an on-line document produced by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 02.05.09)

Greening The Desert

This is truly revolutionary stuff, in the original sense of the word. It’s a short video about a project led by Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute, a project who’s objective seemed impossibly difficult: to make one of the most desolate places on earth, a salt encrusted piece of desert near the Dead Sea, bloom with new life. To grasp what these people have done is to understand that even “insurmountable” problems, like global warming or peace in the middle east, can be solved by working with nature to make the land come alive. President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Senator Mitchell: Are you listening?

”We could regreen the middle east. We could regreen any desert, and desalt it at the same time. You can fix all the world’s problems in a garden. . . Most people today don’t actually know that, and that makes most people very insecure.”


(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 01.28.09)

Floating Puzzles in Deep Time

The earth’s climate history is filled with odd twists. Clearly something is going on which can’t be explained by a regular cycle. For example, why did Antarctica freeze over thirty-four million years ago while ice started forming in the Arctic a mere three million years ago? Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have a fascinating explanation you can find here at Oceanus Magazine:

How the Isthmus of Panama Put Ice in the Arctic

"From sediment cores and other data, we know that until about 5 million years ago, North and South America were not connected. A huge gap–the Central American Seaway–allowed tropical water to flow between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

A growing body of evidence suggests that the formation of the Isthmus of Panama partitioned the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and fundamentally changed global ocean circulation."

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 08./29./06)

The World is a Giant Water Wheel

I got an inspiration today about the cyclical nature of climate change, specifically how ice ages come and go. A while back I learned about Methane Hydrate, a type of ice which contains 168 times as much methane per unit volume as the gas itself. It forms under pressure in the deep waters of the ocean, fed by falling organic debris from the life that teems there. There are enormous deposits of the stuff distributed throughout the world, making oceans the earth’s largest carbon sink by far. It’s thought that the energy contained in methane ice deposits is twice as large as all land based fossil fuels combined!

I’ve been familiar with the prevailing theory of ice age formation for some time, at least the North Atlantic version which maintains that the trigger event comes when the Gulf Stream shifts south. The gulf stream is the local expression of the Ocean Conveyor Belt, a moving circuit of water which helps distribute the heat of the tropics to the rest of the world. It’s the gulf stream giving up it’s warmth in the North Atlantic that produces the mild climate Europe enjoys. If the gulf stream were to shift southward, weather in places like England and Scandinavia would become downright inhospitable. Apparently this has happened repeatedly over the last three million years. We’re stuck in a cycle of ice ages and inter glacial periods, which is what we’re in now.

Most folks think CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas. But in fact water vapor plays a larger role in maintaining the earth’s temperature. That’s something we can appreciate when local humidity rises and makes the weather oppressive. We also know that when it’s cold outside the air can’t hold as much water. So when an ice age begins and the temperature drops, the atmosphere loses some of it’s water vapor, thereby reinforcing the cooling trend. Later on as the ice spreads, its Albedo reinforces this trend further still by reflecting more of the sun’s light back into space.

If all these cooling factors are reinforcing each other, how does the earth ever get warm again? Until today I didn’t know the answer to that question. But I do now. One effect an ice age has is to pull water out of the ocean and deposit it on dry land. At various points in the distant past the earth was much warmer than it is today and there was little, if any, ice. Sea levels back then were 800 to 900 feet higher than they are now. But today that water is locked up on land, primarily in Antarctica which has over 13 million square miles of ice at an average depth of 1.6 miles, all of it Above sea Level! – Astonishing!

The turning point in the cycle stems from the fact that ocean levels drop as the ice age continues. As the waters recede pressure on methane hydrate deposits is reduced. Not surprisingly, something that contains so much gas in a small space turns out to be pretty unstable! If it’s not under serious pressure methane hydrate tends to bleed off as methane gas. Eventually the pressure on methane ice deposits shrinks to the point where large amounts of methane gas starts escaping into the atmosphere. This is a crucial event because methane is twenty times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas! So when large amounts of it escape to the surface, the greenhouse effect kicks back in, at which point everything starts getting warmer again.

The reverse happens as things warm up. Glaciers melt and sea levels rise. This increases the ocean’s capacity to form methane hydrate due to climbing pressure in the depths of the sea. The capacity of the world’s oceans to act as a carbon sink rises with the water. Eventually the oceans take enough carbon out of the atmosphere to send the greenhouse effect into another tailspin. At that point a new ice age begins. To make a long story short: The world is a giant water wheel!

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 08./28/.06)