Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The future of farming?

Our modern day methods of producing food in advanced industrialized nations like the United States, require inputs of 10 calories of fossil fuel for every 1 calorie of food we produce. This is not only highly inefficient, but it is unsustainable given the contribution that fossil fuel use makes to climate change, and the expectation that sometime in the next five to 30 years that the production of fossil fuels will peak and then decline steadily, creating shortages and pushing prices far higher than their 2008 peaks.

Google Video has made available full-length documentaries through video streaming. The video below by Rebecca Hosking for the BBC's Natural World series, explores the question of what may happen to farming and our food supply in the future and what alternatives exist to fossil fuel based agriculture.

"Wildlife film maker Rebecca Hosking investigates how to transform her family's farm in Devon into a low energy farm for the future, and discovers that nature holds the key." BBC - Natural World

How many roads must the US economy walk down?

Various news outlets are reporting on a couple of major stories in wind power today. Australia's AGL Energy has signed a deal with Suzlon Energy (an Indian firm) to buy about a quarter of a billion dollars with of wind turbines, while Germany's Wetfeet Offshore Windenergy GmBH is buying over nine hundred million dollars worth of new turbines from the French Areva SA. This raises some questions that I'll but to the reader:
Why aren't these high-value engineering and manufacturing contracts being awarded to US firms? Does domestic energy policy impact the US's ability to respond successfully to contracts of this nature? What's required of entreprenneurs, big business, utilities, and governments to make the US more competitive in the global energy industry? How many times are we going to retread this path (energy crises, missed opportunities to exploit a new energy market, or both)?

Image source: Department of Environment, Government of Maharashtra, India

Friday, March 20, 2009

It's like watching MacGyver work

It's not really. It's a brick. Or, it's a jar, or something else that displaces water. You've no doubt heard it before, and many readers are already doing it. However, for those who have never encountered this eons-old water conservation measure:
You can convert just about any existing toilet into a low-flow unit without ever getting your hands dirty*. Booting-up your computer probably takes longer than this will.
Simply take the lid off the tank, and place a brick, a concrete paver, or a clean jar (filled with water and tightly closed), and put the lid back onto the tank. Done.
Now, every time the tank refills, the brick (or whatever you've used) will displace some water. The result is that every time the toilet is flushed, it uses that much less water. Depending upon your home's usage and how much water you can effectively displace, this can easily save gallons every week. For reference, it you use a spent 20 oz soda bottle to displace water, that translates to about a 10% savings for many units.
This saves you and your community water and energy. Keep in mind that in virtually every US home, all of the water entering the house is potable water. That means that it has been thoroughly treated to the point of being safe to drink. And, of course, it must be pumped (both treating the water and moving it require energy) before it gets to every fixture in the house, even if that fixture is only used for washing clothes, spraying-off a lawn mower, or flushing a toilet. You're paying for drinking water for all of those uses. And, of course all of that wastewater has to be treated after it leaves your home. You pay for that, too.
Save some water, save some money.

*Author's note: Since this post specifically names bricks (which are often dusty or dirty) and jars (which have to be thoroughly cleaned), E.R. Dunhill's statement that you will never get your hands dirty is probably patently untrue. Also, the author would have written the usual emphatic Be the solution in this post, but as quick as the actual recommendation is, it seemed like a waste of time. Nuts. I've just written it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It’s kind of like ZipCar for books

Remember libraries? They’re like book stores, only you don’t pay for the books, and no one minds if you just sit around and read without taking anything home. (Remember book stores? They're like Amazon.com, but with other people.)
Libraries are regaining their relevance, after an inevitable ebb. With so many regional and local economies suffering, free opportunities for recreation and no-cost access to information to hone skills and find jobs are important. While it may not be immediately obivous, they’re a great place to interact with real, live people. (Take that, Internet!) Libraries also offer the benefits of group ownership: I can read the book, my neighbor can read the book, my wife can read the book, and some guy named Doug can read the book- but as if by magic, it’s still just one book. It’s only manufactured once, but it’s used many times by many different people. What a creative, thrifty, and environmentally-friendly idea. It seems like something Benjamin Franklin would have dreamed up.
My local library happens to be adjacent to a few local stores, several restaurants, and (my personal favorite) an ice cream shop, all of which surround a courtyard with benches, tables, grassy areas, a fountain, and a little pavilion for performances. There’s even a movie theater and a coffee shop nearby. People meet, interact, support local businesses, read, and borrow books, all in a central place that’s about a five-minute walk from the local Metro station. It’s a wonderful and natural synthesis of public and private space, one I’d love to see replicated more.
Whether or not your local branch is as hip as mine, a library is a great way to build community, learn, and save money with minimal impact on the environment. Be the solution

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Clean coal: Holding the wolf by his ears

I've written in the past about objections to the use of coal for generating electricity. Its mining, its use, and its disposal all have significant negative implications for human and environmental health. I've also written about why "clean coal" is a poor option for generating electricity in the United States. However, I write now in defense of research (and ultimately commercialization) of clean coal technologies.
The US has a wealth of options for generating electricity through technologies that can be used to phase-out coal. With an economy that, even while struggling continues to support a high standard of living and is central to the global economy and to new technology, we have the means to do this. I like to think we also have the will to innovate and do things better.
This is not true everywhere, though. China and India, two economies surging to a degree never before witnessed, are coal-rich and are wanting for electricity. China's coal, in particular, is high in sulfur, which results in smog and acid precipitation. And, of course, burning any coal introduces carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As these economies snowball, they will continue to demand energy at an accelerating pace. Coal is available to them now and into the future, and it is accessible by means of established, lower-capital technologies.
Coal is unhealthy. Coal is dangerous. But, coal is available. The result is that while the US forges ahead with more sustainable technologies for producing energy, we have to recognize that others will use renewable energy sources to supplement, rather than supplant coal.
This at once creates a need and an opportunity for the US. The need is clear: Pollution doesn't stay put. Many people outside of India and China (including Americans and others who impact US economic and military security) will suffer the ill effects of nations who prioritize old-fashioned means of economic development over long-term needs and human and environmental health. Coal is a mess that we have to deal with, whether we contribute to the mess or not.
The opportunity is equally clear: There is a massive potential market for clean-coal technologies in the developing world. If US scientists and engineers innovate, and US firms commercialize this innovation, this will create US jobs and US wealth.
"Clean coal" remains a misnomer. Coal, in general remains a poor fuel choice in the long run for a number of reasons. However, the real-world strategy to pollution control and prevention must recognize that others will use coal.

Image source: National Archives and Records Administration, ARC Identifier 556411

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A hurried, half-considered question to the reader

There's been a great deal written about Ponzi schemes over the last few weeks, as the case against Mr. Madoff (and potentially others) unfolds. In very brief (for those unfamiliar with Mr. Ponzi's legacy), this scheme is fraud in which a financial advisor collects money from investors, does little or nothing with it (and probably spends a lot of it), and pretends to be making a killing. The financial advisor touts his fake success to attract new investors who add new money to the scheme, thereby creating the illusion that it's actually making money. Investors believe that they'd be stupid to take their money out of a "fund" that's making so much money, so they simply keep reinvesting.
The party eventually runs out when the criminal advisor dashes-off with the money, or it becomes painfully evident that the "fund" is insolvent.
So that brings me to my hastily concocted questions to the reader:
Is a growth-only economy just a giant Ponzi scheme? Is a mindset that falsely pits economic well-being against environmental and human health a Ponzi scheme? Is reliance on increasing consumption of finite resources to run the economy a Ponzi scheme? Would a sustainable economy right the books?

Friday, March 6, 2009

The best thing since sliced bread, or Car trouble revisited

Zipcar has proved its mettle sooner than I’d anticipated. Late Sunday I learned that the following evening I’d need to attend a city council meeting and to potentially speak about an environmental award. My wife had a longstanding commitment at the school where she teaches, also on Monday.
The complications:
1. Both meetings started at the same time, which also happens to be when our son goes to bed.
2. Our son is teething, which makes him exceedingly disinclined to go to sleep.
3. We just got rid of one of our cars. The plan was that we’d sign up for ZipCar, but I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
4. We didn’t know this at the time, but our son was also exceedingly disinclined to go to sleep because he was coming down with the stomach flu.
There was no way I could get the ZipCard in time, but I figured that since I had a few free minutes at lunch, I’d at least go to the web site and set up an account, so it would be available for the next mini-crisis. I spent about five minutes filling out forms on the website.
Bang. Twenty minutes later, I had my ZipCard in hand. In less time than it takes to have a fast food meal, I had the power to grab a car all over (and around) DC, and several other cities should the notion take me. As it turns out, you can pick up your card from a ZipCar office moments after filling out the online forms. (You can also get the card mailed to you, but where’s the fun in that?) The entire face-to-face piece of the transaction took about two and a half minutes.
So, I got on the web, reserved my car, picked it up from the Metro station after work, did the meeting, and was back home with Junior before you can say, “Bob’s your uncle”. I got where I needed to be in a hurry, did so in a fuel-efficient vehicle, and I’m not making car payments. ZipCar’s a winner.