Friday, September 24, 2004

Malthus was right—repeatedly

For the critics of the idea that growth has limits, Robert Malthus has always been the ultimate example of the fallacy of limits. In his famous Essay on Population (1798), Malthus argued that unchecked population growth always exceeds the growth of means of subsistence. Actual population growth is kept in line with food supply growth by "positive checks" such as starvation, disease and the like. It is taken for granted that this argument is false since, in the two hundred years since he wrote it, population growth has exploded and technology—and the expansion of growing areas in North and South America—has been able to keep food production growing fast enough to prevent major famines. Many people conclude that there are few if any limits to growth, that technology will always keep food production ahead of population growth.

A look at history reveals that the Malthusian scenario has already happened repeatedly in history. Furthermore, there is a major factor that Malthus overlooked—every major advance in civilization and technology has resulted in a degradation of the environment that has inevitably lowered the ability of that civilization to feed its people. Thus, population overshoots are not a linear progression as Malthus projected, but the result of a scissors action where the total potential production continually declines due to environmental degradation, while the population growth inevitably overshoots the ability of the land to support it.

One of the first environmental changes that appeared with the introduction of the city state and empire was the deforestation of the surrounding region. Originally, wood was cut as a fuel source for the early city states, but with the coming of the Bronze Age, the demand for wood increased exponentially due to the smelting needs of the metal. Once of the earliest recorded myths, “Gilgamesh” records the cutting of the Lebanon Cedars, forests now lost to history. At the same time, the increasing demands for food lead to the development of massive irrigation systems which increased food production, but at the same time increased the salinity of the soil, and ultimately turned it into desert. Many of the regions where cities first appeared are today arid and sparsely vegetated. Gilgamesh’s city of Ur is now surrounded by a desiccated and largely deserted landscape.

Europe, in the late Middle Ages underwent a similar transformation. Spurred on by technological innovations brought back from the Crusades and the growth of the new wool trade, Europe underwent a major transformation. The period of rapid economic and population growth between 1050 and 1300 saw a transformation of the European landscape form one predominantly forested to one where forests were isolated an fragmented. Landholders encouraged their peasants to open new lands to agriculture that had been woodlands, marshes and moors. New towns and villages sprang up. Between 1100 and 1300, food supply was adequate, but by the early fourteenth century, with little new land available, the increase in production failed. After that, serious famine occurred every ten years or so. From 1315 to 1317 the Great Famine ravaged northern Europe. From the 1320s, crop failures struck Italy. Famine struck in 1329. Softened up by famine, the European population was decimated by the Black Death which struck between 1347 and 1351. For some parts of Europe, recovery was a long time in coming. In 1850, Tuscany still had two million fewer people than it did in 1300. Given its technological level, Europe had experienced a classic overshoot.

The Polynesian expansion onto the Pacific Islands provided some very dramatic examples of population overshoots. While some islanders learned to live within the limits of their island ecology, others destroyed their environment and suffered disastrous consequences. Pitcairn Island was abandoned while Easter Island was entirely deforested, and native species hunted to extinction, resulting in a disastrous loss of population. In parts of New Zealand, archeology has provided evidence of malnutrition and economic decline.

The industrial age has provided the greatest opportunity for population increase in history. The Green Revolution has fed billions of people. Technology has been so successful that Malthus has appeared to have become outdated. But recent years have brought evidence that Malthusian theory and the limits to growth, were only postponed, and not negated. Food production no longer keeps up with consumption. Water tables are declining steadily and deserts advancing. Energy supplies are straining to keep up with demand and show signs of going into decline. The past two centuries have seen the greatest economic expansion in history, but we are now faced with the possibility that the resulting population overshoot may also be the greatest in history. The twenty-first century may turn into a world wide version of the European fourteenth century.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Miniature aerials pick up light

Physicist Yang Wang and his colleagues at Boston College, Massachusetts, have made an array of carbon nanotubes of just that length. The 50-nanometre-wide tubes make ideal miniature aerials because they conduct electricity well, so electrons can move freely up and down the tubes.

When the researchers shone light waves at the tubes, they detected a current, resulting from electrons bouncing up and down in the tubes at around 1015 times every second.

They have also created an array of nanotubes with a steady gradient of relatively short tubes at one end, through to long tubes at the other. This means that the whole array can detect visible light of any colour, says Zhifeng Ren, who worked on the project.

The team found that when the light waves were oriented so that their electric field was perpendicular to the nanotubes, the electrical response disappeared. This confirms that the light wave's electric field is responsible for the current, says Wang.

The work is tantalizing, says Mark Welland, a nanotechnology expert at the University of Cambridge, UK. He hopes the development could benefit optical computing. An array of carbon nanotubes could convert the light beam of data inside such a computer into an electrical signal, he says, providing an interface with conventional electronics.

The nanotubes might also enable a radically new design of solar cell, he says. Arrays of the long, thin wires could be spread over large areas to catch as much light as possible, convert it to electricity and deliver it along a circuit. A single material that can do all these things is "exactly what the ideal solar cell would consist of," he points out.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Over the weekend, I spent some time at the D.C. Green Festival. Billed as "a two-day party with a serious purpose: to accelerate the emergence of a new economic paradigm that is life-affirming, inclusive and nurturing. Together we are cultivating a culture of sustainability and social equity that honors our interdependence with all life. Green Festival unites green enterprises, social and environmental groups, visionary thinkers and thousands of community members in a lively exchange of ideas, commerce and movement building fun" the Festival was surprisingly filled with renewable energy resources, organic food companies, environemental organizations, poets, singers, a wide variety of speakers, and a film festival. There were even yoga and Tai Chi sessions.

I found an electric company I can sign up with that generates power from wind mills in West Virginia. With deregulation, you can choose your own power supplier in Maryland, but it is very difficult to find any green power companies in the information they give you so this was welcome news. There were several companies that install solar energy systems and solar water heating systems. This was also good information since Maryland will begin giving our $3,000 grants (not tax deductions--outright grants) beginning in January 2005.

But the most interesting part for me was to listen to, and briefly speek with Julia Butterfly Hill, the woman who sat in a redwood tree for two years until a logging company relented to demand that it not clearcut that particular area of the forest. The same company had clearcut a strip of hillside adjacent to this one resulting in mudslides that destroyed several houses below, so when they began clearcutting the next strip of the mountain, the tree sitters acted. Julia is a remarkable woman with a great story to tell. As a newly converted fan, I got her to autograph her book "The Legacy of Luna," a good read that I would recommend to anyone.

All in all, it was very satisfying to see so many people turn out, all with a desire to protect the environment and build a sustainable economy. The next Green Festival is in San Francisco, November 6-7. Anyone in the area should check it out.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Some good news, and some bad

Slowly but surely Asia switches on to green power

China, the world's largest oil consumer after the United States, has ambitious plans to boost renewable energy use that include raising wind power generating capacity from 570 megawatts today to 20,000 megawatts by 2020 and 50,000 megawatts by 2030.

One megawatt of electricity can supply 1,000 homes.

A push to use more biofuels such as marsh gas, straw, sugarcane residue and garbage to fuel power plants could eventually save China 28 million tonnes of coal a year.

In Japan, one of the world's top oil importers, automakers are investing in fuel cells to power new models using hydrogen, though costs remain out of reach for ordinary motorists.

India's prime minister urged scientists and officials last month to speed up development of renewable energy sources for Asia's third largest oil consumer. ...

India's Ministry for Non-conventional Energy Sources has estimated the country has a potential to generate 80,000 megawatts from renewable sources yet produces only 5,000, half from windmills.

Pakistan is turning to wind power and several foreign companies are vying to set up windfarms. Bangladesh, too, is studying wind power and hopes to promote greater use of solar cells in remote villages.

The Philippine government is to start work on its first sugar-fuelled power plant next year. Already, in July, government vehicles started using a one percent blend of coconut methyl ester in their diesel.

The country, already the world's second top producer of geothermal power, wants to boost investment further in that sector to help meet power shortages.

Indonesia, too, is turning to geothermal power to help meet its 10 percent annual growth demand for electricity, while Thailand wants to replace regular gasoline with a mix that includes 10 percent ethanol and aims to raise daily consumption of ethanol 12-fold by 2006.

These measures only represent a small portion of the energy requriements of these countries, but at least they show an awareness of the need to switch to renewables.

The bad news is that new crop patterns are destroying the fertility of the soil, a problem more basic than even energy.

After just five years, fields growing fruit and vegetables are becoming more acidic and barren, while nitrogen and phosphorus levels and fungal epidemics are rising sharply.

Since 1998, the area of land in China devoted to grain crops has fallen by 15 per cent. In August, Beijing confirmed that grain yields have fallen by a fifth in that time, and consumption in 2004 is expected to exceed production by a record 37 million tonnes. This demand for imported grain has triggered a 30 per cent rise in global grain prices in 2004, and further rises are expected as Chinese demand soars.

The root problem is that China is urbanising fast. Already 500 million Chinese live in towns and cities, and the government wants that to rise to 800 million by 2020. Cities are spreading across former farmland and are getting first call on scarce water resources. ...

The changes in soil chemistry have been accompanied by an equally dramatic decline in soil bacteria and an epidemic of fungus. The deterioration is worst when the crops are grown under plastic.

These changes are starting to hit vegetable yields and quality. "Some plants show abnormal growth, deformed fruits and various plant diseases which are not easy to control by the usual pesticides," says Cao Zhihong of the Institute of Soil Science. There is, in addition, "wide concern because of possible groundwater and well drinking water pollution by leached nitrates and phosphates". Already, a third of well water exceeds government norms for nitrate.

"Anything that disrupts microbial activity and function in soil could be expected to affect long-term soil productivity, and have serious consequences," says Rui Yin, a co-author of the studies.

Thirty years ago the Club of Rome warned us about the dangers of a population overshoot. Optimists will say that technology will provide solutions, but the Chinese experience is proving that for every solution there is a new problem.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Micropower 'could fuel UK homes'

A British group called the Green Alliance is promoting homes built to be self sufficient in energy.

A mini-power station on the roof of many UK homes will soon be possible and affordable, a British think-tank says.

The Green Alliance, an independent body which advises policy-makers, says that micropower schemes have come of age.

In a report which will be published on 15 September, it says the Sun, the wind and even the heat in the soil can all provide clean energy for a household. ...

Entitled A Micro-generation Manifesto, it describes the concept as "the generation of low-carbon heat and power by individuals, small businesses and communities to meet their own needs."

The report says: "Bringing energy generation closer to people in this way will forge the vital link between our concern about climate change and our energy consumption in the home...

"Homes with micro-generation are also affordable homes, with low or zero energy costs.

"And by curbing the rising demand for imported electricity, home energy generation can avert the need for investment in large new power stations and the aging grid network."

This kind of home would have the double advantage of being non-polluting, and of being independent of major energy corporations, their bought and paid for government representatives, and unreliable, autocratic governments that control most of the world's remaining oil.

Monday, September 13, 2004

A smorgasboard or renewable energy projects from around the world.

In California, The Bureau of Land Management has identified 72,000 acres of land that appear promising for wind-power development.

If federal permits were streamlined and other steps taken to encourage wind power, the new study estimates, California wind turbines could produce an additional 1,460 megawatts of electricity by 2025. That's enough to serve a city of half a million households. By 2025, building the additional windmills in California would add 2,980 jobs, and operating them would add 500 more, according to the study. The jobs, in turn, would generate tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues.

In Germany, the World's biggest solar power plant was inaugurated last Wednesday.

Tucked away behind trees in the middle of the countryside, the Leipziger Land solar power plant Wednesday in the eastern German village of Espenhain is invisible from the road. It’s only when you drive through the gate and onto the site itself that you’re confronted with a vast field full of 33,500 shimmering gray panels tilted towards the sun at precisely 30 degrees -- the optimum angle for absorbing radiation. ...

The high performance modules, made of monocrystalline silicon, can handle the high voltage as well as delivering a high energy yield. Each panel produces 150 watts of energy. The plant cost €22 million ($26.5 million) to build and is capable of generating five megawatts of electricity. ...

Germany’s pioneering Renewable Energy Law, which was passed four years ago and amended in April this year, decrees that any electricity producer -- including private individuals -- get paid for the amount they feed into the national grid. This has encouraged thousands of people to install solar panels on their houses.

Renewable energy legislation like this should be a major priority in this country. Unfortunately, Congress can't seem to get any energy bill passed, much less a good one.

Even Nicaragua is developing two new geothermal fields that should be able to produce as much as 450 megawatts of energy. Nicaragua already has one geothermal plant at the Momotombo Volcano, 30 kilometers we of the capit that produces about 40 MW. Companies from Italy, Japan, Mexico and El Salvador have expressed interest in the two new sites.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Home Designed to Produce Energy It Uses

Builder Jim Sargent paused on the staircase of the model home, sweat glistening on his forehead as the temperature outside rose into the 90s.

``Feel that breeze?'' Sargent said. The draft's cooling effect didn't happen by accident. Sargent pointed out large casement windows that swing out, catching the prevailing southern winds, and the skylight that can be opened to let warm air escape.

Sargent's house is designed to produce as much energy as it uses. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the average family spends $1,400 a year to run its house, with about half going for heating and cooling. The agency provides technical help to builders like Sargent to encourage energy-efficient and ``green'' home construction, or ``zero energy'' houses. ...

Despite the push by the Energy Department and a few developers, energy-efficient homes are ``still an experiment'' and not likely to become common anytime soon because consumers don't want to pay for them, said Gopal Ahluwalia, an economist at the National Association of Home Builders.

``Energy is very important, but consumers also want a whole lot of features that are not very energy-efficient,'' he said. ``They want bigger windows, high ceilings, two-story entrances, more fireplaces.''

Ahluwalia said his group's surveys indicate consumers are willing to make a smaller investment -- say, $5,000 to $6,000 -- to shave hundreds off their energy bill. For that reason, he said, more consumers look for appliances with the government's Energy Star seal and houses with energy-saving features.

Sargent said it will take more incentives, such as those offered in California and Arizona, where subsidies and government regulations offset some of the higher green construction costs, such as solar panels. He put $75,000 worth of solar panels on his model home.

``From a feel-good standpoint, I can do it,'' he said, ``but can I justify it from an economic standpoint? Not until the rebates get better.''

Unstated, of course, is the fact that the economics will change drasticly after we reach peak oil.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

ZAP unveils hydrogen fuel cell breakthrough

The small company, Zap, is making some inovative moves in the U.S. auto industry. They began with electric cars, but these carried the limitations that have kept electric cars from becoming popular, limited range and speed. They are now lining up dealers to sell an American version of the Smart Car, a two passenger car that gets sixty miles to the gallon.

But their biggest breakthrough may be to combine this small car baody with a new version of a fuel cell that is lighter than ordinary batteries with a higher voltage ans a greater energy and power density. Because of the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure, the new cars will run on liguid amonia.

"The immediate use of ammonia can jump-start the country into a true hydrogen economy," said Robert R. Aronsson. "Ammonia is the second most common chemical produced in the world and can be made from natural gas or renewable energy. It is shipped by truck, rail, pipeline, ship and barge and is commonly used as fertilizer or in household refrigerators and can be competitive in price to gasoline. Ammonia fueling stations could be set up at very little cost, as the infrastructure already exists throughout the country. Ammonia distributors could begin making weekly deliveries of ammonia to gas stations in the 100 largest metropolitan areas of the U.S., serving 70 percent of the population. Former plans, proposed by others, of equipping gas stations with mini-factories for producing hydrogen by electrolysis at a cost of $1 million per gas station, could be replaced by this new, low-cost system. The new fueling system would make it possible for thousands of ZAP Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars to operate throughout the country, silently, and with zero emissions."

It will be a daunting challange for such a small country to put together a line of dealers, and to secure enough capital to get their effort off the ground, but it will be something to watch.