It’s impossible not to be moved by the horrible events in Haiti. And it gives us a lot to think about in terms of sustainability.
And in Haiti, the complete lack of sustainability shows wherever you look right now. The obvious lack of building codes contributed to many deaths, insufficient airport and port construction work is delaying rescue and the health care system was marginal to begin with.
Which is not to blame the Haitians. Their situation was brought about by ages of poverty caused by exploitation by richer nations. But this doesn’t mean we can’t learn from this incident.
One of the biggest lessons is going to be about how to help poorer countries over the long term and to be more more proactive.
Partners in Health has a long history in Haiti and has learned that it’s more effective to be an aid organization that integrates closely with the community and works with existing structures to build lasting success. Good article here. I made my donation today. You can donate here.
And, of course, my favorite part is that they’re building solar-powered rural hospitals, which of course means they’re able to operate off the shaky power grid.
Which is one of the lessons we can bring home to the U.S. Hospitals here are required to have backup generators on-site to help them get through power outages. However, these are fossil fuel-based generators (usually diesel). If we face a fuel interuption AND a major disaster, the hospital could be out of commission relatively quickly. A solar power deployment on hospital roofs could greatly extend the hospital’s usefullness during a disaster (and maybe even save some money by generating power in the meantime).
And just another thought on how we deliver aid to poorer countries. Just as it’s cheaper to go to the doctor before you need to head to the emergency room, it’s cheaper for richer countries to invest in vital infrastructure over time and in smaller amounts than delivering buckets of expensive relief aid after these incidents. This rescue effort could have been much more efficient and less expensive had the airport, port and electrical system been supported better over the years. Something to think about for other vulnerable countries.
There are many other lessons and ideas coming out of this terrible tragedy. But for now, help where you can.
Throughout the presidential election campaign, we endured endless ads from two unusual sources. One was the endless loop of “Pickens Plan” ads and other other was the heavy rotation of nonsensical “We” ads.
If you’ve been near a TV at all during the last few months, you’ve seen both of these ads. In some ways the similarities are more telling than the differences with these ads. Both are focused on sustainability in their own way, both claim to be demanding renewable energy and both at least seem to be aimed at moving opinion leaders toward their approach.
But what are these plans and organizations all about? You certainly can’t tell from these 30 second ads. I decided to take a look.
The We campaign is being run by the WeCanSolveIt.org group, founded by Al Gore (full disclosure: big Al Gore fan here and I joined the group when it was first organized). The We group’s goal is to get the U.S. to 100% clean electricity in 10 years. The goal is so aggressive that you could be forgiven for assuming that their position is nothing more than a clever use of the Overton window. I, however, think it is an attainable goal. And, like Al Gore would probably say, it’s a goal that we can’t afford to miss. Sadly it is an expensive goal as well; although we could certainly use some infrastructure spending in America to kick-start our economy.
I’m excited about We because it puts our focus where it should be: moving to electricity for energy wherever possible and creating that energy with clean, renewable sources. And for those of you who are regular readers will note, that means you’re not burning anything. The technology is here today, but it’s not the cheapest energy in most cases. For example, let’s say you wanted to move your house to solar. You would probably pay something above $20,000 on panels and an inverter. Plus you’ll likely need a new furnace if you live in a colder part of the country. With an electric bill of, say, $100ish per month, you’re looking an incredibly long payback. There’s no way to move massive numbers of people to these solutions with those economics. This is why RE<C is such an important concept. In fact it’s the entire basis of this Web site.
Which brings us to the Pickens Plan.
Now I’m doing my best to give the plan an honest look, but readers should note that I’ll never forgive this sleazeball for financing the Swiftboat ads against John Kerry in 2004. Simply disgusting and immoral.
So with that bad taste in my mouth ignored, let’s look at Pickens. T. Boone PIckens rightly highlights the fact that our foreign oil consumption has risen for decades now under both political parties. He doesn’t mention how much money he made off that oil importation, however. His plan calls for a bold move to renewable energy, such as wind. But, as you’ve seen in his commercials, he notes the “technology isn’t there yet. We need a bridge.”
His bridge? Natural gas, or as he calls it, CNG. CNG stands for compressed natural gas (don’t kind yourself into thinking the C stands for clean. It doesn’t. Now natural gas does work in cars. Governments and taxis have used it for years. Now, what you may not know is that Pickens is the largest shareholder in Clean Energy Inc., a natural gas distribution company. Stations are already popping up around the country.
So is this “bridge” really just a bridge from your wallet to Pickens’ bank account? Hard to say, but it’s clear Pickens stands to make a fortune. Not that I mind someone making money from their ideas. I’m a proud capitalist and nothing would make me happier than making money by driving greater sustainability. But is there something else going on here? This Business Week article seems to show that there is. It seems Pickens is snatching up midwest land and driving toward a pipeline pointed toward Texas. For oil? No, this time water. Could Pickens be getting ready to step on the drinking water hose? Yikes! Could the plan to build a massive wind farm in the midwest actually be a water rights grab? I’m sure I’m not qualified to say, but the speed at which Pickens’ wind power plans were shelved puts quite a bit of weight on the wrong side of the scale.
From a marketing perspective, kudos to Pickens for a very clear, powerful marketing campaign. I’m a member of We, have seen dozens of their ads and still can’t figure out what their core message is. Do they want volunteers? Investors? Donations? I can’t tell! Weak! Pickens also shows how shooting some video of yourself in front of spinning windmills can’t help but make you look like an environmental hero. It’s a lesson John McCain used quite a bit during the campaign.
So the bottom line? Pretty simple, really. They just have different goals. Al Gore’s We group is 100% about climate change issues. He wants us to drop the carbon output of this country and fast. And rebuild our economy in the process. Pickens, if taken at face value, is focused on escaping the clutches of middle eastern dictators. An admirable goal, but one that is also solved with the We approach. Unfortunately, if Pickens’ plan were to work, it would actually extend the climate change challenges by extending the timeframe that our economy is based on burning a natural resource. Add in the worries over water issues and with Pickens you have the exact opposite of sustainability. Just more short-term corporate thinking from a billionaire.
I haven’t seen a ton written about this yet, so I may be overstating things, but if this pans out it’ll be huge.
MIT is reporting a breakthrough that solves the biggest problem in solar and wind power production: a steady supply of power. Wind power works great — when the wind is blowing. Solar power is great during the daytime. Until now, the best solution is to either have batteries store your power over night or combine wind and solar to hopefully balance the system. Even then, you’d realistically need a grid-tied system to ensure you were never without power.
In this discovery, a process is created that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.Â Once the two are separated, you can store the hydrogen inÂ a fuel cell, which is a very reliable storage system. The big problem with fuel cells, from what I’ve read, is that you generally need a robust source of power to create large quantities of hydrogen, so fossil fuels are often used.
This process in effect acts like a planet, taking in solar energy, sucking up water and giving back hydrogen and oxygen — artificial photosynthesis.
From the article:
“This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind,” said Barber, the Ernst Chain Professor of Biochemistry at Imperial College London. “The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem.”
Let’s just hope there’s enough water…
We’re in Hiroshima now after taking the Shinkansen, or bullet train, across country to make our way to the little village of Koyasan and then back to Hiroshima.
In case there was ever any doubt that the rest of the world is kicking our ass while our infrastructure crumbles, come take a ride on the Shinkansen. I feel like the poor hick I was when cool city kid Robert Durbin walked into high school wearing the first-known pair of parachute pants. “Wow, the world has really passed us by here.” (Fortunately I could never afford a pair of the soon-to-be-passe pants so no embarrassing photos exist.)
It’s sleek. It’s unbelievably fast, moving at well over 100 mph. We need one in the U.S., but we’re still stuck with what’s left of rickety old Amtrak. Sad.
On the journey to Koyasan, we traveled on subway, city trains and subway. All interconnected and streamlined. Stations are a little confusing and chaotic but not nightmarish.
Unlike Mexico and Hawaii, solar power abounds here. At least visually. Most of their energy comes from fossil fuels, but a fair amount comes from nuclear as well. They’re also a big developer of solar, as several of the big solar panel producers are based here. These pics were taken from the train and aren’t any kind of solid data, but are an interesting look at the type of installations here.
The passive solar hot water system in that last photo is a very typical installation. I saw tons of those units. Notice the one on the neighboring house as well.
Overall, Japan has made pretty much all the same mistakes as the U.S. in terms of its sustainability. The main difference is that they’re recognizing the mistakes and correcting them. And we’re just not. Yet.
Since I mentioned it, I have to spend a few minutes on Koyasan. It’s an intriguing little village. It’s sort of half Buddhist enclave and half tourist-trap, but a tasteful one. Located up in the tree-covered mountains, it’s a beautiful location. We reached it by cable car after the multi-train journey mentioned above. Our residence for the night was a monastery/temple called Shojoshin-in. We sprung for the private ryokan, the traditional japanese inn. It included a dinner and breakfast and was a pretty fun experience, although we were constantly getting tsk-tsked for wearing/not wearing our slippers at the right time.
After the required morning service (40 minutes of watching a monk chant), breakfast (forgot to bring our cameras to dinner, which was much more dramatic):
Next door to our ryokan was an enormous mausoleum. It was so enchanting and enormous that I’m surprised I haven’t seen it featured on TV before. Light was fading quickly and the mosquitoes were brutal but you can get an idea from this pic:
The following day we headed into the other main attraction in Koyasan, a large complex of temples. Many are very old reproductions of truly ancient structures. The scale is hard to get from these pictures, but trust me, many are VERY large.
All-in-all, a fascinating if exhausting side trip out of the city.
If there’s one problem with solar power, it’s that it can take an enormous amount of real estate to generate a sufficient amount of power.
Well, maybe not for much longer. I just tripped across this entry from last year’s Re:volt awards. The idea is to use helium-filled balloons that are embedded with solar arrays. Power is brought down the cable where it would be devoured by a hungry nation.
The design would save the costs of buying the real estate and allow you to put much more power generation in the same acreage.
Not sure if it’ll fly, but it’s a great concept!
There’s a lot of concern trolling going on these days related to solar and wind power. The most recent I found is probably the dumbest. Yep, they’re saying solar is way more deadly than nuclear. No I’m not kidding. The (tortured) logic of this argument is that the number of people killed by, say, falling off roofs installing solar makes it a more dangerous (by number of human deaths) than other forms of power. Even if this were true (hint: it’s not), the more intelligent approach would be to improve safety techniques and equipment vs. just dismissing an entire industry. There are construction deaths all the time, should we just not build anything ever again?
This is all part of the general strategy of old energy industries like oil and nuclear to muddy the waters. Oil might be destroying the planet, but hey, windmills kill birds!! You don’t hate birds, do you? To further muddy the waters, they love to throw the word “clean” in front of their products. “Clean” coal, Environmentally friendly propane. “Energy Solutions” from Shell Oil.
There are issues worth examining when it comes to new energy sources. What are the impacts of solar panel construction? Do windmills kill birds? If so, in how great of numbers? And what can we do to help limit this collateral damage? For more information, check this out.
We need to ensure we’re not being suckered by an industry that has made the highest profits ever seen in the history of mankind. Their marketing can blur the lines about what the right decisions are for us as a society and cause hesitancy when decisiveness is needed.
Birds might be dying from windmills, but bats might be dying from cell phones and we don’t see the same uproar. Why not? If windmills are killing birds, let’s find out why and make them safer. But let’s keep things in perspective.
After all, there is another energy source with a history of killing birds.
Photo courtesy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.
So I’m down in Los Cabos, Mexico for a little R&R. We’re staying a very nice private home just a couple kilometers out of Cabo San Lucas. It’s blissfully quiet and delightfully warm – basically a steady and sunny 80 degrees. The picture above is my view from the rooftop deck of this house. Notice anything missing? Yep, there are lots of roofs, no solar.
Again, like my trip to Hawaii, this is an environment that is filled with people from around the world who travel here to soak up solar energy. Why isn’t local solar generation more popular?
I have to guess that it’s the cost. I don’t know what rates they pay here, but I think the payback period just doesn’t make any sense. Add to that possible issues of theft and occasional high winds and I guess I can see its limitations. As always I have to add that I’m sure there’s a lot going on here that I’m unaware of as a visitor in a foreign land.
Now if you turn the camera 180 degrees you’ll see the other view from my rooftop deck: the local Home Depot. (And no there weren’t throngs of white people waiting around the parking lot for some work.)
That Home Depot does represent to me some opportunity. As solar power gets cheaper, the infrastructure here seems poised to take advantage of it. The developing world may benefit most from these technological advances as their power demands are kicking in just as costs are potentially dropping. That means many countries could dodge the bullet of oil-based pollution (at least more of it) and skip right to some renewables, saving money and their people in the process. Then again, this is a country where they still use leaded gas.
One additional thought is that warmer climates are also typically more in danger of hurricanes. To address this, I think home-based solar and wind power will need to feature easy-to-remove components to protect the investment. For example, that could mean panel units easily carried by an average person and easy to unbolt and secure in a garage to ride out a storm.
There’s a lot to do and we’re wasting precious rays in the meantime!
One of the most frustrating things about the political season is watching the leading candidates carve out and then brag about the safest possible positions on the issues.
Scientific American Magazine has put together what they call a Solar Grand Plan focused on getting off foreign oil and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Their path for reaching those goals: solar power. Lots of solar power. They also call for a DC-based transmission system to limit transmission losses and a power storage strategy based on such concepts as pressurized air, something I discussed some time ago.
Their plan could provide 69 percent of the U.S.’s electrical needs and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050.
In contrast, both Barack Obama’s plan and Hillary Clinton’s plan call for 25 percent of renewable energy by 2025 as well as several other focus group-tested positions. Now, you say, getting 25 percent of the way there by 2025 isn’t bad and gets you well on your way toward the SciAm goals. I don’t disagree. Except that it would leave you 44 percent of the way to go in 25 more years. Again, not necessarily impossible but my take is that there’s plenty of room for the candidates to get a little more aggressive here.
Now the SciAm plan omits some other opportunities that exist out there. Namely the huge potential of wind and tidal power, which has great potential in various areas of the country. Additionally, the article does hint at the needs for each region to provide for themselves, but I think that issue is underplayed. I would have no problem, however, with a solar system as a “jump-start” while we work toward a distributed system over time.
In other words:
Step 1: Derive all energy from U.S.-based sources.
Step: 2: Move all energy sources to renewables.
Step 3: Separate each region and have each area provide its own power, for example, the northwest should be on its own grid, the southwest, the center of the country in one or two sections and then the northeast and southeast.
Step 4: Separate each state. I live in Washington and there’s no reason Washington state couldn’t provide all of its own power. If it has excess, it could sell the remainder to other states that are suffering dips, but each state would take care of itself first.
Step 5: Each city should take care of its own needs. Same goes for counties. Seattle, where I live, should be putting together plans to generate enough power for itself. It’d be great for a progressive place such as this to be the only one with its lights on when the larger regional grid collapses.
Step 6: Next I’d love to see each neighborhood take care of their own needs as well. Imagine (relatively) smaller windmills hovering over city parks generating enough power for just the few hundred or thousand homes in the area.
Step 7: Last, but not least, it would be wonderful to see each home and business also taking care of itself. You can buy power off the grid if you need it, or provide 100% of your own power.
This graduated system of self-reliance provides the total freedom I think we all crave, as well as the indestructibility of the Internet. I think this could be done in 10 years. It’s like the old saying: You can do anything you want, just apply money. But if you compare the costs of this kind of a plan with what we’ve pissed away on the Iraq debacle, it’s obvious money shouldn’t be an obstacle.
As prices drop and technology advances, I believe all of these solutions will be advanced at different rates across the country, but it’d be great to also see more focused long-term thinking from our leaders.