Archive for the ‘Renewable Energy’ Category

Up until now, the issue of using hydrogen fuel cells as alternative sources of power has been a matter of debate.  They required fossil fuels for production, needed external inputs of electricity to operate, and were too expensive to be considered as an all-encompassing solution to the global climate crisis.  Enter the mighty microbe and a team of brilliant US researchers to provide a little hope for hydrogen.

An article recently published in the National Academy of Sciences describes the newly developed “MEC”, or Microbial Electrolysis Cell which generates its own hydrogen without the aid of external electricity.  Through a process called Reverse Electrodialysis, the cell uses fresh and saltwater membranes to generate and collect power from charged particles created between the gradients. In addition, the microbes manufacture hydrogen gas and small amounts of electricity by breaking down organic material.

This technology has implications far beyond transportation.  Without drawing power from the grid, MEC’s could also be used to treat waste water, refine oil, and process and stabilize foods.  Like most new, experimental inventions, the MEC is costly and would benefit from investment and large scale production to get it off the ground.  At the moment the Cell in on display at London’s Science Museum, and will hopefully be ready for real-world application some time in the near future.

Striving towards energy efficiency in our buildings, vehicles and appliances sounds like good, solid environmental policy.  However, in recent years, more and more climate researches have been raising awareness of what they call the “rebound effect“, or the idea that efficiency without regard to a shift in energy supply is actually damaging to global atmospheric health.  Many policy makers and businesses tout efficiency as a guilt-free way of stimulating the economy by encouraging manufacture of more goods to replace current infrastructure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Consumers would benefit from lower electricity bills, and business owners would be able to reduce their costs of operation.

The arguments against simply producing more eco-friendly machines are rooted in the notion that lower costs may eventually lead to greater use from dirty sources that in turn pollute at an increased rate.  There is also a fear that the demand for energy would remain the same or even increase once focus is redirected from inputs into manufacturing new technology that requires power and electricity in different areas of production.  Some consumers may even up their use of efficient technology under the misconception that they are saving more with their new gadgetry than they are wasting.

While the rebound effect does not completely negate all monetary and climactic advantages of green design, it is contended that the net gain is too small to be considered as a panacea for government and industry in the face of global warming.  There is also the issue of “backfiring”, or situations where energy efficiency indirectly through the market leads to increased demand and may invalidate any gains made.

Currently, there is debate as to how much damage the rebound effect could cause.  For example, in some instances 10-30% of savings from car and home technology could be lost on an individual level alone.  On the macro-economic scale the breakdown is different for rich and poor countries, where the rebound effects are amplified for those that are in the process of industrializing. Poor countries respond more to fluctuating energy prices, and their demand for energy is constantly growing and has yet to reach a point of saturation.  Big economies mean big energy users, which could further damage the health of the climate if cleaner sources are not utilized, consumption grows out of control, or emissions are not strictly regulated.

More studies are needed to determine the overall scope of the rebound effect, but there are a few points that must be considered in light of the potential catastrophic effects our good intentions may have on the environment.  Clean technology is not enough to save us from the hazards of a warming globe.  We still need to reduce our net use of energy, make sure we choose renewable and safe sources of electricity, and scrutinize every aspect of our economies so as not to shift the energy burden to sectors outside the immediate “energy input” scope of investigation.

Hot off the presses (for a hot topic here in Central California) are Bambu Batu’s “Fight the Power” t-shirts depicting our own Diablo Canyon Power Plant on organic bamboo/cotton.  These shirts are printed locally with non-toxic inks by concerned citizens who are uncomfortable with the proximity of large nuclear generators close to their communities.  Located in Avila Beach, the two Westinghouse 4-loop pressurized-water nuclear reactors are operated by Pacific Gas and Electric. Both units were brought online in the mid-eighties and licensed to run through the year 2025. Diablo supplies electricity to about 2.2 million consumers across the state.

There are many reasons to be a bit nervous about having a nuclear reactor in your backyard.  For starters, Diablo Canyon is built on top of a well-known fault line, and is vulnerable to seismic activity and tsunamis.  Ground acceleration, or tectonic shaking, could possibly cause submerged fuel rods to spill and ignite upon coming in contact with the air. The plant uses seawater to cool its rectors and has to constantly deal with maintaining its system free of kelp and marine animals.  In the past, massive jellyfish blooms and other irregular marine occurrences have gummed up the works of the reactors and have compromised the safety and efficiency of plant, even taking it offline for several days.

Blueprints for Diablo Canyon that were supposed to provide structural reinforcement in the event of earthquakes were found to have major errors.  In 1981, PG&E discovered that only one set of plans was used in the construction of both reactors, meaning that where workers were supposed to have switched the design off in the second reactor, they failed to do so.  This  resulted a “backwards” configuration, and needless reinforcement of certain areas where others were left unfortified.  Currently, PG&E has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Committee not to renew its license in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster until it can complete more seismic studies. This decision was partially due to repeated appeals from SLO Rep. Blakeslee asking that the renewal applications be withdrawn earlier this year.

While the probability of a catastrophe is difficult to determine, it only takes one perfect storm to cause long-term, terrible damage.  Anyone within a 10 mile radius of a meltdown would be subject to direct radiation exposure through airborne fallout, and those within a 50 mile radius would be at risk of contamination from ingesting radioactive food and water.  The half-life of isotopes affect the environment for generations afterward, leaving a legacy of pollution and risk of serious illness.  Community grassroots efforts, such as those undertaken by the Abalone Alliance, have for years been trying to halt the construction of new plants in the state as well as closing existing ones.  Those of us who wish to see a nuclear-free future for our society are supporting these endeavors by promoting cleaner forms of energy, writing our representatives, joining community forums, and wearing our hearts and thoughts on our sleeves.

Sorry Oscar, but I HATE trash.  Case in point; marine garbage patches.  What exactly are these giant, floating messes?  Technically, these suspended litter heaps are concentrations of debris (usually consisting of small pieces of plastic) concentrated within a common area.  Contrary to popular belief, there are no permanent “islands” being created in the middle of the ocean that can be detected via satellite.  These collections of rubbish are, however, extremely harmful to marine ecosystems and enormously difficult to contain, clean and manage.

There are several massive known aggregations throughout the world, identified as the Eastern Pacific (between Hawaii and California), Western Pacific (off the Coast of Japan) and North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone (north of Hawaii) garbage patches.  There are also Atlantic equivalents to the Pacific concentrations (as debris will collect around major gyres, or large circulatory currents), although research is comparatively thin compared to those in the Pacific.  While these are not the only places flotsam accumulates from human activities on the mainland, they are by far some of the biggest and the subject of great concern. Since their size and shape changes daily or seasonally, estimates of location and span are at time difficult to pin down in exact terms.

The vast majority of the masses are made up of plastics.  From single-use bags to water bottles, plastics are responsible for chemical pollution through degradation, choking marine life who mistake objects for food (see the Guardian’s photo essay on Albatross death), and endangering entire ecosystems by disintegrating into tiny pieces which are taken up through the bottom of the food chain.

These  particles are then accumulated upwards into the tissues of larger organisms, eventually reaching top predators and human beings who consume animals lower down on the food chain.  Plastics are very hard to remove from the oceans as sunlight may reduce them into pieces unable to be captured by nets. Where trash collects, so does marine life, and attempts at skimming debris might also harm the creatures swimming amongst the junk.  Major clean-up efforts would also use a large amount of fossil fuels to locate, process and haul the detritus out of the sea.

Luckily, as individuals, we have the power to make decisions that can have large-scale effects.  Water bottles and plastic bags, who are common occupants of these floating landfills, can be replaced with multiple use items such as cloth grocery sacks (like Blue Lotus’s stylish produce bags), thermoses, canteens and reusable water bottles. At Bambu Batu, we dig the sustainable and attractive Bamboo Bottle. We also offer an attractive assortment of re-usable bamboo utensil sets and sporks, to further reduce your dependency on disposable plastics.

Reducing the amount of plastics we use, as well as recycling and properly disposing of what we purchase, can go a long way to stem the flow of trash making its way into our oceans and food chain.

Gerald Durell could quite possibly be the science nerd’s perfect author.  Born to an eccentric English family in Jamshedpur, India in 1925, Durell began a life devoted to the exploration and conservation of nature which he chronicled in over 3o books and publications.  Over his 70 years of life, Durrell lived and traveled to the world’s most exotic places, collecting animals for British zoological gardens and stories for his books along the way.  As a recipient of numerous awards, accolades, degrees and medals, Durrell shines as an academic but retains the personable and affable nature lacking in so many of our higher intellectual institutions. Durrell hosted seven television series and made appearances on a number of BBC programs.

I have such glowing praise for Durell’s writing that as I sit here typing, I resemble and incandescent light bulb.  (OK, energy efficient LED diode).  His descriptions of the flora and fauna of Corfu in his trilogy of novels detailing his childhood exploits in Greece are simply magical, invoking the tastes, smells and sights of a place so close to his heart.  There are few authors that can make science writing so engaging, charming, and evocative of such emotion.  His craftsmanship of story lines, witty dialogue, and achingly beautiful accounts of scenery are as good as those of any great fiction writer.  His animal observations are thorough without being dry, and reading his accounts allows the reader feel as though they are an adventurer alongside Durrell.

For a good introduction to his work (whether you are a naturalist geek or just plain lover of humor and entertaining stories) I would suggest starting with My Family and Other Animals, a hilarious account of his formative years on the Greek island of Corfu with his mother, sister and brothers.  Each character introduced becomes a cherished friend and is as fascinating a study as any of the plants or animals in the book.  You may soon find yourself making your way down the list of Durell’s works, and I am proud to say that I am making significant progress through the collection. Put Gerald Durrell on your  “Must Read” list!

 

Generally speaking, I am not subject to fits of anger.  I tend to keep a level head in most situations, practicing meditative compassion during rush hour traffic and while standing in long grocery store lines.  Walking along gently flowing creeks and a hike in the woods is my idea of a wild time out, and I’ll raise my voice only to get someone’s attention in a crowd or accentuate the punchline of a terrible pun.

However, while watching Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland, I nearly had to pause the film on several occasions in order to march out into the street in a frothing rage to go and hit someone in the face.  Why the almost Hulk-like transformation from pacifist to puncher?  Hydraulic fracturing.

On the surface, harvesting natural gas from deep underground seems like a a good idea.  The United States contains a great deal of fuel-producing shale formations that trap potential sources of energy.  Proponents of natural gas extraction argue that we could wean ourselves off foreign oil by taking advantages of this home-grown alternative fossil fuel.  New York alone has enough natural gas to rival two Saudi Arabias, and extraction sites occur across the most of the south, midwest and parts of the west.

The infrastructure needed to drill, remove and process the gas has the potential to create new jobs and revitalize the communities whose land is leased to drill the fracturing wells.  Industry advocates assure the pubic that the harvesting process is safe, unobtrusive, and an overall benefit to the landowners participating in extraction. As Fox discovers after being sent a request to drill on his creekside Pennyslvania property, “fracking” holds some very hazardous secrets that affect the well-being and health of human lives, watershed ecosystems, and political transparency.

During Fox’s investigation of fracking, there are almost too many violations of decent human conduct to name.  Despite claims of fracking’s minimal impact on the environment, the process of drilling requires over 500 chemicals and millions of gallons of water to break shale deposits, keep the drill well open, and extract the gas.  Many of the compounds are known neurotoxins and carcinogens, and along with the gas they help remove, highly flammable.  Most of these chemicals are not biodegradable and sit in slurry pits, affecting the health of nearby residents, livestock and habitats.

Reports of cancer, brain lesions, fatigue, hair loss, infertility, and a veritable medial text book of other maladies skyrocket next to fracking wells.  Once clean wells become unit for consumption and water must be replaced with expensive alternative sources trucked in from miles away.  Promises to compensate landowners are either met with legal teams and empty guarantees or outright denials of the well’s detrimental effects.  Animals lose their hair or die outright, human beings suffer from permanent and irreversible illnesses, and the value of once productive agricultural land plummets.

As if corporate greed were not enough to stoke the flames of fury, the backdoor deals and creation of big business loopholes will set you ablaze.  Sidestepping the Clean Water Act,  legislation in 2005 known as the “Halliburton Loophole”  allowed the Bush-Cheney White House to let fracking industry forgo environmental impact reports and keep the identity and composition of their “proprietary” chemicals from public review.  The Act was also instrumental in the largest transfer of public BLM land to private interests in the country’s history.

Pieces of national heritage were opened to exploitation and almost irreversible damage without the majority of Americans being aware of the laws affecting their health and the appropriation of their tax dollars.  It may have been at this point in the film that I nearly had an aneurism.  (On second thought , it might have actually happened while watching people lighting their drinking water on fire.  WATER. ON FIRE.)

Now, with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s consideration of lifting the fracking ban in New York state, it is time for the nation as a whole to take a closer look at the hydraulic fracturing industry.  How do we as a society want to power our infrastructure?  Where do we draw the line between consumption and safety, and what are we willing to sacrifice or change to be able to live in a healthy industrialized nation?

Meet Bill Ford, great-grandson of Henry Ford and Executive Chair of the Ford Motor Co.  As the head of a large auto company, one might not think he would have many environmental proclivities.  However, from a childhood filled with fishing trips through the lake country of Michigan to an early fascination with H.D. Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, Ford has held nature as a powerful and formative influence on his life.

Hoping to leave a legacy that extends beyond gridlock and pollution, he hopes to institute smarter urban traffic systems, cleaner cars, and more efficient, smarter vehicle communication technologies.  Once thought to have ideas too radical for the company’s old school corporate culture, Ford was told at one point in his career to stop associating with environmentalists.  Now, his views concerning lowering emissions and untangling global congestion problems are attracting attention.  To hear what Bill Ford plans for the future of his company and the worldwide auto industry, watch his TED talk, “A future beyond traffic gridlock“.

What are your thoughts?  Can a car company lead the way for a more sustainable future, or do profit margins obstruct any positive progress?  Should we invest in restructuring our cities to accommodate new vehicles, or work towards a higher quality public transport system?  As a developed nation, do we have a responsibility to adopt cleaner technologies as a way to set an example for rapidly growing, undeveloped countries?

Before the Internet, if you wanted to attend a lecture given by a world-renown scientist, business mogul, or performer, you had to be enrolled in a University or in possession of a costly pair of tickets for admission.  Now, thanks to TED talks, all you need is a computer and about twenty minutes.  The private non-profit, TED (Technology, Education and Design) challenges a wide range of speakers (ranging from Jane Goodall and E.O. Wilson to Bill Gates and J.J. Abrams) to present their work or thesis in 18 minutes or less.  This brief format creates engaging, creative presentations that cut to the core of what the lecturer has to say and introduces millions of viewers to ideas that they may have never otherwise been exposed to.

Launched in 2007 by the Sapling Foundation, TED now offers over 900 talks that are available for free online, taking advantage of a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.  The organization believes that ideas shape and transform our world, and that this information should be accessible to all of those who seek to enlighten themselves.  Under the slogan of “ideas worth spreading”, TED supports a number of different programs including annual simulcast conferences in Palm Springs, a yearly gathering in the UK, discussion forums, open translation projects that subtitle materials for non-English speakers, fellowships, a blog, smaller scale community-based lectures, and themed symposiums around the globe.

Now, for a note of sobriety; TED has some major big business backers.  How do they influence the selection of guests, if at all? Some companies have used the organization as a platform to express their interests, such as a talk that posited the idea that big brands could possibly save biodiversity by becoming sustainable (See Jason Clay, president of the World Wildlife Federation).  Some participants of the discussion boards have noted representatives of larger corporations jotting down one or two of their own ideas in favor of their agendas.  Can this be considered just the normal occurrence of an open forum or unfair advantage?  For those of you familiar with TED, have you ever come across material that you would consider in favor or a major sponsor?

In the opinion of this self-proclaimed Student For Life, TED is as close as it gets to a good college lecture.  While the talks may not be as long as I would like on some subjects (what? you mean we can’t spend three hours discussing fungi?) the material is nearly always fascinating and the speakers engrossing.  Discussions on the boards are generally informed and intelligent, and although they may not replace the human interaction that a university setting would provide, they are a wonderful way to do what TED has set out to achieve: share ideas and form connections with minds across national and cultural boundaries.

Do you have any favorite TED talks?  Who would you like to see speak?  If given the chance, what would  you talk about?

Is it possible to live in harmony with our environment while maintaining the comforts of 21st century living?  Proponents of Zero Net Energy (ZNE) buildings and communities believe we can.  The concept of living in structures where carbon emissions, construction costs and rates of energy consumption are balanced by efficient design and conscious practice is beginning to gain traction in a world concerned with global climate change.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be converted, shifted and measured.  ZNE buildings attempt to achieve through various technologies and architectural techniques to engineer homes and businesses that produce or save as much energy as they use.  Defining guidelines differ across Europe and North America (where most of this innovative development is taking place) but several key principles outlining the functions of are held in common.

Energy use- The amount of energy produced on site should be at least equal to the amount of energy needed by the building.  This includes the energy required to transport electricity through transmission lines from source to final destination. Many ZNE’s strive to function off the main electrical grid, becoming completely self-sufficient and even sending power back into the system.

Emissions- ZNE’s strive to be carbon neutral, meaning any burning of fossil fuels involved in construction must be offset by the creation of renewable energy from the building.  Some even go as far to count the carbon burned through commuting to and from the ZNE location as well as the “embodied energy”, or amount of fuel used to manufacture, distribute and dispose of the materials used.

Zero off-site energy use-  To achieve a 100% ZNE rating, any purchased carbon offsets must come from renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, water or biogas.

How do ZNE’s go low?  First, computer programs and traditional architectural principles are applied in the design phase to incorporate passive solar heating and natural conditioning, wind patterns, and the composition of earth beneath the building to reduce heating and cooling costs.  Every detail is considered, from the overhang of a door to the location of a window in relation to the sun’s journey across the sky.  Not only are the energy profiles of the materials and initial models taken into account, but the entire lifetime of the building.  This means that each element must be durable, recyclable, and able to be neutralized by renewable energy.  As with LEED certified buildings,  ZNE locations have a wide array of energy-saving features.  LED lights replace traditional fluorescent bulbs, high efficiency appliances monitor and save electricity, and natural heating  and cooling, insulation, heat recycling aid in controlling indoor climate with the least amount of power possible.

Once a ZNE structure is up and running, it meets its electricity needs in a number of ways.  Some of these strategies are used exclusively, while others are harnessed in combination.  Solar cells, wind turbines, biofuels, and in some special locations, even microhyro or geothermal strategies are all sources of clean energy.  Through a mix of conservation and renewable energy harvest, it is possible to function autonomously, although some ZNE communities still opt to connect themselves to the grid in order to draw power for those times when their demand exceeds production.

Whole Zero Energy neighborhoods are popping up around the United States and offering an exciting opportunity to live in a more sustainable fashion, creating jobs in the private sector, and aiding the fight to combat climate change and environmental degradation.  Firms that specialize in green building such as Zeta and Zero Energy Design tout the long-term monetary savings of energy-conscious development and state of the art renovations.  Their projects are inspired by the landscape, unique to each client, and ready to meet the demands of an energy-hungry and fuel strapped future.  Just as in basketball, when it comes to winning the game in inspirational green design, it ain’t nothin’ but net.

When you think of renewable energy resources, the first images that come to mind might consist of bucolic scenes of windmill farms amongst verdant hills, arrays of solar panels under blue skies, and charging rivers running through dams to create hydroelectric power.  These visions may not, however, include one of the greatest and most abundant potential sources of energy available: garbage.

We may reach peak oil in the near future, but considering the average American produces about 4 pounds of junk each day, it does not seem likely that we will be running out of trash any time soon.  Companies such as Waste Management realize this and have begun to harness the methane and carbon dioxide produced by the bacteria feed on decomposing refuse.

More than 80 Waste Management sites across the country are beginning to harness landfill emissions by using a system of pipes and wells.  The gas is then filtered, compressed, and subjected to several temperature changes before it can be used to power combustion engines and turbines that generate electricity.  Waste Management uses the low voltage energy it produces to run its own operations, and exports its high voltage electricity into the grid.

One of the most exciting new developments in trash-to-treasure-technology is the development of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) cars that operate with specially designed engines to run on biogas.  Biogas can be collected from landfills directly, or after sewage and other organic material have been fermented in a large biodigestor.  Fuel cells, like the ones already used by vehicles that run on compressed natural gas, can also be fabricated as fuel sources.

Soon, public transportation and fleets of company cars may run on the byproducts of human castoffs and bacteria refuse instead of fossilized organic matter.  The infrastructure models and engineering plans we have been hearing about for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could potentially be reworked to suit the recycling of human waste products.

Our government has also been taking a closer look at garbage and hot, gaseous expulsions (insert your own jokes here). The US Environmental Protection Agency has created the Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP), a voluntary assistance program that partners with communities, businesses and non-profits to find financing and assess project feasibility for organizations looking to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate compliance costs.  Over 500 partnerships have been formed so far, helping to add to the the nearly 1.2 million homes already powered by landfill-generated electricity.

Would you drive a car powered by biogas?  How would you feel about using landfill materials to generate electricity for your home?

 

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