Thursday, April 29, 2004

Dish Stirling Solar Thermal Enters Production

Stirling Energy Systems, is starting up production of a new kind of solar electricity generator that it claims is "the world's most efficient solar-electric generating technology." Instead of using photovoltaic technology, these dishes concentrate solar heat to generate electricity.

On April 27, in Phoenix, Arizona, a new 25 kW unit, along with a new manufacturing facility to mass-produce the dishes was unveiled.

Ten more dishes are planned to be built in 2005 for Arizona Public Service, and 40 more are scheduled for release next year for installation in Southern Nevada at a U.S. Department of Energy dish demonstration project.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

April 28, 2004: World Food Prices Rising: Environmental Neglect Shrinking Harvests in Key Countries

When this year's grain harvest begins in May, world grain stocks will be down to 59 days of consumption—the lowest level in 30 years. ...

Prices of basic food and feed commodities are climbing. Wheat futures for May 2004 that traded as low as $2.90 a bushel within the last year on the Chicago Board of Trade have recently topped $4 a bushel, a climb of 38 percent. A similar calculation shows the price of corn up by 36 percent, rice up 39 percent, and soybeans doubling from just over $5 per bushel to over $10 a bushel. Rises in the price of wheat and rice (the world's two basic food staples) and corn and soybeans (the principal feedstuffs) are contributing to higher food prices worldwide, including in China and the United States, the largest food producers.

In China, where grain prices are 30 percent above those of a year ago, the National Bureau of Statistics reports that retail food prices in March were 7.9 percent higher than in March 2003. The price of vegetable oil is up by 26 percent, meat by 15 percent, and eggs by 19 percent. ...

Growth in world grain production is lagging behind the growth in demand largely because environmental trends, such as spreading deserts, falling water tables, and rising temperatures, are shrinking harvests in many countries. Consider, for example, Kazakhstan, the former Soviet Republic that was the site of the Virgin Lands Project launched in the 1950s. To expand grain production, the Soviets plowed an area of virgin grasslands that exceeded the wheat area of Australia and Canada combined. It dramatically boosted production, but by 1980 soil erosion was undermining productivity. During the 24 years since then, half the country's grainland area has been abandoned.

During the late 1980s, Saudi Arabia launched an ambitious plan to become self-sufficient in wheat. By tapping a deep underground aquifer, the Saudi's raised grain output from 300,000 tons in 1980 to 5 million tons in 1994. Unfortunately the aquifer could not sustain large-scale pumping and by 2003 the wheat harvest had fallen to 2.2 million tons. Nearby Israel, faced with dwindling water supplies, is no longer irrigating its small remaining area of wheat, which means that dependence on imported grain, already over 90 percent, will climb still higher.

China is the first major food producer to face reduced harvests partly because of expanding deserts and aquifer depletion. Some 24,000 Chinese villages have either been abandoned or have had their farm economies seriously impaired by invading deserts. In the arid northern half of the country where most of the wheat is grown, tens of thousands of wells go dry each year. These environmental trends, combined with weak grain prices that lower planting incentives, shrank the harvest from its peak of 123 million tons in 1997 to 86 million tons in 2003, a drop of 30 percent.

Perhaps the most pervasive environmental trend that is shrinking grain harvests today is rising temperature. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its September 2003 monthly world crop estimates, it reduced the projected world grain harvest by 35 million tons from its August estimate. This drop, equal to half the U.S. wheat harvest, was due almost entirely to the intense August heat wave in Europe, where crop-withering temperatures shrank harvests from France in the west through the Ukraine in the east.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

The changeover to a sustainable economy will be bigger than just changing the mechanics of the system; it will involve a major paradigm shift away from a worldview based on ever greater expansion and exploitation of the earth's resourses to one that reveres and husbands the earth and it's resources.

The beginnings of this paradigm shift can already be seen; in traditional religions:

The commitment to organic gardening is a project of Faith in Place, an interfaith organization that works with Chicago-area religious leaders on environmental issues.

The network consists of 85 congregations in Chicago and its suburbs and represents a broad spectrum of faiths, including Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Baha'i, Zoroastrian and Buddhist.

The Chicago-area projects are examples of a growing faith-based environmental movement nationwide.

"They really are starting to see that the application of faith requires that they live within the boundaries, the limitations of nature," said Rev. Clare Butterfield, director of Faith in Place. "Those are God's physical limits, as it were, as much as the moral limits. We have to be just in the way that we share resources."

The Unity Temple in Oak Park, where Butterfield is a minister, is among a handful of churches in the Chicago area that recently committed to the purchase of wind power.

The Unitarian Universalist congregation in January started paying an additional $25 per month on its electric bill for 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity from wind power produced by the Mendota Hills Wind Farm in Lee County, Illinois' first large wind farm.

The money pays for wind certificates that represent new wind power put into the local power grid on the congregation's behalf.

"By paying that slight premium, they're saying, We're going to replace a third of the electricity we draw from the grid with wind power," Butterfield said. "Those who purchase the certificates are ensuring that it is profitable for this wind farm to operate, so that the next one gets built."

Butterfield said other area congregations have followed suit, including Ebenezer Lutheran Church on the city's North Side, Unitarian Church of Hinsdale and Pilgrim Congregational Church in Oak Park.

The Chicago-area interfaith environmental effort extends to the Muslim community. Starting in Bridgeview, organizers are launching a pilot program involving small and medium-size Illinois farms to develop a branded product of meat that is humanely and naturally raised while being certified as halal, meaning it meets the dietary restrictions of the Islamic faith.

A faith-based environmental awakening is growing steadily, said Paul Gorman, director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

"What is striking to me about it is the very profoundly religious dimension of it," Gorman said. "This is coming from people's deep faiths, beliefs and traditions" at a time when "the crisis of God's creation at the hand of God's children is so clearly a global challenge."

Leaders of many major religions in recent years have issued official theological declarations about environmental stewardship, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Patriarch Bartholomew, the "green patriarch" who is the leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians.

Gorman's group knows of about 2,000 congregations nationwide that have integrated programs addressing the environment, he said. Also, he said, interfaith global-warming and energy campaigns have been established in 21 states.

It can also be seen in the growth of a variety of earth religions coming out of a variety of traditions and viewpoints, from Native American, to pagan, Gaian, or Buddhist. A growing collections of books explores these themes;

Mother Earth Spirituality : Native American Paths to Healing Ourselves and Our World

Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology"

The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight : Waking Up to Personal and Global Transformation

Gaia and God : An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing"

Sacred Gaia: Holistic Theology and Earth System Science

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Organic: Is it the future of farming?

Organic farming, which began in 1940s Britain out of a concern for the richness and stability of the soil, restoring its organic matter and avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and has more recently been identified with a green, holistic social mindset, is now poised to break into the farming mainstream.

These ideals have always set the organic movement squarely against intensive farming and chemical-based agribusiness. And, at least in public and in the media, those arguments rage more fiercely today than ever before. Yet behind the harsh rhetoric, a little-noticed convergence of views is taking place. For decades, the study of organic farming sat on the fringes of the green revolution in agriculture, as intensive techniques marched across the world, sending yields skyrocketing. But mainstream agronomists are becoming concerned about the long-term sustainability of this approach, and are focusing increasingly on soil integrity. Could it be that both sides of agriculture's great divide now want the same thing?

"It's been a huge move," says Mark Alley, an agronomist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. "Twenty-five years ago, yield was everything. But in the past ten years, there's been a major recognition of the need to maintain organic materials in soil." And with the turn of the millennium, farmers have started to embrace approaches that keep soil structure intact and cut the high level of inputs — energy, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides — that characterize intensive agriculture. ...

The change that is taking place — sometimes referred to as the second green, or doubly green, revolution — stems from a growing acceptance of the organic critique of the first one. Mainstream agronomists now acknowledge, for example, that intensive farming reduces biodiversity, encourages irreversible soil erosion and generates run-off that is awash with harmful chemicals — including nitrates from fertilizers that can devastate aquatic ecosystems.

For the organic movement, caring for the soil involves interspersing each harvest with a cover crop such as clover or rye that can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Cover crops keep down weeds, retain moisture and prevent erosion. Ploughing them into the soil at the end of the season restores the soil's organic content, and boosts its nitrogen content without the need to use synthetic fertilizer. ...

Some of the other ideas being borrowed from the organic movement — in particular a reduction in pesticide inputs — are resulting in a closer meeting of minds. For instance, farmers have been forced to discard methyl bromide, the main soil fumigant that has been used to kill soil pests, as it will be phased out by 2005 under the Montreal Protocol to close the ozone hole. This has led farmers to experiment not only with other fumigants but with organic methods of killing insect larvae as well, including flooding fields between plantings and allowing the Sun to bake the soil through clear plastic sheeting.

Already some 2 percent of the world's farming acreage is being farmed with organic, low-till methods, about a third of that in the U.S. Low till farming is gaining popularity in such countries as Brazil, India and China. This is an important first step toward a sustainable agriculture.

Friday, April 16, 2004

New Book Says Farming is Biggest Global Environmental Threat

Inefficient farming practices result in deforestation, pollution, ocean degradation and species loss, and are the most serious environmental threat in the world today, according to a new global survey by Dr. Jason Clay, head of the Center for Conservation Innovation at World Wildlife Fund.

Agriculture wastes 60 per cent, or 1,500 trillion liters, of the 2.5 trillion liters of water that it uses each year. Water resources are already being used close to or beyond their limit, particularly in the Americas, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, China, and India. The impacts of global warming are likely to further disrupt water supplies.

"Agriculture has had a larger environmental impact than any other human activity and today it threatens the very systems we need to meet our food and fiber needs," said Clay. "New kinds of agriculture can produce the food needed to feed an increasing population and still accommodate all other life forms on the planet."

One area where this is most glaringly obvious is in the northern plains of China where overfarming and overgrazing have created the largest dustbowl in history.

Trying to fight the advancing deserts, China has resorted to a policy of planting billions of trees around the desert in an effort to contain it. Since 1982, 42 billion trees have been planted. Last year the effort involved more than 560 million people.

But success has proved elusive.

By one measure, the huge program appears to have achieved little. It is sandstorm season in China, a sky-darkening, lung-choking phenomenon involving wind-borne dust from the Taklimakan and Gobi deserts that plays havoc with aviation in northern China for weeks, cripples high-tech manufacturing and worsens respiratory problems as far downstream as Japan, the Korean peninsula and even the western United States.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Environmental Program, the average number of sandstorms in China has grown from 5 in the 1960's to 24 in the 1990's. The Chinese Government itself reports that the country's deserts are expanding at a rate of 3,800 square miles a year. Indeed, some of the country's largest deserts appear to be merging.

Ultimately there is no bandaid that can patch up an unsustainable economy and population. Only a radical changeover to a sustainable culture can end the problems that plague us.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Renewable Energy News | DOE Backs National Wind Power Expansion

At this year's Global Windpower 2004 meeting, the Federal Government announced new efforts to support wind power in the U.S. that could top $60 million over the next four years.

In a new twist these wind projects will be situated in areas with lower wind speed to greatly expand potential U.S. wind development through advances in cost effective low wind speed technology.

"The nation's vast wind energy resources can play a much larger role in our energy supply portfolio," said DOE Deputy Secretary of Energy Kyle McSlarrow. "These industry and university partnerships will help develop next generation wind technology and open the door to wind power at many locations around the country that otherwise would not be cost-competitive."

The selected project partners are from more than 10 different states and include: Clipper Windpower Technology (Carpinteria, Calif.), General Electric Global Research (Niskayuna, N.Y.), Global Energy Concepts (Kirkland, Wash.), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Mass.), Native American Technologies (Lakewood, Colo.), Northern Power Systems (Waitsfield, Vt.), Tennessee Valley Infrastructure Group (Chattanooga, Tenn.), and Valmont Industries (Omaha, Neb.).

Friday, April 02, 2004

Peak Food?

There has been a tremendous amount of bandwidth devoted to the problem of peak oil, when it will happen and what the consequences will be.

But there may be a different problem--even more dangerous--that is sneaking up on us without anywhere near the publicity. World wide production of cereals appears to have peaked and for the last seven years has been, at best, flat, possibly even in decline. At the same time demand continues to grow.

Reasons for this decline include drought, advancing deserts, growing urban areas, and overused water supplies.

So far stocks of surplus cereals have filled in for the shortfalls, but these stocks are dwindling at an alarming rate. In two years world stocks of cereals has declined from 588 million tons to an estimated 382 million tons. China's production shortfall alone holds the potential for throwing world grain markets into turmoil.

Meat production is not looking much better; "Global meat markets in 2003 are characterized by tightening exportable supplies, particularly in developed countries, traditionally the suppliers of nearly three-quarters of the meat trade. Low producer returns, poultry disease outbreaks, adverse weather conditions and higher feed prices have slowed global meat output gains."

Of course, tightening oil supplies will only worsen matters as fertilizers will become more expensive and harder to get.