Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hybrid grass may prove to be valuable fuel source

Giant Miscanthus, a hybrid grass sometimetimes referred to as elephant grass because of its 13 foot hight, may be an important source of energy in the future. The dry stems, which drop their leaves in the winter make an excellent solid fuel. Their energy ratio of input to output is less than 0.2 compared to 0.8 or more for ethanol and biodiesel.

Elephant grass is an environmentally friendly; any carbon dioxide it release when it burns was taken from the atmosphere as it grew, the nitrogen it draws from the soil is stored in an underground organ called a rhizome, it outgrows weeds, requires little water and minimal fertilizer and thrives in untilled fields.

Illinois researchers estimate that if 10 percent of the state's land mass were devoted to elephant grass, it could provide half of the the state's electricity needs. Researchers hope to demonstrate how power plants can be modified to use Miscanthus as a fuel as some plants in Europe already have done.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Woodbury County Iowa has become the first local government to offer tax subsidies to farmers who switch from conventional farming to organic farming.

Woodbury County Supervisors voted June 28 to provide property tax rebates for those who convert from conventional to organic farming practices. That action will grant $50,000 a year for five years to those who make the conversion.

The goals of the program are to save family farms and spark economic growth in the area. The program'd sponsers hope it will help build a thriving organic farming industry that would attract organic food processors and other businesses to the area. Rob Marqusee, the county's rural economic development director said,

I studied the economic benefits of organic farming. It just seemed to fit. We're looking at being part of a movement that is gaining ground.

Marqusee said studies done by Iowa State University show organic farming can produce higher profit margins per acre than conventional farming, and on fewer acres.

Plus it eliminates the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that pollute the water systems, and leads to less soil erosion. Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Water Issues.

Another article discusses the potential for water disputes to become violent in the future. The article quotes Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, telling the BBC in 2003;

People generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the Six Day War began. That is the official date. But, in reality, it started two-and-a-half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan [River].

China and India face the most severe problems. In northern China, close to the Russian border, the water table beneath some of the major grain-producing regions is falling by 1.52 meters every year. China’s annual per capita water resources of 2,292 cubic meters are one of the lowest levels in the world, only slightly above that of India. North China’s per capita water resources, at 750 cubic meters per year, are a fraction of China’s already low figure.

In Bangladesh, India and Bangladesh began negotiations concerning sharing of water from seven common rivers. Officials from Bangladesh are worried that a proposed Indian plan to divert water for Indian irrigation and electricity projects from rivers the flow downstream into Bangladesh would cause rivers in Bangladesh to dry up, affecting the country's ecology and depriving farmers of much needed water for crops. Although a 30-year agreement between India and Bangladesh on water sharing from the Ganges was finally signed in 1996, no other agreements have been reached on scores of other shared rivers.


in California, most of the water in the San Joaquin River is now diverted to water Southern California's agricultural economy and population growth. Now the San Joaquin disappears to nothing but parched gravel just 37 miles below the dam; often going years without water.

Farmers downriver from the dam saw their livelihoods disappear while the historic salmon population disappeared. Farmers, mayors and businesspeople protested that their towns, jobs and crops had relied on San Joaquin River water for decades, and that some of the state's fastest growing cities are in the Central Valley. Seeking legal relief, they sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, accusing the agency of violating state law by not letting enough water flow to maintain the historic salmon population.

In October 2004, Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in Sacramento agreed; "The conclusion that the Bureau has violated its duty hardly begins to address the problem of remedies."

The growing contentiousness of water issues is a red light flashing that the earth's ecosystems are running on empty.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

With China facing enormous pollution problems, and an insatiable thirst for energy, the government is of necessity having to embrace green ideas. They plan on moving 400 million people into urban centers by 2030, which would require a major urban expansion, including the creation of new cities out of scratch.

American architect and industrial designer and author of the book "Crade to Cradle," William McDonough, co-chair of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, has taken on the job of transforming the farming town of Huangbaiyu into an urban center and as a result freeing up more farmland in the surrounding area.

It's a challenge, to say the least. McDonough's team can spend only $3,500 per house. To pull it off, they're using local labor and local materials, all of which will either biodegrade safely or be completely recyclable. To avoid the pollution that is released during the firing of bricks, the walls are made of pressed-earth blocks. Between the blocks is straw, a byproduct of the local rice harvest that would otherwise go to waste. Walls are a half-meter thick, so houses are well insulated and won't need a lot of heating. Solar panels on the rooftops provide electricity and heated water. "We're doing everything with nothing," McDonough says.

Given China's situation, McDonough's philosophy of designing cities from the ground up with ecological principles in mind instead of taking shape piecemeal, has been given the perfect oportunity for a test run. This notion would be impractical in most countries but could work in China, where the government has the wherewithal to impose its plans on citizens.

Energy efficiency will be maximized through new types of building materials and a solar-powered energy grid. McDonough has begun by developing a polystyrene made by BASF without ozone-depleting chloro-fluorocarbons but with excellent insulating qualities. "Buildings can be heated and cooled for next to nothing," he says. "And they'll be silent. If there are 13 people in the apartment upstairs, you won't hear them." He's also working on new toilet bowls that are so slippery you can flush them with a light mist. Bamboo wetlands nearby would purify the waste, and the bamboo could be harvested and used for wood.

As with everything in China it is a race against time before the shear weight of the Chinese footprint destroys the environment that supports it. But McDonough's approach will be an exciting experiment that the rest of the world should be watching.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Artic Ice melt may have passed the "point of no return."

Scientists have recorded a record loss of sea ice in the Arctic this summer. Many now fear that the Arctic has entered an irreversible phase of warming which will accelerate the loss of polar ice that has helped to keep the climate stable for thousands of years.

Satellites monitoring the Arctic have found that the extent of the sea ice this August has reached its lowest monthly point on record, dipping an unprecedented 18.2 per cent below the long-term average. Scientists believe that this level of ice loss has not happened in hundreds or perhaps thousands of years.

Mark Serreze, one of the scientists at the Snow and Ice Data Centre who monitor Arctic sea ice, says;

This will be four Septembers in a row that we've seen a downward trend. The feeling is we are reaching a tipping point or threshold beyond which sea ice will not recover.

Sea ice reflects up to 80 per cent of sunlight hitting it but this "albedo effect" is mostly lost when the sea is uncovered. "We've exposed all this dark ocean to the sun's heat so that the overall heat content increases," he explained.

Current computer models suggest that the Arctic will be entirely ice-free during summer by the year 2070 but some scientists now believe that even this dire prediction may be over-optimistic, said Professor Peter Wadhams, an Arctic ice specialist at Cambridge University.

When the ice becomes so thin it breaks up mechanically rather than thermodynamically. So these predictions may well be on the over-optimistic side.

Drastic changes in global weather patterns will have a dramatic impact on the limits of what is sustainable human development. We face a problem that extends far beyond renewable energy or reliable water sources. The variables involved are wild and unpredictable.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Advances in solar electric technology.

Scientists have proposed a way to control the distribution of contaminants in silicon, potentially opening up the use of cheaper, "dirtier" starting materials for making solar cells. In a study published in the September Nature Materials, the researchers predict that the strategy could lower production costs of solar cells.

Up until now, pure silicon was required for solar cells or the result was a significant loss of efficiency. Up until recently there had been enough pure stock for the electronics industry, but the needs of the growing photovoltaic industry—which uses silicon for more than 90 percent of its solar cells—caused overall demand to exceed supply in 2004. This triggered a drastic price increase in pure silicon, dealing a blow to the solar cell makers.

Researchers turned to Lawrence Berkeley's synchrotron, a circular accelerator approximately 65 meters in diameter. The machine generates X rays intense enough to identify within silicon samples individual metal clusters on the order of tens of nanometers in diameter. The researchers mapped the distribution of the clusters and used a sophisticated technique for measuring how far charges traveled in the samples, an indicator of the material's efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity.

They found that silicon hosting larger but fewer numbers of clusters performed better than did samples with smaller but many more clusters. They tested this result by heating samples and then cooling them at different rates, which enabled the researchers to control the distribution of the metal. Weber's team found that silicon with micrometer-size clusters, spaced hundreds of micrometers apart, was four times as efficient as silicon with more-finely-distributed, nanosize clusters.

The result could be much cheaoer solar cells that do not have to go through the rigorous purification process that has been necessary up until now.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

From Sustainablog:

Researchers have found a way to generate electricity from bacteria in a cow's rumen.

Researchers at Ohio State University found that a pint of a cow's bacteria-infested rumen juice produced about 600 millivolts of electricity--about half the voltage of a rechargeable AA-size battery. How many cow's guts it would take to run a good sized city is an open question.

The microbes generate electricity in a microbial fuel cells by passing electrons to an anode, the negative electrode of a fuel cell. The electrons flow from the anode through a wire, producing a current, to a cathode, the positive electrode of a fuel cell, where they combine with hydrogen ions and oxygen to form water.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Community Supported Manufacturing

Working towards a post carbon lifestyle, one that does not rely on petroleum-based products for so much of its daily existence, will require re-learning to locally make many of the things we need. It will involve a return to community reliance instead of the current dependence on globalized corporate structures that now transport goods thousands of miles with relatively cheap and polluting energy.

This Post Carbon Institute will outline it’s solutions in a forthcoming book, “Relocalize Now! Getting Ready for Climate Change and the End of Cheap Oil.” The book places local self-reliance as a core solution.

When we first approached the idea of returning to making our daily needs, the problem seemed insurmountable. Everywhere we turned it appeared that the means of production were missing and that the free market philosophy meant that no product would ever make it to the business plan stage because everything can always be made more cheaply (in rotten conditions) offshore. The only entry point would come from replicating the same techniques of quasi-slavery and corporate ruthlessness we find so despicable. If only there were some way of shielding the local production system from the rapacious lunacy of globalization.

We think there is, but it is not simple or easy. What is required is a near total remaking of the infrastructure, what we have called the parallel public infrastructure…it will be a system to help integrate the many disparate efforts that are now starting to bridge the carbon chasm….Yet even this will not be enough to start a new local production venture – this will require the active and possibly prolonged financial support of the community. The model we look to is that of community supported agriculture (CSA). We want to transfer community cultivation from the land to the workshop. Developing different and varied techniques of community support will require different kinds of production organization and different ownership structures. We envisage a mixture of everything from municipal ownership and operation through cooperatives and mutual aid organizations to family businesses and other smaller, locally owned firms. In all cases, stress will be laid on local ownership and control…It should be clear that all these many formulations, and some that may yet be invented, utterly and completely exclude the global corporations.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

There is a very informative page at the Union of Concerned Scientists website that talks about the various types of biomass that can be used for fuel. Trees and grasses apparently are the best crops for energy. Trees can be harvested without cutting down the entire tree so that they will grow back. Prairie grasses such as Switchgrass, big bluestem, and other native varieties that used to cover the plains are a good source of energy and are perennials that do not need to be replanted and do not require the huge amounts of fertilizer and pesticide that regular crops require--also increasing the net energy gained from these crops.

A new approach to using biomass is to burn it mixed with coal in power plants. Utilities in New York and Wisconsin are experimenting with this approach as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

A number of noncombustion methods exist for converting biomass to energy. They convert raw biomass into a variety of gaseous, liquid, or solid fuels before using it. The carbohydrates in biomass, which are compounds of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen, can be broken down into a variety of chemicals, some of which are useful fuels.

Biomass energy systems are likely to be smaller than their fossil fuel counterparts, because it is hard to gather and process more than this quantity of fuel in one place. This has the advantage that local, rural communities -- and perhaps even individual farms -- will be able to design energy systems that are self-sufficient, sustainable, and perfectly adapted to their own needs.

Very green indeed.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Plug in hybrids are starting to get some legislative traction. An amendment to the energy bill signed on August 8, 2005, requested by Senator Barack Obama will provide $40 million in federal research grants over the next 5 years to develop plug in hybrids/flexible fuel vehicles.

In Pennsylvania, State Rep. Mark Cohen has proposed three pieces of legislation to spur the development and use of plug-in electric hybrids in the Pennsylvania, exempting sales tax on the conversion of existing hybrids to plug-in hybrids, establishing a state task force to examine how this technology can be promoted, and a resolution asking car makers with plants in the U.S. to market plug-in hybrids here.