Sustainability

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!

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)

Project Spotlight

Americans burn millions of barrels of oil to light up the sky each night. This represents a huge burden, not only in terms of energy outlay, but for the constant river of equipment, time, and effort needed to keep the process going. Street lighting also adds significantly to our national health care bill. Normal sleep behavior in humans is easily disturbed by artificial light, and there’s substantial cause to think it complicates our health by interfering with normal sleep patterns.

LED (Light Emitting Diode) is an emerging lighting technology which offers new ways to cope with these problems. In its early years LEDs were only capable of emitting specific colors, notably Red and Green. But blue LEDs have recently become available in large numbers, and with them comes the prospect of using LEDs to create light of any color. Since the 1960’s the efficiency and light output of LED technology has been doubling every thirty-six months. As a result LEDs have become an order of magnitude more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and are starting to eclipse fluorescents as well. Other key advantages of LEDs include a much longer life span, low heat emissions, and superior susceptibility to complex computer control. LEDs are virtually instant-on devices which can be cycled on/off many times more often than other forms of lighting. They are also much more directional than normal lights, a fact which can be used to both increase efficiency and lower light pollution. Last, but not least, LEDs fail gradually by slowly growing dim, in stark contrast to the abrupt failure of incandescent bulbs.

All these advantages add up to a tremendous opportunity for America to save energy and fight global warming. A 2008 white paper funded by the Ford Foundation found that if the our ten largest metropolitan areas convert to more efficient lighting, CO2 emissions will be cut by 1.2 million tons a year, the amount produced by 212,000 cars! The long life of LEDs would also save money by slowing the rate at which municipalities need to buy and install replacement lights.

But LEDs may make a radical new kind of economy possible, one based on not bothering to light empty streets where no one is stirring! It has been our habit to light millions of empty streets each night all across America, streets which for long stretches of time are completely devoid of traffic, where no one is even awake enough to know if lights are on! This is a colossal waste of energy which LEDs are ideally suited to put an end to. Equipping LED street lights with motion sensor detectors will let us turn lights on only when there are actually people there to see and use them. LEDs can accomplish this because unlike incandescent lights they can power up/down a huge number of times without breaking, and unlike florescent lights they turn on instantaneously.

Under this scenario a street would light up before you as you drove or walked down it, only to fade back into darkness when no traffic is present. Some might object this would lead to a “strobe light” effect all over town. But LEDs are ideally suited for sophisticated network control which could provide many options. One might be to simply dim lights slowly on streets with little or no traffic, instead of shutting them off completely. Programming for a new generation of street lights could be split between the local intelligence of individual lights designed to react to real-time traffic, and a central control center which could override their behavior with its own programming. Such systems might consist of street lights with flash memory software which could be updated from a central office. This would allow the programmed behavior of an entire municipal lighting system to be updated on the fly without needing to send workmen into the streets.

What’s needed at this point is a grand experiment, one designed to test these possibilities in the interest of arriving at an optimal solution, one which balances our desire to conserve energy while providing nighttime illumination people find useful and comfortable. Only by conducting such an experiment can we learn what will work best. I also suggest that this needs to be a national experiment sponsored by the federal government. If we are to move on this into the 21st century as a people, it won’t do for each town to have their own way of programming street lights. However inefficient our current way of lighting up the night may be, it has the advantage of being predictable. Regardless of the state or city we’re in, we know what to expect from street lights. But as with all systems which contain significant software, this new technology will be capable of surprising us with unexpected behavior. Such surprises can be good or bad. To make sure it’s the former, we need to coordinate our efforts to create a standard way to use this new potential, one tested by real experience.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette 01.10.09)

Energy Illusions

As the sun sets on the cheap oil era, the need to focus on alternatives to fossil fuels has become increasingly apparent. During this period the public has been offered some persistent misconceptions about the nature of the problem, and what we should do to solve it. In general we tend to oversimplify the nature of the challenge we’re facing, identifying it merely as the need to come up with new sources of fuel.

What’s really going is much more profound than running out of gas–it’s a crisis of sustainability, a test of our overall way of life. The consequences of the “limitless growth” model that’s driven industrial economies for the last century is swiftly catching up with us. We’re overproducing and overcomsuming ourselves into oblivion. Clinging to the old model can only result in a series of destructive resource wars and hasten the pace of catastrophic climate change. Throwaway culture is no longer a luxury we can afford. If we fail to break our old economic habits it will be “our world” that will be thrown out! That process is already underway, and gaining momentum.

Here is a quick checklist of popular misconceptions about the energy crisis:

The energy crisis is a separate problem unto itself. – It isn’t! The energy crisis is bound up with larger questions about the sustainability of our prevailing growth model of economic activity. We need to recognize that our headlong consumption of fossil fuel is overheating the planet. If we want society to endure for the long term we need to question the cancerous logic of limitless growth, and learn to live within our means. This is especially true for the most prolific overconsumers on the planet: Americans!

The earth is running out of oil, and fossil fuel in general. – It’s not! Huge reservoirs of fossil fuels exist, enough to meet current levels of demand for many decades to come. There are enormous reserves in the form of coal, tar sands, and methane hydrate deposits. What is coming to an end is the supply of cheap fossil fuel. We can get at the remaining reserves of fossil fuel, but doing so will be increasingly expensive and have unpleasant consequences.

Lack of fuel is the most pressing limit posed by this energy crisis. – Wrong! There is plenty of material to produce fuel from, if we’re willing to pay the price. The most pressing limit we face concerning energy use is the amount of carbon we can dump into the atmosphere! Current economic activity is already helping to melt Greenland’s ice pack. The process has been underway for years and is accelerating. As Greenland’s ice goes, it will raise global sea levels by twenty feet. The homes of over half the human race will be inundated in the process. You do the math!

The problem can be fixed by finding more fuel to meet demand. – It can’t! Part of the problem is we’re consuming too much energy to maintain climatic stability. In the case of Americans the per capita rate of consumption is far too high. It makes no sense to try and sustain our way of life without asking ourselves if that way of life is sustainable to start with. The earth isn’t going to adapt itself to our habits. Instead we need to adapt our habits to our home in space. We must ask ourselves hard questions about the kinds of activity we can reasonably expect to sustain over the long haul here on planet Earth.

The Hydrogen Economy will solve our problems.It won’t! Elemental hydrogen isn’t a source of energy. Unlike oil it doesn’t occur naturally but has be “manufactured” instead. In effect hydrogen is a form of energy storage, not a fuel source. It can’t help us replace dwindling oil supplies.

Ethanol can be used to replace gasoline.Not going to happen! Like hydrogen, ethanol isn’t a fuel source, but a form of energy storage. Besides, don’t we need the corn ethanol is made from to feed people? Can we morally justify starving people to produce fuel? Finally, the corporate agriculture which produces the corn ethanol is derived from is itself hugely dependent on fossil fuels.

Renewable energy can’t solve the energy crisis. – This is one of two lies large corporations promote about renewable energy. The truth is that renewable energy can be most effectively pursued as a set of decentralized grassroots solutions by ordinary citizens. But that’s a path which will break down the centralized control big energy and utility companies have over their customers. So while they pay lip service to renewable energy sources they package the concept as something complicated that needs further study, something that’s beyond the reach of regular people. This leads us to lie number two. . .

Renewable energy solutions are large and complex. – Big corporations visualize energy solutions as large highly centralized projects because it mirrors their desire to maintain centralized economic control. So corporations tends to think of a solar solution as something that looks like this, or a wind solution that look like this. These kinds of projects are clearly too expensive for ordinary people to participate in. To the extent that we accept such ideas we’ll be turned off to the notion of solving the energy crisis for ourselves, one household at a time. Of course this is exactly what big companies want.

What we need is the right fuel to replace gasoline. – This is another corporate friendly falsehood. The reason solutions like hydrogen and ethanol get a lot of attention in the press is that they maintain the current paradigm: energy needed to drive our cars can only be produced by large corporations using highly centralized production and distribution systems to deliver fuel. The problem is that the existing corporate system has been built on a “found object”–vast reservoirs of cheap oil pumped out of the ground at low cost. But unlike oil neither hydrogen nor ethanol is an energy source. You have to consume other energy sources to produce them. So it’s very unlikely hydrogen or ethanol will ever drive the creation of another centralized system like the one cheap oil gave rise to. The real solution is to bypass fuel altogether, and go straight to electricity. Electricity is an ideal form of energy for transportation. This fact has been repeatedly demonstrated, most recently by a car produced by Tesla Motors. What they’ve produced isn’t your Dad’s electric car–it does zero to sixty in four seconds!

In a future post I will address how we can really solve the energy crisis, and wean America off foreign oil in one generation.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 09.11.06)