Thursday, March 29, 2007

Comunity Supported Energy

The latest energy idea to make it to the U.S. from Europe is Community Supported Energy. Similar to Community Supported Agriculture, where local residents combine to buy the produce of local farms, Community Supported Energy is a cooperative or community owned energy project. CSE has primarily been used with wind projects, although it could be applied to other renewable sources as well. CSE provides a needed alternative between huge wind farms and individual wind turbines.

Local power is also more efficient than grid based power. A study by the World Alliance for Decentralized Energy recently concluded that Britain's nation-wide grid is so inefficient that two thirds of the energy used is lost through wasted heat or through the grid. Local systems offer the possibility of capturing the heat of the generators for other purposes.

Community Supported Energy projects, being cooperatively owned, can overcome the nimby objections to new projects. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for the Government Accountability Office they retain a greater amount of income in the local area and increase the economic benefits. NREL compared the effect of large corporate wind farms owned out of area with similar projects owned locally.

The study found local income averaged $4 million more than with the central wind farms while job creation was more than twice as large in the local model.

With local economic benefits, greater energy efficiency, and lower levels of pollution, CSE is about as close to free energy as is possible, and a welcome idea that can be widely implemented without waiting for any technofix tobe perfected.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

Peak Coal

The Energy Watch Group in Germany is set to release a report that concludes that the world's minable coal reserves are smaller than commonly thought and that a peak in world coal production may occur within ten to fifteen years.

Report authors Werner Zittel and Jorg Schindler cite the unreliability of reserve data. Just as OPEC countries have kept their proven oil reserves artificially high, major coal producers have failed to update their data to reflect consumption. Since 1986 most nations with significant coal reserves that have made the effort to update their reserve estimates have reported significant downward revisions. Among the most extreme, Germany and Great Britain downgraded their reserves by 90%.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that high quality coal--bituminous and anthracite--have been the most heavily mined. The U.S. has the world's largest reserves and is second in production, behind China. The U.S. has already passed its peak production of high quality coal. Growing production of sub-bituminous coal has kept total production growing. However, total energy content of the coal mined in the U.S. has declined since 1998.

Since coal has been the U.S.'s most often stated energy fall back--even if environmentally undesirable--this new analysis is deeply disturbing and highlights again the need to plan for a lower energy future.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Zero Waste

In nature, there is no waste; everything cycles through the biosphere, endlessly. One organism's waste becomes another organism's food. Now after three centuries of an industrial system that produces wastes in such quantities that they can't be recycled by the biosphere, people are starting to try to imitate nature.

San Francisco now recycles 68% of its garbage--best in the nation--and has a goal of achieving 100% recycling. Other cities have adopted this goal as well, including Boulder, Buenos Aires, and Canberra, and businesses such as Toyota, Nike, and Xerox. San Francisco director of the environment department--Jared Blumenfeld--calls garbage "a design flaw," saying that "from our perspective, waste doesn't need to exist."

In recent years, however, recycle rates have leveled off as the economics won't support higher levels. It's cheaper just to throw the rest out.

The economics are different in Dharavi, a massive slum in Mumbai, India. Thousands of slum residents have created an industry recycling the discarded waste from Mumbai's 19 million citizens. Hundreds of children haul bundles of plastic, cardboard, or glass to workshops where aluminum cans are smelted, waste soap retrieved, car batteries, computer parts, flourescent lights, ballpoint pens, wire hangers, and other items are sorted for recycling.

Dharvai is spawning a new middle class of trash. But it comes at a price. Hi tech items such as computers or cell phones are not designed for easy recycle, containing heavy metals such as mercury that leak into the soil causing dangerous pollution.

A truly sustainable economy will only come when the zero waste philosophy is designed into products from the very start so that 100% recycling will be economically competitive and non toxic.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Global Warming Effects Being Felt Around the World

North America is already feeling the affects of warmer temperatures in a variety of ways.

In New England, maple syrup production is declining because of warmer than usual winters. Farmers who used to begin tapping their trees in the beginning of March now must begin tapping in February. Last year some began tapping in mid-February and still missed much of the sap.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that temperatures have risen by 2.8 degrees in the Northeast since 1971. Tim Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Center, calls the situation "dire." His data shows that over the last 40 years the maple sugaring season has moved steadily earlier and become steadily shorter.

In Northern Canada, warming temperatures are threatening the boreal forests, the "lungs of the world." Increasing drought and insect infestation are taking their toll. As the trees dry, forest fires increase, sending more carbon into the atmosphere. The number of forest fires doubled in the 1980s and 90s from the previous decade and are expected to double again this century.

Nearly half of the carbon that exists on land is contained in the boreal forests that stretch across the northern latitudes of North America, Europe and Asia. Steven Kallick, an expert on the boreal forests comments that; "We are taking risks with a system we don't understand that is absolutely loaded with carbon. The impact could be enormous."

In the U.S. Southwest, rapidly growing population and a seven year drought is stressing water supplies. The situation is only expected to get worse as temperatures warm. One study predicted as much as a 20 percent decline in water supply, greater than water saving measures could compensate for.

The Colorado River basin has seen faster temperature growth than other parts of the U.S. and are now 1.5 degrees warmer than in the 1950s. While local officials have taken measures to develop more local sources of water, climate change will inevitably collide with population growth.

Finally, a study on children's health has shown that warmer temperatures increase the number of sick children. A two year study at a major children's hospital showed that for every five degree rise in temperature, two more children under six were admitted with fever. The study showed that children are less able to regulated their bodies against climate change than adults, increasing their risk of fever and gastric diseases.

While the more profound effects of global warming may be decades or centuries away, climate change is already making itself felt in many ways around the globe.