Sunday, October 31, 2004

THE END IS NEAR, by Kurt Vonnegut

I am writing this before the election, so I cannot know whether George W. Bush or John F. Kerry will be our President, God willing, for the next four years. These two Nordic, aristocratic multi-millionaires are virtually twins, and as unlike most of the rest of us as a couple of cross-eyed albinos. But this much I find timely:
Both candidates were and still are members of the exclusive secret society at Yale, called “Skull and Bones.”

That means that, no matter which one wins, we will have a Skull and Bones President at a time when entire vertebrate species, because of how we have poisoned the topsoil, the waters and the atmosphere, are becoming, hey presto, nothing but skulls and bones.


What was the beginning of this end? Some might say Adam and Eve and the apple of knowledge. I say it was Prometheus, a Titan, a son of gods, who in Greek myth stole fire from his parents and gave it to human beings. The gods were so mad they chained him naked to a rock with his back exposed, and had eagles eat his liver.

And it is now plain that the gods were right to do that. Our close cousins the gorillas and orangutans and chimps and gibbons have gotten along just fine all this time while eating raw vegetable matter, whereas we not only prepare hot meals, but have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system in fewer than 200 years, mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels.

The Englishman Michael Faraday built the first dynamo, capable of turning mechanical energy into electricity, only 173 years ago. The first oil well in the United States, now a dry hole, was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, by Edwin L. Drake only 145 years ago. The German Karl Benz built the first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine only 119 years ago.

The American Wright brothers, of course, built and flew the first airplane only 101 years ago. It was powered by gasoline. You want to talk about irresistible whoopee?

A booby trap.

Fossil fuels, so easily set alight! Yes, and as Bush and Kerry are out campaigning, we are presently touching off nearly the very last whiffs and drops and chunks of them. All lights are about to go out. No more electricity. All forms of transportation are about to stop, and the planet Earth will soon have a crust of skulls and bones and dead machinery.

And nobody can do a thing about it. It’s too late in the game. Don’t spoil the party, but here’s the truth: We have squandered our planet’s resources, including air and water, as though there were no tomorrow, so now there isn’t going to be one.

So there goes the Junior Prom, but that’s not the half of it.

October 29, 2004


Thursday, October 28, 2004

Renewable energy notes:

Sharp, PowerLight Team Up for FedEx Solar Project

Just days after a 403 kW solar PV carport project was completed at a U.S. Postal Service (USPS) facility in West Sacramento, a FedEx facility in Oakland announced ambitious plans for a solar electric project nearly a MW in size. Just like the USPS project, the FedEx solar installation will be designed and constructed by the Berkeley-based PowerLight company and PV modules will be provided by Sharp. The project will be located on top of the hub of the Oakland, International Airport will be the largest corporate-owned solar project.

World production of solar cells—which convert sunlight directly into electricity—soared to 742 megawatts (MW) in 2003, a jump of 32 percent in just one year. With solar cell production growing by 27 percent annually over the past five years, cumulative world production now stands at 3,145 MW, enough to meet the electricity needs of more than a million homes. This extraordinary growth is driven to some degree by improvements in materials and technology, but primarily by market introduction programs and government incentives.

Geothermal in Harlem Means a Greener City

Full Spectrum developers' $40 million condominium complex at 1400 on 5th in Harlem meets the state's green building criteria because it was constructed with 70 percent recycled and renewable sources, and will use 35 percent less energy because of the geothermal well that will help to heat and cool the building year round. The geothermal well is also known as a geoexchange system that uses the ambient earth temperature to help maintain a level temperature in a building.

Hospital Cures High Electric Bill with Solar Energy

Renewable Technologies, (RTI) of Sutter Creek has completed construction of a 75 kW solar photovoltaic (PV) system for Lifetime Health Care Medical Associates' downtown Merced medical facility. RTI deployed a system of 624 solar PV modules, plus inverters, expected to generate an estimated 116,000 kWh a year. The rooftop system also insulates the building, helping to reduce cooling costs, and was fastened to the building using an engineering technique that eliminated the need for any roof penetrations.

California Law Shines on New Solar Energy Projects

ust in time for the solar industry's major conference in San Francisco this week, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that will make it less difficult for homes and businesses hoping to install solar energy systems in towns that tend to find the projects aesthetically unfit for their tastes. Schwarzenegger signed AB 2473 into law, which is a strengthened Solar Rights Act sponsored by California State Assemblywoman Lois Wolk in the 8th Assembly District. The key improvements made to the new Solar Rights Act minimize aesthetic solar restrictions to changes that would cost the developer no more than US$2,000.

A Coalition of Labor and Environmental Advocates Endorse Policy Package for a Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger America

A coalition of labor and environmental advocates are hailing the findings of this new report that clearly demonstrates how smarter environmental policies can lead to significant job creation. The report Smarter, Cleaner, Stronger: Secure Jobs, Clean Environment, and Less Foreign Oil details for the first time on a national and a state-by-state basis, the economic benefits that will result from energy policies that stimulate the development of clean energy technologies.

Manure energy

Amid smiles and handshakes, Lodi dairyman Larry Castelanelli's new methane-powered generator chugged to life last week. California's newest industry - a $7 million plan to make power from manure - finally was rolling. By the end of the year, 12 of 14 state-funded pilot projects on dairy power are expected to be operating, and three more dairy generators are planned next year for southern Sacramento County.

BP Solar Annual Production Boost: 90 to 200 MW

BP Solar announced three projects aimed at strengthening its position in the global solar photovoltaic (PV) market. These projects include doubling the plant capacity at its Frederick, Maryland plant, teaming up with The Home Depot to market BP Solar home systems, and renewing its corporate sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) 2005 Solar Decathlon.

Orange County Builder Goes Solar

With tremendous state rebates and the Governor's talk of a Million Solar Homes Initiative, businesses in California's building trades are becoming increasingly involved with solar energy. And not just on the homes they help build either. Trimco Finish, a large tract finish contractor in Orange County, now has their own commercial scale system on top of their company facility.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Consumption of Resources Outstripping Planet's Ability to Copes

Humans currently consume 20 percent more natural resources than the Earth can produce, the report said.

"We are spending nature's capital faster than it can regenerate," said WWF chief Claude Martin, releasing the 40-page study. "We are running up an ecological debt which we won't be able to pay off unless governments restore the balance between our consumption of natural resources and the Earth's ability to renew them." ...

Use of fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil increased by almost 700 percent between 1961 and 2001, the study said.

Burning fossil fuels - in power plants and automobiles, for example - releases carbon dioxide, which experts say contributes to global warming. The planet is unable to keep pace and absorb the emissions, WWF said.

Populations of land, freshwater and marine species fell on average by 40 percent between 1970 and 2000. The report cited urbanization, forest clearance, pollution, overfishing and the introduction by humans of nonnative animals, such as cats and rats, which often drive out indigenous species.

"The question is how the world's entire population can live with the resources of one planet," said Jonathan Loh, one of the report's authors.

The study, WWF's fifth since 1998, examined the "ecological footprint" of the planet's entire population. ...

The world's 6.1 billion people leave a collective footprint of 33.36 billion acres, 5.44 acres per person. To allow the Earth to regenerate, the average should be no more than 4.45 acres, said WWF.

The impact of an average North American is double that of a European, but seven times that of the average Asian or African.

Residents of the United Arab Emirates, who use air conditioning extensively, leave a 24.46-acre footprint, two-thirds caused by fossil fuel use. The average U.S. resident leaves a 23.47-acre footprint, also largely from fuel. ...

Loh said governments, businesses and consumers should switch to energy-efficient technology, such as solar power.

"We can consume energy in a way that's harmful or in a way that's sustainable," he said. "The technologies are available to enable the world's population to live within the capacity of one planet."

High oil prices may help focus their minds.

"But it's not a question of how much oil is left," he said. "The question we should be asking is how much fossil fuel consumption the Earth can sustain. The Earth has a limited capacity."

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Phase II of Renewable Energy in America

A conference this winter by the American Council on Renewable Energy, in conjunction with the Renewable Energy and Efficiency Caucus of the US Senate and US House of Representatives, will attempt to launch what they are calling "Phase II" of renewable energy in America.

"It is time for a return to the taxpayers for their 30-year investment in renewable energy technologies." said Roger Ballentine, ACORE Board member, president of Green Strategies, and previously head of the climate change task force under President Clinton, "The Phase II policy framework needs to encompass renewable fuels for national security and renewable electricity for global warming and environmental protection."

ACORE, in conjunction with Worldwatch Institute, is producing a pre-conference report in November entitled Renewable Energy in America: the Call for Phase II. Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch, is chairing the editorial board for the report.

"The fact is that many other countries around the world, like Germany and Japan, are moving ahead on the adoption of renewable energy," Flavin said. "The U.S. needs to catch up, and Phase II is the policy envelope within which we can do it."

The conference will include a high-level policy forum to be held in the Cannon Office Building Caucus Room on December 7.

The technologies are there and the access to policy makers is there. What renewable energy needs is the kind of lobbying clout that the oil and gas companies have in order to get any significant movement out of congress.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Discovery is a step towards pollution-free cars

One of the major problems with hydrogen as an energy source has been that the density is so low that it's hard to store enough to power an automobile. Now researchers in Newcastle University's Northern Carbon Research Laboratories may have discovered a practical way to store hydrogen densely enough to make fuel cell cars possible.

At the present time, no existing hydrogen storage technology meets the challenging performance required to make hydrogen-powered automobiles competitive with traditional vehicles. New and innovative ideas are needed.

The Liverpool and Newcastle researchers have found a workable method of injecting the gas at high pressure into the tiny pores - of ten to the minus nine metres in size - in specially-designed materials to give a dense form of hydrogen. They then reduce the pressure within the material in order to store the captured hydrogen safely. Heat can be applied to release the hydrogen as energy, on which a car could potentially run.

Professor Mark Thomas, of Newcastle University's Northern Carbon Research Laboratories in the School of Natural Sciences, a member of the research team, said:

"This is a proof of principle that we can trap hydrogen gas in a porous material and release it when required. However, if developed further, this method would have the potential to be applied to powering cars or any generator supplying power. Although hydrogen-powered cars are likely to be decades away, our discovery brings this concept a step towards becoming reality.

"Now that we have a mechanism that works, we can go on to design and build better porous framework materials for storing hydrogen, which may also be useful in industries that use gas separation techniques."

Professor Matt Rosseinsky, of the University of Liverpool's Department of Chemistry, said "Our new porous materials can capture hydrogen gas within their channels, like a molecular cat-flap.

"After allowing the hydrogen molecule – the 'cat - in, the structure closes shut behind it. The important point is that the hydrogen is loaded into the materials at high pressure but stored in them at a much lower pressure - a unique behavior. This basic scientific discovery may have significant ramifications for hydrogen storage and other technologies that rely on the controlled entrapment and release of small molecules."

If this technology works out it would be a major step toward a non polluting alternative to oil.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Organic farming boosts biodiversity

The largest study of organic farming ever conducted has concluded that organic farming increases biodiversity at every level of the food chain, from bacteria to mammals.

According to the researchers, organic farming aids biodiversity by using fewer pesticides and inorganic fertilisers, and by adopting wildlife-friendly management of habitats where there are no crops, including strategies such as not weeding close to hedges, and by mixing arable and livestock farming.

Mixed farming particularly benefits some bird species. Lapwings, for example, nest on spring-sown crops, but raise their chicks on pasture. Intensive agriculture has been blamed for the 80% decline in lapwing numbers in England and Wales since the 1960s. One of the reviewed studies from the UK also points to benefits for bats. Foraging activity was up 84% on organic farms and two species, the greater and lesser horseshoe bats, were found only on organic farms.

The studies might even have underestimated the benefits to wildlife, says Phillip Grice of English Nature. Some looked at farms shortly after they turned organic, so wildlife numbers may just have started increasing.

Some argue that farms that adopt a few organic practices, swapping chemical weeding for mechanical, for example, may help wildlife flourish just as much as completely organic farms. And it is possible that farmers who switched to organic farming may have been predisposed towards environmentally friendly methods. So the biodiversity on their farms may have been higher than average before conversion. The current studies are not detailed enough to answer these questions.

The outlines of the future are visible today and organic farming is one element. The key to a sustainable society is to live in harmony with nature and not in opposition to it. Organic farming is clearly demonstrating that it is a way of living in harmony with nature.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Ocean Exploitation Surfaces as Crisis

"Ocean conservation is poised to become the next global warming issue," said Gerry Leape, who runs the marine conservation network for the National Environmental Trust. "The science is settled. The debate can move on from whether or not there is a crisis to what to do about it."

Scientists and policymakers point to a variety of ominous signs. Ninety percent of the world's large predator fish -- those at the top of the food chain -- have disappeared over the past 50 years, two Canadian scientists reported last year in a widely publicized study. At least a third of the fish stocks that the federal government monitors are overfished, officials say, and the status of hundreds of other species is unknown. The motor oil dropped on American streets ends up in the oceans at the rate of 10.9 million gallons every eight months -- the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill. And the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico -- an area the size of Connecticut where high nitrogen levels kill all marine life -- expanded again this summer.

"There is a consensus that our oceans are in crisis and that reforms are essential," a massive study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts concluded last year.

James L. Connaughton, who is President Bush's top environmental adviser as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the seas sustain "our economy, our environment and our society."

"Restoration, wise use and conservation of the oceans has come to the forefront of environmental priorities, not just for the nation, but for the world," Connaughton said. "There's a massive bipartisan and regional consensus toward embarking on a new generation of progress."

For centuries, the various studies note, Americans have treated coastal waters as theirs for the taking, seeking bounty with little government oversight. Fishing boats trawled and trapped at will, oil companies built huge rigs to tap offshore resources, and cruise ships crisscrossed sensitive habitats so tourists could gawk at marine life.

"It cannot be viewed as the Wild West anymore," said retired Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "There need to be some sort of property rights. That sort of cultural change is very hard."

Thursday, October 07, 2004

A step backward for renewable energy

A powerful Virginia senator has proposed a last-minute amendment to a national defense financing bill that would halt the Cape Wind energy project and freeze offshore wind power developments around the country.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has suggested adding language to a $447-billion defense spending bill that would change the long-recognized process for approving such projects.

The amendment would prohibit offshore wind projects from moving forward until Congress establishes new requirements and regulations for them.

Supporters of the Cape Wind project say the amendment is a political maneuver aimed at derailing the planned wind farm off the coast of Massachusetts.

"It's clearly an effort to kill the proposed Cape Wind project," said Jaime Steve, legislative director for the American Wind Energy Association, a lobbying group based in Washington, D.C.

The Warner amendment has surfaced "at the 11th hour and 59th minute" of Cape Wind's permitting process, said James Gordon, president of Cape Wind Associates, the private company that has proposed the wind farm. ...

The senator, who has two daughters who are summer residents of Osterville, on Cape Cod, has opposed the project in the past. In August 2003, he was against granting a permit to build a data-collection tower and also expressed concerns about constructing the wind farm.

The Warner amendment "reaches back and penalizes businesses that have put millions of dollars and three to four years of efforts into these proposed projects," said Steve of the American Wind Energy Association.

"It's retroactive and we think any changes in the rules should be prospective."

The Union of Concerned Scientists said in a statement that it "strongly objects" to the amendment because it singles out wind power projects, and it has no connection to defense spending.

"New England and the United States need to develop sound wind energy projects that pass the rigorous scrutiny of the current review process," said Deborah Donovan, senior energy analyst for the organization. "That process is working, and should be allowed to continue."

This is another example of how the U.S. is being left behind in the development of renewable energy sources. Not only are we the most dependent on oil of any country, and among the laggards in supporting renewables, but we have an impenetrable political system that can shoot down necessary projects at the whim of a few powerful people. We are not placing ourselves in a good position for the coming storm.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

China, the good news and the bad news.

Later this month China will begin construction on the world's largest wind power project.

The new wind power plant, located 60 miles outside Beijing in Guangting, will generate 400 megawatts per day, nearly doubling the electrical energy China currently obtains from wind. But that's just the beginning. Last summer at a climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, China surprised many by announcing it will generate 12 percent of its energy from renewable sources such as wind by 2020.

Pollution is part of the driving force behind China's newfound passion for green energy, said Yu Jie of Greenpeace China's office in Beijing. "Acid rain blankets 70 percent of the country," Jie said, cutting crop yields, damaging trees and making rivers and lakes too acidic to support fish.

The country's galloping economic growth over the past 20 years has meant enormous increases in electrical power demands, 75 percent of which come from coal. China is the world's largest coal-consuming country and home to 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities on the planet, according to the World Bank. At least 400,000 people in China die each year from air-pollution-related illnesses, the World Bank reports.

But China's booming economy continues to rely ever more heavily on coal. China has massive coal reserves and is already the world's top producer of coal.

Three-quarters of China's 400,000 megawatts of installed power capacity, the world's second-largest after the United States, are fired by the jet black fossil fuel.

This leads to worries about increased air pollution and the release of ever-larger amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

But most of the coal is low-quality and its transportation infrastructure cannot ship enough coal from the mines in the west to the cities in the east. Electrical energy self-sufficiency is a crucial goal for the Chinese leadership, especially as oil imports soar to provide gasoline for the 14,000 new motor vehicles being added to its streets every day.

China's growth is spurring a new demand for solar energy which will grow the industry and eventually benefit everyone, but its tremendous rate of growth is also helping to drive oil to record prices and its continuing reliance on coal produces tremendous amounts of pollution and growing levels of greenhouse gasses.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

As fuel use rises, China eyes alternatives

When the opening lyrics of ''Dark Side of the Moon" floated through the air at a Beijing bar on a recent evening, patrons sang along to the Pink Floyd classic. ''Breathe, breathe in the air," they chanted in chorus. They seemed oblivious to the irony, in a city that is fast becoming one of the world's most polluted.

To confront such problems, China is increasingly looking to boost renewable-energy technologies, such as solar and wind power and electric vehicles.

More than 30,000 new cars are hitting Beijing's streets every month, city authorities say, and China recently overtook Japan to become the world's second-largest consumer of energy after the United States. With the numerous coal-burning factories that ring the city expanding, a yellow haze often crowns the capital.

Air pollution kills about 4 million people a year in China, according to the World Health Organization. Beijing residents joke that every day spent in the capital is akin to smoking 10 cigarettes.

In addition, the World Bank and other specialists warn that the country's galloping fossil-fuel consumption is threatening to deplete global energy stocks and bottleneck the country's economic growth. ''The goal is to have renewable sources produce 10 percent of all our power" by 2010, said Shi Lishan, a director at the Energy Department of China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission.

The promise of alternative-energy technologies, which theoretically could produce infinite, environmentally-friendly energy from renewable sources, sounds good on paper. But nowhere in the world have these technologies been able to completely replace traditional power plants by generating cheap and reliable energy in meaningful quantities.

This is the dillema we face. Most everyone has now become aware of the need to switch to renewable energy, but their efforts may be too little an too late.