This web site will show you how to live lightly on the Earth by using solar energy. Our mission is to accelerate the transition to solar energy.
How to Use this Web Log
1. Browse through articles by clicking on "Older Posts" below each article in the center column. 2. Search through the Blog Archive at the lower right-hand column. 3. Read Editor's articles to the right. 4. Get Technical help in the lower left hand column. 5. Efficiency and low-waste strategies in the lower right column.
A new antireflective coating developed by researchers at Rensselaer could help to overcome two major hurdles blocking the progress and wider use of solar power. The nanoengineered coating, pictured here, boosts the amount of sunlight captured by solar panels and allows those panels to absorb the entire spectrum of sunlight from any angle, regardless of the sun's position in the sky. (Credit: Rensselaer/Shawn Lin)
ScienceDaily (Nov. 4, 2008) — Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have discovered and demonstrated a new method for overcoming two major hurdles facing solar energy. By developing a new antireflective coating that boosts the amount of sunlight captured by solar panels and allows those panels to absorb the entire solar spectrum from nearly any angle, the research team has moved academia and industry closer to realizing high-efficiency, cost-effective solar power.
“To get maximum efficiency when converting solar power into electricity, you want a solar panel that can absorb nearly every single photon of light, regardless of the sun’s position in the sky,” said Shawn-Yu Lin, professor of physics at Rensselaer and a member of the university’s Future Chips Constellation, who led the research project. “Our new antireflective coating makes this possible.”
An untreated silicon solar cell only absorbs 67.4 percent of sunlight shone upon it — meaning that nearly one-third of that sunlight is reflected away and thus unharvestable. From an economic and efficiency perspective, this unharvested light is wasted potential and a major barrier hampering the proliferation and widespread adoption of solar power.
After a silicon surface was treated with Lin’s new nanoengineered reflective coating, however, the material absorbed 96.21 percent of sunlight shone upon it — meaning that only 3.79 percent of the sunlight was reflected and unharvested. This huge gain in absorption was consistent across the entire spectrum of sunlight, from UV to visible light and infrared, and moves solar power a significant step forward toward economic viability.
Lin’s new coating also successfully tackles the tricky challenge of angles.
Most surfaces and coatings are designed to absorb light — i.e., be antireflective — and transmit light — i.e., allow the light to pass through it — from a specific range of angles. Eyeglass lenses, for example, will absorb and transmit quite a bit of light from a light source directly in front of them, but those same lenses would absorb and transmit considerably less light if the light source were off to the side or on the wearer’s periphery.
This same is true of conventional solar panels, which is why some industrial solar arrays are mechanized to slowly move throughout the day so their panels are perfectly aligned with the sun’s position in the sky. Without this automated movement, the panels would not be optimally positioned and would therefore absorb less sunlight. The tradeoff for this increased efficiency, however, is the energy needed to power the automation system, the cost of upkeeping this system, and the possibility of errors or misalignment.
Lin’s discovery could antiquate these automated solar arrays, as his antireflective coating absorbs sunlight evenly and equally from all angles. This means that a stationary solar panel treated with the coating would absorb 96.21 percent of sunlight no matter the position of the sun in the sky. So along with significantly better absorption of sunlight, Lin’s discovery could also enable a new generation of stationary, more cost-efficient solar arrays.
“At the beginning of the project, we asked ‘would it be possible to create a single antireflective structure that can work from all angles?’ Then we attacked the problem from a fundamental perspective, tested and fine-tuned our theory, and created a working device,” Lin said. Rensselaer physics graduate student Mei-Ling Kuo played a key role in the investigations.
Typical antireflective coatings are engineered to transmit light of one particular wavelength. Lin’s new coating stacks seven of these layers, one on top of the other, in such a way that each layer enhances the antireflective properties of the layer below it. These additional layers also help to “bend” the flow of sunlight to an angle that augments the coating’s antireflective properties. This means that each layer not only transmits sunlight, it also helps to capture any light that may have otherwise been reflected off of the layers below it.
The seven layers, each with a height of 50 nanometers to 100 nanometers, are made up of silicon dioxide and titanium dioxide nanorods positioned at an oblique angle — each layer looks and functions similar to a dense forest where sunlight is “captured” between the trees. The nanorods were attached to a silicon substrate via chemical vapor disposition, and Lin said the new coating can be affixed to nearly any photovoltaic materials for use in solar cells, including III-V multi-junction and cadmium telluride.
Along with Lin and Kuo, co-authors of the paper include E. Fred Schubert, Wellfleet Senior Constellation Professor of Future Chips at Rensselaer; Research Assistant Professor Jong Kyu Kim; physics graduate student David Poxson; and electrical engineering graduate student Frank Mont.
Funding for the project was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences, as well as the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
Kuo et al. Realization of a near-perfect antireflection coating for silicon solar energy utilization. Optics Letters, 2008; 33 (21): 2527 DOI: 10.1364/OL.33.002527
It would be interesting if each of the 'experts' making commentary about various renewable energy options were to actually state if they have any actual experience beyond the theoretical. There are actually not many people who are utilizing renewable energy in their every-day lives outside of perhaps solar hot water heating. Those of us who have been using these technologies for decades are often bemused but frustrated by the obvious misrepresentations about cost, utility, user-friendliness and affordability that frequently arise in these commentaries.
At first I thought it was people with vested interest in the old technologies, but I think that is just a part of the problem. There also seem to be a subset of people trying to create an identity for themselves by venturing opinions on subjects that they have no first-hand knowledge of. They can often be identified by how sure they are of themselves.
We need to get over these kinds of competitive debates. We need to get to work to bring technologies that work to the market. We need less 'experts' and more entrepreneurs and visionary investors. These problems are not going to be solved by venture capitalist slight of hand nor those 'experts who can deconstruct anything. The technologies that already overwhelm the world are riddled with problems that make them improbable successes. Just because we can identify problems does not mean we should abandon the effort to develop technologies that overcome the problems. The alternative is mass extinction, including, possibly, of the human race.
To the numerous people who have pointed out that we need to let the market determine which technologies win - That is a great idea in an idealized world where the government does not get paid by giant corporations to pass legislation that mandates their products and creates very high barriers to entry by any competing technologies. The fact is we cannot fix these problems if we don't end corrupt practices of government and industry that disable the healthy functioning of the market. And that problem is much bigger than symptoms like climate change, air pollution and eco-tastrophe. Why? Because most people don't get it and the ones that do are the ones who are doing it! http://lightontheearth.blogspot.com/2008/07/light-on-earth-manual-for-global.html Jonathan Cole, MBA
I note with interest how simple it is to take simple ideas and recount a thousand technical reasons why they cannot possibly work. I think Al Gore has made a mistake in the approach he is taking to the problems facing the world. He is under-reaching.
By closely coupling the crisis to global warming, he gives critics an easy target for slander. The fact is that the natural workings of the climate are so complex, that greenhouse gases in combination with fewer sunspots, more or less particulate matter in the atmosphere, melting ice, changing currents, etc., can push the climate toward warming or cooling under different circumstances and in different time frames.
However, the crisis of the widespread contamination of the natural world is not simply an issue of climate change. The unintended consequences of the combustion-based industrial revolution are a cauldron of unintended chemistry in the land, sea and air. The rapid rate of this change makes it difficult for many biological organisms to adapt and thus we are in an age of mass extinction caused in large part by the way we provide for our standard of living. There is some reason to suspect that human beings may not be exempt from this extinction trend.
So while some people like to show how smart they are by tearing down people like Al Gore, I suggest that, instead we work together to insure the survival of a habitable planet and a decent standard of living. With non-combustion renewable energy, elimination of waste, increase of efficiency and a more responsible attitude toward stewardship of the planet, we may yet make it through this serious crisis and come out stronger, richer, healthier and happier than if we stick our heads in the sand of denial.
ScienceDaily (July 11, 2008) — Imagine windows that not only provide a clear view and illuminate rooms, but also use sunlight to efficiently help power the building they are part of. MIT engineers report a new approach to harnessing the sun's energy that could allow just that.
The work, reported in the July 11 issue of Science, involves the creation of a novel "solar concentrator." "Light is collected over a large area [like a window] and gathered, or concentrated, at the edges," explains Marc A. Baldo, leader of the work and the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering.
As a result, rather than covering a roof with expensive solar cells (the semiconductor devices that transform sunlight into electricity), the cells only need to be around the edges of a flat glass panel. In addition, the focused light increases the electrical power obtained from each solar cell "by a factor of over 40," Baldo says.
Because the system is simple to manufacture, the team believes that it could be implemented within three years--even added onto existing solar-panel systems to increase their efficiency by 50 percent for minimal additional cost. That, in turn, would substantially reduce the cost of solar electricity.
In addition to Baldo, the researchers involved are Michael Currie, Jon Mapel, and Timothy Heidel, all graduate students in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Shalom Goffri, a postdoctoral associate in MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics.
"Professor Baldo's project utilizes innovative design to achieve superior solar conversion without optical tracking," says Dr. Aravinda Kini, program manager in the Office of Basic Energy Sciences in the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, a sponsor of the work. "This accomplishment demonstrates the critical importance of innovative basic research in bringing about revolutionary advances in solar energy utilization in a cost-effective manner."
Solar concentrators in use today "track the sun to generate high optical intensities, often by using large mobile mirrors that are expensive to deploy and maintain," Baldo and colleagues write in Science. Further, "solar cells at the focal point of the mirrors must be cooled, and the entire assembly wastes space around the perimeter to avoid shadowing neighboring concentrators."
The MIT solar concentrator involves a mixture of two or more dyes that is essentially painted onto a pane of glass or plastic. The dyes work together to absorb light across a range of wavelengths, which is then re-emitted at a different wavelength and transported across the pane to waiting solar cells at the edges.
In the 1970s, similar solar concentrators were developed by impregnating dyes in plastic. But the idea was abandoned because, among other things, not enough of the collected light could reach the edges of the concentrator. Much of it was lost en route.
The MIT engineers, experts in optical techniques developed for lasers and organic light-emitting diodes, realized that perhaps those same advances could be applied to solar concentrators. The result? A mixture of dyes in specific ratios, applied only to the surface of the glass, that allows some level of control over light absorption and emission. "We made it so the light can travel a much longer distance," Mapel says. "We were able to substantially reduce light transport losses, resulting in a tenfold increase in the amount of power converted by the solar cells."
This work was also supported by the National Science Foundation. Baldo is also affiliated with MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics, Microsystems Technology Laboratories, and Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies.
Mapel, Currie and Goffri are starting a company, Covalent Solar, to develop and commercialize the new technology. Earlier this year Covalent Solar won two prizes in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. The company placed first in the Energy category ($20,000) and won the Audience Judging Award ($10,000), voted on by all who attended the awards.
Durable Prosperity and the Eco-Industrial Revolution
Finding Durable Prosperity
Is there such a thing as sustainability? As a person who has long been concerned about the environment, I believe there is a need to rethink the concept, to better define the true mission statement required to attain a healthier more naturally balanced world.
Sustainable means "capable of being kept at one level; maintainable." The problem with sustainability as a buzzword is that nothing stays the same in nature. The natural world is described by a dynamic which is ever changing. Nothing can be sustained. Nothing is static. The world can only change. In regards to the quality of life for the inhabitants of this planet, there can only be change - for the better or for the worse. It cannot remain the same.
We as humans are a powerful natural force for change. How we go about bringing this change relates directly to whether the outcome is for a better world or a degraded one. Cynics will say, it doesn't matter how we act. If we don't take the most selfish actions, providing the most immediate short term gains, then we are fools because someone else will. Yet, this point of view is beyond cynicism, it is self-serving denial, making pathetic excuses for destructive behavior. If we deny the importance of taking responsibility for the outcomes of our actions, then we are likely to be self destructive, poisoning our own environment, laying waste to our own nest, and dragging down the rest of the natural world as well.
So if "sustainable" is an unrealistic expectation in a world where change never ends, what is the healthy optimal mission for humans. What is the right way to live, that avoids suffering, and assures that the results of our initiatives build and strengthen, instead of tearing down, the fabric of this incredible world?
Instead of "sustainability" how about if we talk about prosperity. Prosperity is the condition in which nature, including the humans, can thrive, be nurtured, be fulfilled, bringing forth a cornucopia of healthful results for the whole natural order. Prosperity is continuous change for the better. More health, more education, more wisdom, more fulfillment, more caring, more connection, more enlightenment, more beauty, more hope, more finesse, more richness to life.. Along with these increases we can look for ever more appropriate use of materials, an ever lighter footprint upon the earth, and a way of living that is integrated with nature rather than at war with it. Out of this "light on the earth" approach to living, will inevitably come rising standards of living for humans and a healthier world for all of the inhabitants of this planet which is, after all, our total life support system, our only home.
If we can imagine this kind of prosperity, perhaps we can continuously set out to attain it. Then, should we undertake this mission, perhaps we can find durable prosperity, in which we use our creative powers to bring about continuous change for the better.
There is no question that we have influence in the natural environment. We bias the outcomes at every step. What we do every day is important. Our intention or our obliviousness changes the world. What if we were to start taking full responsibility for the creative power which is our legacy? What if we simply accept that not only must we change the world, but that we must make it better?
History shows that "golden ages" occur from time to time in which durable prosperity abounds and results in a flowering of human potential. Can we have this happen in our times? Yes we can. We can have durable prosperity by unleashing the creativity of the people, by encouragement and education - by challenging ourselves to meet or exceed our highest standards. Then, if our creativity is interwoven with responsibility for the elements of nature that we have influence over, a flowering of human potential in balance with nature will inevitably arise.
This dream of our highest nature is as much a part of being human as the nightmare of humankind as the scourge of the world. So, who determines which aspect of our nature rules? We do.
In Hawaii, it is said, "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness." Roughly translated this means that the prosperity of the land and our community to which it is inseparably attached is assured when we do the right thing. The opposite is also thought provoking.The prosperity of the land and community is destroyed by doing the wrong thing. The question we have to ask ourselves is which way do we want it to be? That is our choice.
What is an Eco-Industrial revolution? Ecology is essentially the study of all of the ways that natural systems are inter-linked and interdependent. We are a part of these systems. Everything we do has repercussions, either positive or negative, in the matrix of our world. These repercussions do not simply radiate out from us, but come back in a constant feed-back loop. In this way the rest of the natural word provides us with signals and information about the effects of our actions and decisions. Lately, the contents of much of this feedback has been alarming, to put it mildly.
At this point in human development, our industrial and household systems are overwhelming much of the world’s interdependent biological, atmospheric, marine and soil ecologies. The evidence for this is coming from every direction. The contamination of the biosphere – land, water and air – is signaling an oncoming threat to our ability to inhabit the Earth. What started as a slow accumulation of disparate signs is now moving toward an avalanche of scientific and observational data that is simply impossible to ignore.
To address this potentially catastrophic problem we need to reorient our human activities to be more aligned with nature as opposed to conquering it. We must cultivate a culture of conservation and habits that eliminate wasted energy and materials. We must consider all of the costs of our technologies including the loss of the functioning of living eco-systems and those of the natural world that sustain life. We must develop the technical means that will provide for our needs and a high standard of living, without disabling the healthful functioning of the planet. By doing this we can enable a durable prosperity that does not contain the seeds of its own destruction.
Wherever you look today, it is easy to find the negative side-effects of the first industrial revolution that began in the 1800s. The harnessing of both the energy and the chemical feed-stocks needed for materials production, plus the evaporation of volatile chemicals such as gasoline and industrial solvents, (all of which, are derived from carbon based fuels such as wood, coal and petroleum) are a present and growing threat.
Look at any distant horizon and you will see an encroaching haze. For those who have traveled the world and looked from the windows of airplanes, this yellowish haze blankets all of the world north of the equator (the centers of the first industrial revolution) and is gradually spreading southward to the lightly industrialized half of the world.
Sulfur compounds, soot particles, and a mixture of chemical compounds released from the burning of carbon fuels and the vaporization of chemicals, are mixed and combined in the atmosphere with the addition of intense ultraviolet energy from the sun. This is a cauldron of unintended chemistry. The resulting vaporous compounds and particles are eventually distributed by the winds and blanket the earth. The rains then wash a fraction of these compounds to the ground creating pollution of the soil and water. Many of these chemicals are highly toxic to living organisms and along with the less toxic, but cumulative effects of others, are causing a disruption to the ability of biological organisms, including humans, to sustain healthy life.
Ozone holes that increase skin cancer and blindness, acid rain that kills forest, plants and aquatic life, acidification of the oceans due to carbon dioxide releases resulting in massive die-offs of coral and the life it supports, creation of huge dead zones in bodies of water as a result of agricultural pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer run-off, the list goes on and on. The mass extinction process that is underway has caused the modern era to be named the Anthropocene (anthropo=man; cene=era), because it is so completely dominated by the activities of man.
Walk any beach that is not regularly cleaned and you will find it strewn with the rubble of industry and careless consumerism. Plastic items such as bottles and packaging, fishing nets and lines, shopping and trash bags, broken parts of discarded products, and unidentifiable bits, too numerous to catalogue, are ending up in the world’s oceans and strangling the marine ecosystem with vast islands of floating plastic rubbish derived from the short-sighted vision of an economy based on disposable products that are also not easily re-absorbed by natural forces.
And these are only examples of the problem that we can see. Most of the harm that is occurring can only be detected by specialized equipment in the hands of highly educated technicians and scientists.
Left unchecked, these trends will make the world uninhabitable. Our sources of food will be severely curtailed as will our ability to sustain health, because our hormonal and neurological systems will fail under the building chemical imbalances created by the industrial revolution. Compromised hormonal systems lead to reproductive malfunction and cancer along with many other maladies. Compromised neurological systems lead to diseases of the mind and nervous system which will ultimately compromise our physical abilities and our intellectual capacity to imagine and implement solutions to this threat.
These trends have already been identified by researchers. No one will be safe from their effects. No amount of money will be able to shield individuals, families, communities or nations. The rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, without any possibility of sanctuary, are being poisoned by the unintended consequences of industrialization.
That is why we must act now, before we lose the intellectual and physical abilities to undertake the necessary actions to restore healthy functionality of the infinitely interdependent world that we inhabit. No matter what your political or environmental views, the building body of facts support taking remedial action before it is too late.
These corrective changes cannot be brought about by government or industry alone. This must be an undertaking of the entire human community and its effects must reach and change our behavior, down to the youngest child. In all of human history, “united we stand, divided we fall”, never had a more urgent meaning.
What Can We Do?
When I was a child I lived on a hill overlooking a magnificent river. The river was wide and lined with trees and was beautiful to behold. However, upstream were numerous towns that had developed during the 19th and early 20th century. Unchecked industrialization including the wholesale dumping of chemical wastes into the water had turned this waterway, which had once teemed with life, into a toxic wasteland despite the fact that it was a tidal river that was rinsed daily. The accumulation of, floating, oily wastes actually made it possible for a fire to be ignited on the water’s surface. Recreational use had become impossible.
Finally in the early 1960s, the communities along the river decided to take action to restore the river and its eco-system. By closing down all sources of river pollution, and taking other cleansing remedial actions, over a twenty year period, the river was restored to the point that it became a center of water recreation and a source of fish.
This demonstrates the value of remediation efforts by individuals and communities and can be extended to nations and the global community. Of course, this river reclamation project took decades to make a noticeable difference, but twenty years is not a long time in the greater scheme of things. The problems discussed here will certainly take that long and more to correct and require huge amounts of economic resources. On the other hand, the benefits derived from restoring the inheritance of future generations is beyond any economic system of valuation.
It is also important to note that all effects of the industrial revolution are not negative. During this extraordinary period of development the flowering of human potential has been widely demonstrated. The organization of human intellect, creativity and material resources has lead to a much higher quality of life for billions of people than would have otherwise been possible. Now we must turn these positive human capabilities in a new direction.
This direction, the Eco-Industrial Revolution, will seek and develop ways to:
Power our material needs by harnessing clean energy sources to the production cycle and for household consumption.
Clean and remediate the damaged and polluted environment, by turning waste into valuable products.
Develop rational products by designing the entire product lifecycle with the goal of the minimization of wasted energy, wasted materials and zero unintended consequences.
Update the educational system to include the necessity of human responsibility for stewardship of the planet. In particular, the users of products, the engineers and managers must be educated to this necessity.
Develop a culture of efficiency and zero-waste that encourages the reduction of the materials and of the energy-use required for the maintenance of a high standard of living.
Eliminate the bureaucratic, structural impediments to making these changes. Educate the bureaucracy and the politicians to the necessity of formulating new regulations that allow and encourage this new direction.
Update economic theory by including all costs to our foundational biological systems.
Develop an industrial model that does not depend on the churning of vast amounts of virgin materials but maximizes recycling instead.
Develop an economic system that encourages the development of long-life, modular, updatable durable goods such as automobiles, equipment and computers. The revenues from updating and servicing of such equipment, will replace those lost from reduced manufacturing.
Set ambitious goals to achieve these changes and award substantial prizes to those whose creative and technical efforts demonstrate the way forward. Make these intellectual achievements public domain.
Seek leadership within the communities of teachers, engineers, managers, politicians and entrepreneurs with the capabilities needed for leading this revolution.
Identify and expose people and organizations whose short term career and economic ambitions stand in the way of the movement toward a healthful, durable prosperity.
Use the internet to establish independent citizen movements to monitor the activities of individuals, corporations and governmental organizations and to reward the responsible innovators with commendations and to penalize the irresponsible with boycotts and legal actions. Organize support for responsible political leadership.
Harnessing Clean Energy Sources.
In order to engage in a useful discussion of this topic, certain fundamental concepts about the dynamics of energy are required. In order to make these concepts clear to those who are not technically trained, easily understood descriptions of how energy flows, is transformed and stored are a necessary foundation.
Energy, in its essential nature, is a flow or a store of force that can be applied to useful functions. These functions are useful because they provide us with
Strength and capability beyond our muscle power (power tools, transport vehicles, etc.)
The useful transformation of materials to our purposes (cooking, refining metals, manufacturing of materials and products, building homes, etc.)
The means to overcome limitations of the natural physical world (lighting, heating, telecommunications, etc.)
Early in human history, the value of extracting the energy, by burning, that is stored in natural materials such as wood and other combustible substances became clear. Being able to survive in the cold, to cook and tenderize food, and to keep predators at bay were fundamental advantages of fire that anyone could understand.
Fire or combustion, the most fundamental of energy extraction processes is still the primary means of harnessing energy in the world today. We use the heat from burning naturally grown, extracted or gathered materials such as wood, petroleum, coal, and natural gas to drive electrical generators, industrial processes and the manufacture of useful products.
The reason that we have developed this combustion technology to such a high degree is that it is easy to understand, straightforward in its use and easily integrated into our economic system which is essentially a market economy driven by supply and demand. These naturally occurring fuels are also easy to store for prolonged periods and have very high energy content per unit of weight.
In a world with a relatively small human population, the side effects of combustion, such as air, water and earth pollution, were overlooked because more immediate threats to survival were avoided. Today with billions of people wanting to have all of the advantages that the control of energy brings, it is these side effects that are becoming a threat to our survival.
To overcome this threat will require more sophisticated approaches to harnessing the energy of the natural world. Instead of releasing the energy stored over eons in combustible materials, we must learn to tap into and store the enormous energy flows generated by solar and gravitational forces. These enormous forces, flowing all around us, contain more energy in a day than the world uses in a year.
Solar energy includes light energy, thermal energy, wind energy, and wave energy. Gravitational energy includes tidal energy and geothermal energy. Hydropower is a combination of solar and gravitational energy. These forms of energy-capture and transformation do not create chemical contamination of the natural world. We will not run out of solar energy unless we block the sun with air pollution (which has already begun; see Global Dimming in Appendix). We will not run out of gravitational energy as long as the solar system and our planet exist. Once we have made this technological transformation, we are energy-secure, with supplies that will never run out. This is the first pillar of a durable prosperity.
We can generate heat and electricity from the sun, from geothermal forces and from tidal flows. However, in order to have reliable access to these benefits, we also must be able to store energy to overcome periods where these natural energy flows diminish or disappear altogether. Without storage technologies, we cannot replicate the benefits of releasing energy by the combustion of extracted materials.
A compelling advantage of utilizing combustible natural substances is that the energy stored in most hydrocarbon fuels does not self-discharge. (Self-discharge is the natural dissipation of stored energy.) This means that very long term storage, without loss is possible. Nearly all other forms of energy storage self-discharge their stored energy over a period of days, weeks months or years. There are exceptions to this, but understanding these requires the realization that ultimately energy is not an end in itself, but is applied to provide a valuable end product.
It takes energy to run a machine to wash clothes. When the clothes are clean, they are a functional form of energy storage that does not self discharge until we use the clothes. If we use energy to extract and refine metals, the metals become a store of the energy required in their manufacture. The energy stored in durable, refined materials does not self-discharge except over a very long period of time. If we build a house that is useful for 500 years (not uncommon in Europe), the energy used in manufacturing the materials and building the structure are stored in the house. The rate of self-discharge of this energy is very slow. Only the long term natural forces of corrosion, erosion and chemical breakdown or the destruction of war can release it. The more energy we can store in these end-uses that do not self-discharge, the less energy we need to store in costly self-discharging storage devices.
In a self-discharging storage device, a certain predictable percentage of the energy is lost over time. For instance, many batteries that store electrical energy will lose 3% to 15% of their energy per month even when they are not connected to anything. Energy stored as heat or cold self-discharges in a matter of days, despite the best insulation available. The faster the self-discharge rate is, the more advantage we get from utilizing the stored energy quickly. In many cases, when clean natural energy sources are available at the time when we need them, we do not have to store the energy at all. We can use it as it comes. Taking short-term storage out of the energy-use system is, of course, the least costly way to use these renewable energy sources.
Short term energy requirements that are well-matched to short-term storage include lighting, heating, cooling, appliances for entertainment and communications, power tools for the home and industry, etc. To have reliable access to these at a convenient time requires energy storage. This type of energy storage is available in many forms, but inevitably has the cost of some amount of self-discharge.
Speaking of cost, matching the costs of the means of storage to the function is critical in determining the best way to meet our energy needs. Two ways of accomplishing low cost storage are first, to store energy as its end-use function, such as cold or heat or in finished materials, which reduces losses that are inevitable in converting one form of energy to another (such as electricity into cold ) and second to store the energy close to where it is required to reduce transmission losses.
For example, solar energy can be converted to electricity during the day to power refrigeration. If the cooled items in the refrigerator are kept a bit cooler than is normal, then this cold can be stored overnight without further energy, because at night the ambient temperatures are cooler and the refrigerator is not opened after bedtime. This means that no battery is required to store electricity to run the refrigerator during the night.
Energy efficiency is a complex topic that by its self could fill volumes. I will try here to give some simple examples of how it is calculated in order to demonstrate the fundamental principles. I will not use exact figures, but instead will make approximations that can yield useful results.
Let us say that at a certain place in the world the amount of solar energy that reaches a surface the earth that is perpendicular to the sun’s rays, on a clear day at noon time is equivalent to 750 watt hours (wattHr) per square meter ( wattHr = watts generated in 1 hour). On this square meter, we place a photovoltaic (solar-electric) panel that is 20% efficient. However since the sun’s energy varies over the daylight hours we have made measurements that give us an average of 4 peak hours of sunlight per day. We calculate the energy actually generated in this way:
750 wattHr x 4 (peak hours) = 3000 wattsHr/day = the total energy falling on the 1 square meter panel.
At 20% efficiency of the solar panel,
3000 wattHr/day x .20 = 600 wattsHr/day of electricity generated
This is not much energy, so let us use 10 square meters of panels to provide us with a useful amount.
Then we have:
600 wattHr/day x 10 = 6000 wattHr/day
If we use this energy directly we have perhaps 1% losses in the wiring, so
6000 wattHr/day x .99 = 5940 wattHr per day of electricity generated and delivered.
If we convert this electricity from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) in a device called an inverter that is 90% efficient, then
5940 wattHr/day x .90 = 5350 wattHr/day of electricity generated and delivered.
If we use this energy to power an AC electric refrigerator whose motor uses 150 watts per hour if it is running continuously and is on 50% of the time over a 24 hour period, then it requires:
150 wattHr x .50 x 24 hours/day = 1800 wattHr/day
Normally a refrigerator is operational for 24 hours per day but it can be set to a slightly lower temperature that results in an average energy use of 160 wattHr instead of 150 wattHr. It can then be turned off for 12 hours during the night with a timer. In this case the refrigerator uses:
160 wattHr x .50 x 12 hours/day = 960 wattHr/day
We can see that by running the refrigerator at a slightly colder temperature, we have stored the electricity as cold and have saved:
1800 wattHr/day – 960 wattHr/day = 840 wattHr/day
Now let’s say that our refrigerator is 85% efficient and we replace it with one that is 90% efficient and again we put the refrigerator on a timer to run only 12 hours/day. This yields a savings of 5% of the energy used by the less efficient model:
960 wattHr/day x .95 = 912 wattHr/day energy used
960 wattHr/day x .05 = 48 wattHr/day savings
On an annual basis this would be:
48 wattHr/day x 365 days = 17,520 wattHr/year energy saved.
This is enough savings to run the refrigerator an extra
Now, if we were to run our original refrigerator for 24 hours, then we must store that solar energy in a battery for use when there is no sun. This means that at least 50% of the energy used would have to go through the battery system which has an in/out efficiency of 90% at best. This means that:
1800 wattHr/day x .50 = 900 wattHr/day
This half of the energy use that comes from storage in a battery requires an extra 10% of generated energy to make up for the losses in the battery system so it requires:
900 wattHr/day x 1.10 = 990 wattHr/day
990 wattHr/day – 900 wattHr/day = 90 wattHr/day extra, or
1800 wattHr/day + 90 wattHr/day = 1880 wattHr/day
Now our costs of running the refrigerator for 24 hours/day instead of 12 hour/day have risen to:
840 wattHr/day + 90 wattHr/day = 930 wattHr per day extra.
So by choosing to run our refrigerator for 12 hours a day at a colder temperature, we are using
960 wattHr/day instead of 1890 wattHr/day - a savings of nearly half.
By storing the solar energy as cold instead of in a battery we save energy because of the battery’s in/out losses. That does not take into account the lifetime costs of saving energy in a battery. Commonly used batteries in such systems have a cost of about $0.15 per 1000 wattHr stored, so we are saving this cost by not storing energy as electricity. This means that we need a smaller battery system which also saves money. It also means we need fewer solar panels to power our house, a considerable savings.
I have chosen a refrigerator as an example because refrigeration is one of the largest energy users in a household. Our 10 square meters of solar panels are generating 6000 watts per day of electrical energy with an actual delivered amount of 5,350 wattHr after wiring and AC inverter losses. Our refrigerator is only using 960 wattHr/day. That leaves:
What are we going to do with all of this extra energy? Maybe we need a smaller system.
Actually these calculations are based approximations of the solar system that powers my personal home which is set up for one person + occasional guests. I don’t have ten square meters of solar panels, but I do have ten 120 watt solar panels that deliver
10 x 120 watts x 4 peakHours = 4800 wattsHr/day on average.
I run all of this energy through a 90% efficient inverter to get AC so this yields me on average:
4800 wattHr/day x .90 = 4320 wattHr of electricity per day
My refrigerator uses about 650 wattsHr/day. There is more than enough left over to run the laundry, the computer, the 32 inch flat-screen TV, the DVD, the microwave, the lights, my power tools, and miscellaneous things like cordless phones, stereo systems, electronic musical instruments and amplifiers, etc.
Even when my system yields substantially less energy on cloudy days, by postponing laundry, I almost never need backup power. If I try to time my clothes-washing to periods when my batteries are fully charged and the photovoltaic panels are producing a surplus beyond my immediate needs, it is equivalent to utilizing free energy, since my charge controller would otherwise turn the solar power off to avoid overcharging the batteries. In other words by storing energy in the function of clean clothes, I get a higher yield of energy even though I have not paid for a larger system.
But the greater issue here is that by understanding efficiency and how to maximize energy yield by utilizing the most advantageous strategy for storing and deploying the energy that we have available, there are huge savings of energy and equipment to be had. And, by the way, this is also true if you get your energy from the electric company. There are many other good uses for surpluses of energy. Heating water, releasing hydrogen gas from water for cooking and drying clothes, powering ethanol distilling appliances, or storing it in batteries that power transportation are all practical ways to store surplus energy.
The Production Cycle
This part of the revolution is already underway. The dawn of a new age of material demand from billions of people seeking the comfortable standard of living enjoyed by most inhabitants of the developed countries is now upon us.
We have a choice to make. We can either reduce the inputs to manufacturing, reduce wasted energy, or we can have unending wars in a struggle for the control of diminishing resources.
Of course, rationally, war makes no sense because the amounts of resources expended for war cost more than those required to reduce the waste that our present system is founded upon. This reckoning has to include the vast amounts of lost energy for powering the war machines. Even more costly is the waste of human lives and potential, the destruction of infrastructure (which also is a store of materials and energy) and the psychological trauma inflicted on individuals, communities and nations which often reduces the prosperity and progress of the community - sometimes for many generations, even centuries. History shows that as a result of war, the bitterness and desire for revenge from the vanquished communities can prevent peace and any kind of durable prosperity.
By my reckoning, even if war can be justified to prevent criminals and psychopaths from taking over the world, a society that is supposed to be founded on the love of freedom and justice can never, without being guilty of the ultimate in hypocrisy, resort to the wholesale destruction of societies because it is too lazy to organize itself in order to minimize waste. Such behavior is the kind of criminality our society claims to abhor.
The level of waste in our current industrial model is huge. 100% of the material and energy utilized in the production of non-recycled goods is wasted. Refined materials are actually not just a store of the materials, but a means of storing energy, as well.
One of the complaints about the use of renewable energy has been that because of its variable availability, a means of storage is required to make it economically viable. If we can make the jump to understanding that energy is stored in durable processed materials, we can begin to understand a strategy that is viable right now. We can start now by storing energy in recycled materials and if we have a surplus of refined materials we can be stockpiling them for the future.
These stored materials can become the foundation for a medium to long term futures market that can generate revenues needed for the maintenance of these materials storehouses. Since the growing demand will last for the foreseeable future, these materials can only increase in value, so this strategy is like money in the bank.
We already have a model for this in the U.S. Strategic Petroleum reserve which is a government program to purchase petroleum and store it in huge underground caverns in the event of war or other disruption to energy supplies. It’s an insurance policy against catastrophic disruption. With the bulk of this petroleum purchased at less than $30 per barrel for a product selling today at $120 per barrel and with more than 750 million barrels now in storage, there is no doubt that it has been a good investment.
If such a program specifies the amount that is to be invested on a fixed schedule, it incorporates a strategy known as dollar-cost-averaging. This financial investment strategy insures that the value of the entire stored stock (the averaged purchase price) is always less than the highest price experienced during this same period, because more units are purchased when costs are low, than when they are high. When prices are higher than average, a portion of these materials can be cashed in, in order to pay the expenses of storage. The building of these stockpiles can also reduce the volatilities of the market price for these strategic materials and reduce short-term, frenzied speculation in commodities which is very economically disruptive.
This model must now be carried forward to all types of materials that act as long-term (no self-discharge) energy storage. Clearly this applies to recycled plastics, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, brass, silver, gold, chromium, silicon, etc.
This can become a profitable business that does not require government programs. Or we can create a new materials-based currency system that is founded on a mix of such durable feed-stocks. By doing so, we would simultaneously have a stable currency, while storing energy, storing materials, and promoting recycling and reclamation of waste. All of these outcomes would widely promote a stable economy and durable prosperity.
One aspect of all energy systems that is little understood by the public is that all energy systems are sized to match energy availability to energy demand. This means that the peak power output of these systems has to be much larger than the average demand (as much as 50% larger than peak demand). It takes up to 70% of the energy required for peak demand periods to keep the generators running during low demand periods (the generators cannot be completely shut down during low demand periods because it takes too long to restart them).
As a result, under many circumstances, in combustion powered generation systems there is actually a large surplus of power available. We are burning fuel to create electricity for which there is no demand. We must harness this wasted energy.
In the case of renewable energy systems, which also have this problem of often being in surplus, any means of putting the extra energy to work to perform useful functions that represent a storage of energy are highly desirable. Manufacture of finished materials, short-term storage of heat and cold, processing of chemicals and industrial feed-stocks are all useful energy storage approaches. To accomplish this will require smart energy systems that deliver the information needed to turn automated process controllers on and off in response to surplus energy availability.
Recycling refined metals, for example, requires a fraction of the energy required for the extraction and refining of metals from ore. This fraction can also be reduced by strategic placement of recycling facilities that can use concentrated solar energy to achieve economically advantageous returns from recycled materials.
Concentrated solar energy can produce very high temperatures sufficient to return used metals to a pure industrial feed-stock. Solar concentration systems are available now that generate enough heat to melt stainless steel. Metals such as aluminum, copper, brass and lead melt at a much lower temperature.
Facilities coupled to wind farms and other clean energy generators can use surplus power to process plastics back to virgin feed-stocks. New technologies, in development, that used tuned microwave energy to separate the constituent components of plastics, including lubrication and fuel-grade oils plus carbon and minerals, can also be powered by surplus renewable energy. Large regional installations can be purpose built for such activities. This means that only a small energy and logistics cost is incurred in order to ship the used materials for reprocessing.
Part of this process design will be the development of efficient schemes for collecting and separating recyclables. Much of this has already been demonstrated in European countries with elaborate recycling systems that are now in place. These systems must be systematically studied and the best of them offered as a model to the world.
Using surplus energy to recharge electric and hybrid electric vehicles is another great use of the surplus energy inherent in any energy system.
Harnessing Clean Energy Sources for Household Consumption
The cleanest energy is the energy that is invested and stored in very long-lived products. This saved energy is always less costly than the energy available in the future. The finite stores of fossil fuels, mineral resources and other material inputs makes it imperative that we organize their use in as efficient and durable manner as possible.
When new feed-stocks of ore, petroleum and the related costs of human energy are invested in products that are then buried in a landfill, it is a squandering of wealth the world can no longer abide. We can build much more durable products that maintain their value. And we can reprocess used materials at a fraction of the energy cost to create new materials.
Certainly in the area of housing, many European nations have demonstrated that practical building technologies can provide housing that endures for half a millennium and more. Such housing can periodically be updated with modern amenities allowing an adjustment for current tastes and technological advances, while preserving the store of energy and value in the infrastructure.
Once the original builders have passed into history, this housing becomes a store of energy, processed materials and wealth that passes down through the generations. When new housing does not have to be built for the current generation, resources can instead be invested in alternative means of improving the standard of living. Health care, education, culture, recreational facilities and support for realization of each person’s potential, spring to mind.
To provide clean energy for household use there are essentially two models – centralized systems such as we now use and distributed systems which generate the energy to be used nearby or onsite. Although distributed systems are only now beginning to be developed and widely employed, they are the preferred model for households, because they ultimately require fewer inputs of materials and the energy to process those materials. In the case of distributed solar-powered systems there is also the huge savings of energy, since no fuel is required other than light. Existing centralized systems can be utilized as a backup, when sufficient clean, locally generated energy is insufficient. These centralized systems will continue to be the practical solution for many industrial processes and can increasingly harness wind, solar, tidal, geothermal energy and other forms of clean energy.
Distributed solar energy systems for household energy consumption mean that we need to invest less in transmission systems than would otherwise be required for a growing population. Transmission systems lose on average 7-15% of the energy that flows through them, a substantial penalty.
Wherever there is a south facing roof in most countries, it is now possible to build a highly reliable and durable, low-maintenance energy system that collects the energy of the sun and provides electricity, heating and hot water. Soon we will be able to also power our transportation needs with this energy. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and fully electric vehicles are now in production planning.
Even in the countries of the north, such as Germany (now the world leader in solar installations), sufficient solar energy can be harvested to provide most of the household energy needs. Imagine, that your house not only generates electricity for appliances, lighting and equipment, but also sufficient quantities for powering your electric or ethanol fueled vehicle. The technical hurdles to achieve this have already been overcome. What is left is to invest in the rapid mass production of modularized, durable energy appliances.
In Britain, companies are already offering and installing gas-powered combined heat, hot water and electrical generating equipment that utilizes the wasted energy from household heating systems to generate electricity. The savings to end users are substantial. There is no reason, when new household heating equipment installations are required, to choose a more wasteful solution. Surpluses from these plants can be sold back to the power grid just as they can with renewable energy systems and energy costs go down. We can do this now!
Of course even better are energy systems that draw upon solar energy. No fuel costs, very long-life equipment, quiet, clean, low maintenance and much more reliable than the power grid.
The following is a description of the form that such mass-produced renewable energy appliances will take.
SunPacks - The Self-contained Integrated Renewable Energy System
This modular system will utilize standard photovoltaic panels with 200 wattHr peak output together with long-life, solid-state batteries (95% throughput efficiency and 20 year life) installed within the frame. The batteries will hold 15 times the peak wattHr output of the photovoltaic panels. For example, a 200 watt panel would store 3000 wattHr. The battery charging will be controlled by a programmable charge controller that will be integrated as a small plug-in block that can be exchanged in minutes.
These panels will be installed by means of quick disconnect, low-cost mounting hardware that will reduce installation costs to a very low level. There will be both ground and roof mounting options.
Also built into the frame will be a small true sine wave inverter rated at the panel’s peak output in watts (i.e. 200 wattHr at 120 VAC, surge to 400 wattHr) The inverter changes DC electricity from the batteries into standard 120 volt AC electricity. This will provide 15 hours x 200 watts of electricity with no energy input with fully charged batteries. The inverter will be able to be daisy-chained to adjacent SunPacks units in order to parallel the output in 120VAC wattHr. This will be made possible by plugging in a synchronizing, pass-through cable between the units. Thus, two of these panels will provide 400 wattHr, three will provide 600 wattHr, etc. up to 2400 wattHr (120 volts AC at 20 Amps) per circuit. Multiple circuits can be installed. The inverter will be a small block that can be plugged into the back of the panel. It can be exchanged in minutes with a new or upgraded unit.
Also built into the back of the panel will be a small but high power 400 wattHr battery charger connected to utility power. If energy supply from the panel runs short of demand when there is no or insufficient input of renewable energy, the charger can be activated to replenish the batteries. The battery charger will also be a plug-in block unit that can be exchanged in minutes if there is a failure or to upgrade to better technology
The system will have built-in lightning surge protection. All systems will be grounded with lightning rods.
The SunPacks energy panels will incorporate wireless instrumentation. The data from the panels will be sent to a small, wall-mounted, flat screen. It will be an attractive, backlit, color, interactive touch-screen with querying features. The Graphical User Interface will incorporate the look and feel of the Apple iphone. The data will include present voltage, amperage, and wattage data at all points in the system, automated alarms, troubleshooting, bypassing and reporting, as well as a historical view of energy generation and use patterns. Various options will be user-programmable including wireless appliance timers, system shutdown, data sent through email or internet, and remote control and monitoring via computer or cell phone.
Since they are modular, these systems can be used as uninterruptible power supplies, as power sources for camping or on boats or as complete home power systems. The integration of the all solid-state, no maintenance technologies will provide a product of unparalleled durability and prices that will continue to fall for the foreseeable future. This product will be the first product to technologically and economically challenge the centralized power grid.
The system will have a 20 year limited warranty on the panels and batteries and a 10 year warranty on the inverter, charger, charge controller and instrumentation. Extended warranties will be available. We will offer financing, and a monthly payment option at a rate below the utility electricity price. With the combined incentives of tax credits and global warming, this product will grow to encompass the world in the next 10 to 20 years. We expect this product to be one of the highest revenue generating products of all time.
SunPacks is a product that is currently in development by my company.
It is commonly stated in the press that renewable energy is not economically viable because it cannot compete with the convenience and low cost of fossil fuels. This is false. This point of view misses the central reasons for using renewable energy in the first place. There is a very high cost to using energy systems that destroy our health, our biosphere and the future inhabitants of the earth. When this is calculated in as a part of a combustion-driven energy system, renewable energy is dirt-cheap.
Claiming that renewable energy is expensive is also is a fundamental misunderstanding. Renewable energy systems do not match up well to an energy-use paradigm that includes a lot of wasted energy.
Renewable energy in its fundamental purpose is inherently linked to the conservation of energy. It is true that if we continue to waste energy as we do now, then trying to fill that huge hole into which we dump energy, is not practical using renewable energy. Only if we develop the means to make it straightforward for users of energy to see the amounts and costs of their style of energy use, can we have the high standard of living that we expect utilizing renewable energy. Fortunately with the information processing technologies that we have developed it is straightforward and cheap to accomplish the provision of real-time energy use patterns. We can use this information technology to eliminate wasteful practices and we can have a clean world from renewable energy and a high standard of living.
And by the way, distributed (onsite) renewable energy systems (especially those with storage batteries) have another major economic advantage. Because they not only generate the power but also condition it by the use of batteries and inverters, these systems allow the life of electrical and electronic products to be greatly extended. Those using electrical power from the centralized electric company are putting up with brownouts and high voltage spikes that are not very self-evident. This combined with blackouts which create even more destructive spikes when power is restored, are responsible for the short lives of many products. The savings from not having to prematurely replace equipment are considerable.
Clean and remediate the damaged and polluted environment, by turning waste into valuable products.
I can’t recall all of the details of the river remediation project near my boyhood home that I referred to earlier. I remember reading about it in local newspapers and it probably proceeded in the following manner.
To clean the river, the communities involved first had to prohibit the building of new facilities designed to use the river as a repository for waste. This put a cap on the problem and was a necessary first step in order to avoid sudden economic disruption.
Once this new restriction was in place, all existing sources of pollution had to be identified and quantified. This required the cooperation of all businesses and households. These entities were required to file a statement concerning all discharges into the river. Substantial penalties were put into place for non-compliance. Immunity from prosecution was secured by compliance. This restriction and identification process made the problem finite.
All of these businesses, homes and community sewers then had to be given a distinct period of time to bring their waste discharge into the river to an end. Each source, according to the quantity and severity of the polluting effect had to be assessed. In the case of the most dangerous chemical pollutants that represented a clear and immediate threat to the community, immediate cessation of discharge was required. These polluters were not compensated except to give them immunity from prosecution under new anti-polluting regulations.
All sources of discharge were given access to the best information about alternatives and were offered low-cost financing from the issuance of municipal bonds in order to facilitate making the necessary changes as rapidly as possible. Businesses that were not viable with these added costs had to close.
At the beginning of this process, the communities along the river were dying, due to the unpleasant sights and odors emanating from the river. Homes along the river had, in many cases, been abandoned. Young people were leaving and the quality of life was rapidly declining.
The river, cleaned up over a twenty year period, has become the focal point of community pride and recreation. Out of a dangerous mess created from the unregulated advance of industrialization came a new mission and hope for the future.
Forty-five years later, most of the polluting firms no longer exist. The mills along the river, made of picturesque, red brick, have been largely turned into housing and office space that has been the foundation of a newly vibrant community whose economy is based on services, information and entrepreneurial activities. The cleanup forced infrastructure to be turned to its best and highest use. This transformation was the byproduct of the river’s remediation. This is an example of how we can turn waste into valuable products. In this case the product was a re-born river community.
Of course, change always brings some disruption. Jobs are lost, but new ones are created. But it is not as if we can prevent change. By taking purposeful action, identifying problems and solutions, we are able to drive our destinies to new and improved conditions. This is the model for remediation of the lingering effects of unregulated industrialization. In the case of this river community, the benefits that can last for centuries far outweigh the costs of disruption.
Communities throughout the world now need to replicate this remediation effort. Pollution of air, water and soil must be curtailed. Alternative methods must be identified, financed and put into practice. The most successful of these alternative models must be documented and the information widely disseminated.
Other important remedial measures include developing the means to turn concentrations of discarded materials into useful products.
A good example is the islands of floating plastics clogging the oceans. In the Pacific, two of these islands, one in the northeastern Pacific and one in the northwestern Pacific each cover an area larger than the state of Texas. The circulation patterns of wind and ocean currents cause these floating polymer materials to move toward a central location, not unlike water swirling toward a drain. As a result, nature has actually acted like a sorting system, densely concentrating these materials in a specific location.
Unfortunately, these materials include a wide variety of plastics and in many cases any labeling system for identifying their type is no longer legible. Much of this material is broken into pieces and partly oxidized by the sun. It would not be difficult to collect this it.
Largely automated, slow-moving solar-powered ships could be built that could readily sweep this material up and reduce the volume by chopping, grinding and compacting the materials. Millions, perhaps billions of tons are waiting to be harvested. With the rapid escalation in the price of oil, plastics too, are experiencing unprecedented price inflation.
However, in order to reclaim this material economically, one of three methods has to be developed. These are:
A means for rapidly identifying plastic by type so that it can be sorted into useful feedstock materials that can be used by manufacturers
A means for reducing the plastic to it molecular components of oil and minerals (such technology is in development)
A means for combining mixed plastics into useful durable products such as building materials. Melting, mixing and forming these mixed plastics with solar energy can be easily accomplished. Roofing materials, for example are products that need the durability that these mixed plastics provide, without necessarily requiring much structural strength.
Another mother-lode of value awaits reclamation of the landfills that now can be found around the world. Centuries of wasted materials lay buried, creating a witches brew of toxins that are in many cases leaching into the groundwater. These landfills contain many valuable materials but are mixed up in a tangled mess of machinery, plastics, glass, biomass, dirt, stone, wood wastes, plaster, containers of every description, electrical and electronic products, discarded building materials, steel products, household and industrial chemicals, etc.
Since these materials are buried and shielded from the sun, they have a slower rate of degradation. But because they are creating many impossible-to-quantify mixtures of dissolved chemicals, minerals and vegetable matter into liquids that gradually sink into the ground, and can be extremely toxic, these materials have to be treated with great care.
Part of the underground chemistry is the production of gases that are flammable. In some cases these gases are being vented and burned to create usable energy. However, great caution is required here. First of all these gases are not something pure like methane or natural gas. They are a mixture of a wide variety of vaporized chemicals. Simply assuming that you can sink a pipe into a landfill, collect the gases and burn them is folly of the highest order. By doing so you are taking the accumulated waste of the entire industrial revolution and pumping it into the atmosphere. Because these vaporous compounds are not uniform, it is probably impossible to create a system to burn them without producing other toxic emissions.
It may not be possible to remediate these landfills using indiscriminate combustion technology. Also it will be extremely dangerous for humans to directly work with these poison mixtures. But machines can.
We must develop automated purpose-built mining machines that deliver these mixed materials to other machines that reduce these materials to their elements (carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, iron, copper, nickel, gold, silver, platinum, oil, minerals, etc. This is the only way to both eliminate the hazard and to reclaim these mixed materials. These refined materials then become industrial feed-stocks that can be used in the manufacture of rationally designed, recyclable products.
Such technologies are in development or available.
These technologies await the participation of visionary investors who will become the titans of the eco-industrial revolution.
Develop rational products by designing the entire product lifecycle with the goal of the minimization of wasted energy, wasted materials and zero unintended consequences.
New models for turning waste into valuable end products must replace the model of an endless mining of the earth to create new products with short lifecycles, only to bury them in landfills. Practical systems for recycling the materials in metals, plastics, glass, paper, household chemicals, batteries, motor oil and the refuse of our desire for an enhanced standard of living must be developed and supported with incentives and disincentives.
Standards that encourage the development of products whose full lifecycle costs to the environment are reckoned with must be the rule. Developing tax structures that reward manufacturers for building-in systems of recycling and re-use of the materials used in their products must be legislated. Those that fail to respond must pay the costs to society. Since all modern business education includes the principle that social responsibility is a part of good management practice, scoff-laws and free-riders in management ranks must be identified and relieved of their authority. Those taking their responsibilities seriously must be commended and promoted.
Bio-degradable materials must be developed for products with a short life that are impractical to recycle. Such products must be able to degrade into non-toxic or even beneficial compounds. This bio-degradation must be able to occur in response to light or water. Much of our durable refuse is ending up in the oceans in vast islands of flotsam and strangling the marine eco-system. Sea creatures accidentally eat some of this refuse, clogging their digestive systems resulting in starvation and disease. Others, especially the larger creatures such as sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, swordfish and marlin become entangled in it resulting in a gruesome death from starvation or asphyxiation.
This occurs far out of the sight of most of us but is affecting our futures in dramatic and growing way. Bio-degradable plastic materials should not be a difficult problem to solve. Harvesting the vast quantities floating plastics and turning them into useful products will be more difficult, but is a huge opportunity that awaits entrepreneurs and innovators.
Innovative companies that develop economic models for the re-utilization of recycled materials must be given access to low-cost financing, engineering expertise from the universities, and tax incentives that encourage investment.
Systems for the efficient local processing of recyclable materials must be developed and widely distributed. This equipment can be as simple as sorting and grinding or compacting equipment that reduces the volume of materials for cost-effective shipping to regional processors.
Modalities of labeling must be regulated, so that in the course of recycling, the removal of graphics and writing from products is easily accomplished, preventing the contamination by glues, inks and paint of recycled feed-stocks and reducing the costs of their processing..
More legible or machine readable systems for labeling plastics by type that allow automated sorting systems must be required. The same types of systems can be required for products such as batteries.
Development of all of these easily identifiable steps can be promoted by the use of prizes that can be offered to individuals, universities and business in a competition to identify, develop and demonstrate the best systems. These prizes can be offered by philanthropies, wealthy individuals and governments.
Steps such as these can help to make recycled materials competitive with virgin materials. This is a necessary part of the Eco-Industrial Revolution. If we encourage by regulation and incentives, the implementing of practical steps to remove the impediments to recouping the value in used materials, we take a huge step on the path to a future free of the negative and unintended consequences of providing for a high standard of living.
Another important area for attention is the use of chemicals in products. Recently, for example, it has come to light that a water soluble compound, Bisphenol A, which is commonly used in plastic water bottles, baby bottles, plastic water pipes and the plastic that lines metal food containers, is a pernicious toxin that is a particular threat to the healthy development of children. This ubiquitous compound has found its way, in trace amounts, into the bodies of most of the population and is a measurable component of human breast milk. Recent research suggests that this chemical may be causing an imbalance in the endocrine systems of children leading to an epidemic of obesity. Who knows what the long term negative consequences to adults are? By the time we discover them, it will be too late for many. This is an intolerable situation.
There are also traces of many other chemical compounds, including pesticides, medications and mercury compounds, now circulating in the bodies of most of the population. These substances are polluting our bodies by means of the food we eat, the beverages we drink, and from the air we breathe. The long-term consequences of this development are not difficult to foresee. Chronic illness, arrested development, and premature death are being promoted by such unchecked chemical pollution.
Sulfur compounds, carbon monoxide and many other byproducts of combustion are killing forests and other plant and animal life. Run-off from vast agricultural uses is polluting the waters of rivers and oceans. Carbon dioxide derived from combustion is acidifying the ocean and destroying the healthful functioning of the marine eco system. Carbon dioxide is also contributing to climate change bringing highly volatile weather, including violent windstorms, massive flooding and long-lasting drought conditions.
In order to address this problem of chemical contamination, we need to encourage the study and identification of the toxic effects of chemicals and their probable path of migration through the biosphere. We then need to evaluate the relative threats and contain them. Whenever a chemical performs a useful function we must compare it to other means of accomplishing the same end and mandate the use of the least harmful alternative. We must require standards for the technical evaluation of chemical’s effects on the biosphere and enforce laws on those who evade them.
Whenever we cannot quickly determine the toxic effects of chemicals we should err on the side of caution and limit widespread adoption of chemicals whose effects are unknown. When products are identified that can only be economically brought to market by the use of such dangerous compounds, we need to outlaw those products and those uses. Expecting the living systems of the earth to absorb increasing amounts of disruptive and toxic chemicals is a false economy.
In order to facilitate the development of the necessary knowledge and protocols, we must develop branches of chemistry that specialize in this critical task of risk management. Universities, philanthropies and governments have a big role to play in this. Only when we purposefully devote resources to this critical task will we be able to diminish this invisible and insidious threat to our health and well-being. It is probably the less costly alternative to ever rising health care expenses brought on by our dependence on poorly or non-regulated chemistry. It is impossible to quantify the value of the reduction of suffering that can be achieved by turning our attention and resources to this problem.
Update the educational system to include the necessity of human responsibility for stewardship of the planet. The users of products, the engineers and the managers must be educated to this necessity.
We cannot make these changes without educating the human population to the pressing necessity of altering our habits. Yes, a major part of the problem is our habits - not the lack of technical means, but our habits, developed over centuries as we have become accustomed to wasting energy that seemed so cheap during the development of the first industrial revolution. Now that the full costs of these wasteful habits are becoming evident, it is clear that their unintended consequences are not so cheap after all.
So we have a simple question to ask ourselves. Would we rather destroy our health, our lives (as well as the lives of our children, grandchildren, etc) and the life embodied in the living global ecology or will we modify our habits? Ironically, if we refuse to modify our habits, resulting in the destruction of our planet’s habitability, it will be simply a case of laziness and stubbornness. Can we allow this to be our legacy to future generations?
I believe that, this is perhaps the most difficult part of the problem, yet we certainly have the means to accomplish the necessary change. By developing curricula in the schools, by using telecommunications to undertake social marketing, and by providing sufficient resources to institutions of higher learning for the support of critical research and development, we can reach out to the entire human population and facilitate the dissemination of information, the persuasion and regulation required to bring about these changes.
Another part of this problem is that to many, including very well-educated people, these problems seem overwhelming. In the course of my life I meet many people from all over the world. I am seeing, wherever I go, that the preponderance of people feel that the solutions to these problems are not available or if they are will not be allowed by the vested interests that control the means of production. People are depressed. This depression about the state of the world is allowing many of these issues to go unchallenged except by a fringe element of activists who are often fundamentalist and fanatical instead of factual and practical. This allows the vested interests to easily thwart the arguments for change.
In addition to this problem is the fact that many of the people involved in the developments of the technological means for making these changes are, by nature, very technical in their orientation and are not necessarily well suited to the style of communication that supports general education and the social consequences of our energy and material-use habits.
This aspect of the problem can only be addressed by the function of Social Marketing. Most people are familiar with the concept of marketing products and services. However a new area of marketing, Social Marketing, is in the early stages of development.This branch of expertise seeks to market socially beneficial information.
Part of the Eco-Industrial revolution will require the rapid expansion of this field so that the population at large can receive the necessary information to both encourage the change and provide factual information on how to accomplish it. This will mean the widespread development of Social Marketing as a major focus of study in universities all over the world. The research, development and adoption of the most effective means of accomplishing this Social Marketing must be a priority. This knowledge must be widely promulgated and supported by governments, philanthropies, corporations and wealthy individuals. It must be understood that there is a direct economic benefit to this support, both in terms of the goodwill generated and the preservation of the vitality and durable prosperity of society that is the underpinning of all economic activity.
Information and focus on the necessity of these changes must also extend to the engineering and business schools. The people performing these important functions must be educated to the absolute necessity of their participation and to the importance of their roles in carrying out the functional work that can embed these changes in our economy and culture. The leadership and social responsibility required of these professions must be cultivated by curriculum development and incentives. Those grasping and implementing their responsibilities must be identified and publicly praised and economically rewarded. Those neglecting their responsibilities in these important tasks must be educated and, if necessary, relieved of their responsibilities.
Most people, as they mature, come to understand that they have not just rights, but also responsibilities. Responsibilities for family and friends, to some degree, are widely undertaken. Another responsibility that is just starting to awaken in human consciousness is the responsibility for maintaining and promulgating the health of the natural systems that are the foundation of a high standard of living. This responsibility includes the reduction of waste, energy use and pollution. Recycling, adopting renewable energy systems, energy conservation and minimizing the careless disposal of consumer goods, as well as, chemicals, medicines and other toxic substances are all a part of this responsibility.
In order for the awareness of these responsibilities to take root in the wider population, they need to be actively and publicly discussed in media and telecommunications outlets. The internet, television, films, radio programs, books and newspapers all have a major role to play. Not a moment too soon, it would seem, since, clearly, new focus is required to prevent these media from sinking into utter banality and irrelevance.
Here, the influence of producers, directors, actors, editors, program managers, advertisers and corporate media managers is absolutely indispensable. The subject of these responsibilities must be embedded in the sources of ideas, analysis, drama and discussion that surround us. These pressing problems are already being marketed to a worldwide audience. So the interest of the public has been aroused. This represents a huge opportunity for media to attract the attention of the public with minimal additional marketing outlays. In business parlance this opportunity could be seen as “low-hanging fruit” That is, it represents an opportunity to profit with low expenditures of resources.
Develop a culture of efficiency and zero-waste that encourages the reduction of the materials and of the energy-use required for the maintenance of a high standard of living.
Our human habits and predilections are not simply founded on economics or intellect, facts or pragmatism. They are also based on our tendency toward grounding our societies in distinct cultures.
Culture has its benefits in preserving traditions, binding communities together, inspiring education and high-mindedness.
Culture also has its problems. It tends to preserve the status quo, create tensions between communities with different cultures and limit the areas that are considered suitable for human engagement.
Culture can also be a rich field for corruption and can attract the ruthless who seek the control and exploitation of the population at large. Business, religious and political cultures are particularly prone to this anti-social behavior.
Those who exploit our fear, who gather large unearned and undeserved resources to themselves, those who engage in self-aggrandizement and corrupt strategies for consolidating their power are a threat to society as a whole. They are often aided and abetted by vested economic and political interests who are themselves corrupt and seeking to exploit the population in pursuit of personal power and wealth.
These people are a tiny minority of the population, but wield a disproportionate influence, promulgating and disseminating false reassurance and disinformation. Their ideologies, based on holding onto or expanding their ill-gotten gains are a major impediment to durable prosperity for the community as a whole. As long as we allow this to continue by supporting or averting our eyes from such practices we, and the rest of the natural world, will be victimized.
Part of the Eco-Industrial revolution has to include looking with fresh eyes at how our cultures enable this to occur. We want to preserve the best of our cultural traditions and at the same time identify and weed out, those who are using culture purely for exploitation.
Similarly, we need to look anew at culture as the foundation of our ideas for determining our responsibilities to our communities and our descendants and work to embed the necessity of stewardship for the foundational eco-system into our traditions.
In many cultures throughout the world these stewardship ideas are already prominent. This demonstrates that there is nothing inherent to human culture preventing us from adopting stewardship of the planet as a central cultural concept. The rewards of doing so are so great as to be nearly incalculable.
Those in cultural leadership positions in religion, politics and the arts must make a conscious decision to be leaders in this most important work. They must differentiate themselves from the exploiters and plunderers of our world by supporting awareness and the responsibility of every person for the gifts and treasures of nature.
Eliminate the bureaucratic, structural impediments to making these changes. Educate the bureaucracy and the politicians to the necessity of formulating new regulations that allow and encourage this new direction.
When one studies the history of the development of economic systems and technological revolutions, it becomes clear that certain patterns repeat themselves. Out of new technological advantages that are widely adopted by the public, come opportunities for wealth accumulation. The pioneering entrepreneurs who successfully overcome the competition are rewarded with the control of wealth and influence. This success creates a vested interest in maintaining that wealth and influence. To maintain these advantages, a portion of their resources must be devoted to preserving their position.
These resources are targeted, in part, to lobbying and influencing politicians and bureaucrats to create legislation and regulation that solidifies their advantage and prevents competitors from offering alternatives. This is accomplished by lobbying, co-opting and bribing officials with offers of jobs, status, or money. Laws and regulations that benefit the vested interests then become mandated by the government.
These are what I call structural impediments to change. They include expensive, time-wasting, permitting processes for technical permissions whose standards are well-established; regulations that include unnecessary materials or components; legal requirement to design products using more materials than are required for their useful functioning; requirements to use government-authorized contractors for work that is easily performed by licensed professionals or private individuals; and government mandates that require the purchasing of government-authorized services and products.
These corruptions appear on the surface to be in place to protect the public. Instead they protect the vested interests that lobbied for their embodiment in law and regulation and prevent capable competitors from providing alternative and less costly solutions.
This has become an extreme problem. We have a legal system to protect us from the depredations of scoundrels by means of recourse to the courts. Then we have a system of government mandates, supposedly to protect us, that instead, protect the scoundrels from having to face competition or the courts. The public is then victimized by this scam at every turn. We must urgently address this problem if we are to prevent a collapse of our foundational systems.
It may be impossible to completely prevent this because much of the backroom dealings are impossible to detect. However, we could develop over-rides to these structural impediments by embedding a principle in law of the protection of public well-being that could be invoked when these impediments are identified to have a deleterious effect on our foundational ecological systems and durable prosperity. Although the vested interests would be unhappy about their loss of control, in fact, they too will be the beneficiaries of a system that seeks to ensure the longer-term goal of assuring economic and social vitality.
In order to accomplish this we will need to roll back much of this legislative and regulatory corruption. This can be accomplished in part by the use of sunset laws that require all legislation to be reconsidered after a certain period of time. These problems are founded not only on a corruption of the intent of government but on compound errors that have many unintended and harmful effects. We cannot simply bury the problem in more rules and regulations. We have to unravel it and do away with laws and mandates that are counter-productive and serve only to protect or reward vested interests. We need to return control of disputes between businesses and individuals to the courts whose functioning has been co-opted by legislators and bureaucrats.
Another important problem is laws and regulations that fail to prevent what I call loop-holism. This is when laws and regulations contain an explicit vagueness that easily allows their intent to be circumvented. This is often not an accident, but an intentional ruse by lawmakers and bureaucrats to circumvent the stated purposes of the rules, while appearing to be in support of those purposes. We need to develop a specialized branch in the study of public management that quantifies these types of corruptions and develops antidotes. As long as we continue to allow vested interests to prevent beneficial change, we will continue to be harmed by this minority. Those in the legal professions with a commitment to social responsibility must take a leadership role.
The critical importance of those in leadership positions cannot be overstated. When ordinary people see those in positions of exalted wealth and power engaging in corrupt practices, it tends to make people feel stupid if they don’t mirror these practices. Thus spread the pernicious effects of loop-holism, careerism and corruption down to the ordinary people and the most disadvantaged of society. Those at the lower end of education, mental and physical health, and prosperity are the most likely to be easily influenced in the idea that deviant behavior, as expressed by the powerful is a right that they deserve as well. As long as we turn a blind eye to corruption by the powerful, we prevent durable prosperity. Attacking this problem, publicly and articulately is a fundamental necessity if we are to preserve and restore the healthful functioning of our foundational systems.
Update economic theory by including all costs to our foundational biological systems.
Current economic theory, while attempting to be useful is sometimes called the “dismal science”. Its practitioners are rarely able to make accurate and timely predictions about how the course of underlying economic dynamics will play out. Those of its practitioners, who are the most scientific and accurate in their understanding of these dynamics, call this system under which most of the world operates, a “market economy”. In this market economy there is an element of self-interest, which economists refer to as the “invisible hand”. This concept proposes that all people are essentially out for themselves and that this creates a self-correcting system as the many interests tend to be on average, in balance. In a perfectly just world, perhaps such a view would be accurate. If there were a way to prevent those with a large surplus of resources from overcoming the self-interest of those with fewer resources, then such a theory might be very useful. To be realistic, this is unlikely to happen soon under the ideology and practice of current economic theory.
Another limiting factor of this theory is that it fails to consider costs that our economic activities have on the foundational ecological systems of our world. When this kind of economic theory was proposed, the population of the world was relatively small. The costs and effects of conquering nature (long considered to be a goal of mankind) did not seem very threatening. This allowed economic theory to develop a model that assumed the resources of the world to be essentially infinite. It was founded on an unstated but implicit idea that an unending supply of materials could be extracted from the earth because when a resource became scarce or expensive market forces would lower demand, competition would offer alternatives and the self-correcting mechanism would play out.
In a perfect world, this would perhaps, be true. However in a world where powerful vested interests devote considerable treasure to preventing competition, and even more problematically in colluding with government to mandate the use of products and services, this self-balancing system that depends on innovation and competition is thwarted.
Thus, as the world population grows and more and more power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people, and nothing is done to balance the interests of the whole community, or to protect the systems of the natural world upon which our prosperity is founded, we are increasingly threatened by catastrophic disruptions of the balanced, healthful functioning of society and the world.
It is time for the dismal science to become a little less dismal. This can be accomplished by updating economic theory to consider the costs to the finite natural world arising from our systems of production and consumption. This is needed if we are to accurately assess the workings of the medium and long-term economy.
While it may be obvious that such a step should be undertaken, it is worthwhile to remember that vested interests want to keep their advantage and that updating economic theory to include these obvious costs will be seen as a threat to many of them. These interests will spend lavishly to prevent any such honest re-evaluation of economic theory. They will argue that it is not needed, that it threatens prosperity, that the building body of alarming information about the large-scale threat to our natural systems is a hoax perpetrated by a bunch of hypocritical “tree-huggers”. They will ridicule and seek to eliminate the rational voices crying out for an end to the destructive practices of our current economic system.
On the other hand, not all of the powerful, successful people are in support of this strategy. Many have made their fortunes in ways that don’t claim a very large penalty from the natural world. Many are very committed to their communities and their families. Many have a strong sense of social responsibility. Many have a conscience and a desire to have a positive legacy. These enlightened leaders of industry must demand that economic theory be updated to include all costs to our foundational systems. They must support economic research that shows the interdependence of prosperity and a full economic accounting for all costs. Those that do must be publicly supported, acclaimed and politically defended.
These individuals can also exercise their influence by forming associations and think tanks devoted to this effort. They can support universities, political groups, and citizen organizations. Such enlightened self-interest is the way forward.
These kind of changes will not happen overnight. It may take two decades or more of concerted action to integrate these changes into the system. The resistance will be substantial but the rewards of creating the foundations of a durable prosperity will be shared by all people including our grateful descendants who may look back on these initiatives as a turning point in history.
Develop an industrial model that does not depend on the churning of vast amounts of virgin materials but maximizes recycling instead.
In the economic practices widely in use today, the producers of commodities such as petroleum, coal, metals, lumber, and agricultural products utilize a concept called “economies of scale”. Simply put, this means that the larger the operation the less it costs to produce the product and therefore, the more profitable it is. Because producers of commodities compete in a world-wide market it is often difficult for them to set the prices of their products. There is too much competition for this to be possible. Only the low-cost producers can survive. It is the market demand that sets prices except in the case of surreptitious price-fixing and the open price-fixing of cartels such as OPEC. These facts encourage the establishment of huge operations for the extraction of raw materials.
Commodities have intermediate markets called commodity exchanges where these materials are bought and sold as contracts for delivery of a specific quantity of the materials at a specified date. These are called futures contracts. The buyers of such contracts rarely expect to take delivery, but instead are hoping to benefit from price changes that may occur before their contract date comes due. They then sell the contract, hopefully at a profit. These types of buyers and sellers are called speculators. They produce no useful material product. They do serve to create larger markets for commodities than would otherwise be possible, because their participation is a form of documentation of demand which enables firms to procure financing for ongoing operations or expansion.
In an economy experiencing rapid growth in prices, this speculation can sometimes turn into what is known as a “speculative bubble”. In such situations frenzied speculators jump into the market when it is demonstrated that huge returns can be made. This new influx of money, often by inexperienced, casual speculators often causes prices for these commodities to soar. This extremely is disruptive to the economy causing inflation of prices for manufactured goods, but its secondary effect is to cause enormous new investments in the extraction of materials, because the high prices cause profits for the producers to soar. This is now occurring in virtually every area of commodity production.
In order to insure a market for these new investments in production capability, producers have the incentives to encourage ever greater churning of material at an ever faster rate. This supports the rapid growth of an economy that is fundamentally supportive of wasteful practices. Unless more products can be produced that wear out quickly and are then dumped in a landfill, these ever expanding operations cannot be sustained. Fortunately for them, a growing population creates a growing demand for a higher standard of living and thus more products and the materials that make these products possible. Unfortunately for us and all life on this planet, the continual extraction, processing and dumping of materials will cause the mass extinction of life. This has already begun.
This cycle of speculation, materials production, and dumping result in another economic feature called the “boom and bust” cycle. It’s kind of like the child’s game of musical chairs. When the music stops, any players without a seat are out of the game. This continues until all but one are eliminated. So it goes, as well, with a speculation driven economy, except for the fact that most governments make sure that there is some competition remaining, by requiring some small minimum number of competitors. However these wealthy commodity producers are in a very strong position to influence governments with bribes, political contributions, or offers of high-paying jobs to strategically placed officials, their friends or members of their families.
These strongly engrained aspects of our economy create a system in which wealthy producers of refined commodities, such as metals, have an incentive to encourage waste in order to keep their enterprises afloat. Their huge investments in exploration, land and equipment can take 10-30 years to be recouped. If the demand for cheaper alternatives to their products rises, then their investments in extracting materials may not pay off. They certainly have an interest in discouraging the recycling of used materials that have a lower cost of production which for them is the most threatening kind of competition.
In the electric energy industry, which is also largely a highly centralized business with vested interests (large investments in long lasting equipment), the problem of how to address their disinterest in renewable energy sources has been the widespread introduction of renewable energy portfolio standards. These portfolio standards require that a certain percentage of their marketed electricity comes from renewable energy by a specified date. For example, 20% of their energy generation must come from renewable energy sources by 2020.
Such portfolio standards could also be put into place for the manufacturers of refined materials such as metals, plastics, paper, glass, silicon, etc. This method creates huge incentive to immediately start making investments in recycling or it forces these commodities manufacturers to face stiff competition from the ones that do. The first to market with a mix of new and recycled products that lowers the overall cost of the commodity has a big advantage.
Portfolio standards are more difficult to implement in a practical manner with refined materials. In the electric industry, their product is naturally purified. They generate and sell moving electrons, tiny particles that carry electric energy. All electrons, no matter what the source, are the same. Only the voltage and frequency (of AC) need to be regulated and that is easily accomplished with cost-effective electronic equipment that has been in use for up to a century.
For refined materials, the complication arises from the fact that often specific mixtures and formulations are specified by the engineers designing products for manufacturers. These mixtures contain a variety of elemental or molecular materials that that give the material specific strength, thermal or wear characteristics. Such specific materials can not be contaminated with other unwanted components.
The only way to cost-effectively accomplish portfolio standards with materials refiners is to require durable, machine-readable labeling of every manufactured part by manufacturers, so that it can be quickly identified and sorted. Then different manufactured pieces of the same alloys or formulations can be easily reclaimed by type and their return to a pure feedstock of that type is assured. This can start by addressing components with the largest stores of energy and materials and those with the highest value. Over time this can be extended to all manufactured components.
For complex components such as electronics, systems have to be developed that reduce these materials to their elemental form and then sort the elements by various means and forces and return these materials to the production stream. Many of these products contain highly valuable materials such as silver, gold, platinum, gallium, copper, etc. We need to engineer methods for extracting this value.
We also need to address the speculation problem, because it is partly responsible for excessive extraction that harms the earth’s foundational systems. Speculation is seen in current economic theory as an important function that on average has a beneficial effect. It promotes liquid markets by providing demonstrations of demand and future demand. It allows manufacturers to reduce their ongoing costs by utilizing predictive formulas to try to keep prices of refined materials and their average inventory costs stable.
It is only the phenomenon of frenzied speculation leading to boom and bust cycles and excessive production that is harmful. Means must be developed to govern this phenomenon. Regulating prices is not the answer, because that leads to imbalances that prevent competition, efficiency and good business practice. It also induces corruption as firms are compelled to find surreptitious evasions and black markets in order to survive.
A better approach would be to set certain limits on short-term commodities speculation itself. This could be accomplished by a special class of capital gains tax on commodities speculation. A 75% tax on commodities profits where actual delivery of the material is not taken would rapidly reduce this kind of speculation-driven feedback loop.
The revenues generated by such a tax could be explicitly tied to funding of programs that research and develop systems for recycling and reuse of recycled materials. This would reduce the volatility of commodities prices and at the same time reduce the amount of materials that would otherwise be extracted from the earth.
Create an economic system that encourages the development of long-life, modular, updatable durable goods such as automobiles, equipment and computers. The revenues from updating and servicing of such equipment, will replace those lost from reduced manufacturing.
In the midst of the first industrial revolution, a group of innovators from around the world founded the automobile industry. Certain approaches that developed in the course of the history of this industry can be seen as an example of the way industries founded on popular, widely-adopted, durable products (automobiles, home appliances, power tools, home heating systems, computers, TV…the list goes on and on) build the market for their products. What these products have in common is
Complexity – they are the integration of many mechanical, electrical, electronic and heating/cooling technologies.
Mass Production – these products have economies of scale that make them affordable to the masses.
Durability – an expected life of 3-20 years.
The industries founded on such products, in the early years, generally develop their products in stages.
Stage 1: Develop a working prototype that demonstrates the functionality of the product. This product is for evaluation purposes only and is not offered to the market although it is often one of the means of procuring further investment capital.
Stage 2; A manufacturing prototype is developed. This is an example of the actual product that will be initially offered to customers. The mode of manufacture is likely to be many custom (one-of-a-kind) units offered to the individuals and organizations who are willing and able to pay the high costs of this kind of manufacture. These early-adopters of innovative products provide resources that allow the finance of more efficient manufacturing methods. Which come at:
Stage 3: This is called limited production runs. Instead of each product being of unique, custom manufacture, now the company is setting up to make a small production run of identical units. The lower costs of this type of production allow a lower cost for the final product and this attracts more buyers. More buyers mean more revenues that can finance increasing automated production of large numbers of standardized, integrated products leading to:
Stage 4: Mass production, enabling the price to the consumer to be much lower, creates a mass market. This occurs as identical, standardized, products that integrate all of the technologies used in their manufacture into an efficient, durable and affordable package create the foundation for mass adoption of the product.
Solar energy systems for household use are the same kind of complex product. Most of the distributed household solar energy systems available to the market are stuck at Stage 2, a one-of-a-kind integration of a hodgepodge of functional components from a variety of sources. The manufacturers of these components have various ideas of what such products should be and the end result is that among the custom systems that come into being, a wide variability in performance, cost-effectiveness, durability and maintainability can be expected. The most robust and successful models do not become standardized in such a market of custom products because none of the large number of small manufacturers can assemble the financing to take it to Stage 3. If an industry does not advance fairly rapidly beyond Stage 2, negative word-of-mouth arising from the ample examples of poorly-conceived and assembled systems becomes a hindrance to growth. We need to get to Stage 4 in order to achieve wide-spread adoption of efficient, cost-effective, distributed energy systems.
This also happened in the early days of the automobile industry. Businesses that were not much more than glorified blacksmith/foundries started building automobile frames that included engines, transmissions, steering and suspension and wheels. Because nothing had yet been standardized, a very wide approach to mechanical design resulted in a very large range of possible outcomes for customers. These mixed offerings were bought by customers who in turn brought the finished frames to a coachbuilder who was employed to make a body for the car. This customer, unable to try the product in advance ended up with anything from total disaster, to elegant works of automotive art.
So it goes now in the business of distributed solar energy systems. The range of variability in the quality of installed systems is unacceptable if we are to achieve a rapid introduction and acceptance of these systems. In order to overcome this problem of over-promising and under-delivering, significant resources must be brought to bear on identifying the most practical, robust and cost-effective means of delivery high-quality, user-friendly products. The best solutions in the design of components and subsystems of these integrated systems must be brought together in integrated, modularized, mass-produced, high quality appliances in order to successfully integrate solar energy products into human expectations and acceptance.
This is an unprecedented opportunity for visionary investors with the command of significant resources. Right now nearly all investments in solar energy are being made in developing sub-systems many of which are already commodities, meaning that the manufacturers of such products do not control the market price. Instead the market controls the price. The real rewards will be found in the integration of these subsystems into a single product of exceptional quality available at a price that is only possible with mass production.
The Benefits and Problems of Mass Production
Clearly, the standard of living, desired my most people, is impossible without the economies of scale, the widespread availability, the user-friendliness and the affordability that mass production makes possible.
When we make such large numbers of products so that they are within the means of billions of ordinary people, this requires massive amounts of extracted and processed materials. Up until now, this has supported one of the main features of the industrial revolution – the churning of vast amounts of ores, petroleum, and minerals from the bowels of the planet. In the beginning the obvious amount that lay buried in the earth, made these resources seem to be infinite. This made the value of the materials in products at the end of their useful life, seem inconsequential and so we mostly have buried them in landfills. This must come to an end.
The needed and inevitable changes
We must purposely set out to develop a system of materials use that results in very little waste. This will save energy and lessen the negative effects of materials extraction and refining. The businesses that are now involved in these activities must be involved in the solution. They will need to adapt their mission to one that provides the needed materials at the lowest possible cost, including all costs to our foundational biosphere. This can be accomplished by devoting the resources to the engineering, logistics and processing issues that will yield the best results. Ultimately the mission is a twin mission of energy and materials conservation.
Manufacturers also have a role to play.With increasing demand and increasing costs will come the necessity to engineer more durable products. Revenues lost from the constant introduction of standardized products with planned obsolescence can be replaced with revenues gained from the servicing, upgrading and customizing of very durable manufactured goods. Ironically this is model developed during the early stages of the industrial revolution, when manufacturing technology was in its infancy.
This can be accomplished in part by designing modularized, sub-systems for complex products such as automobiles, computers, and durable appliances (including energy appliances). These sub-systems must be able to be easily maintained, updated or replaced using quick-disconnect technologies.
Quick-disconnect technologies include fastening systems that can be rapidly released; plug-in modules; and the engineering of access so that these modules are very quick and easy to remove and install.
If it took 15 minute to remove and install a vehicle’s motor, you would find that automobiles would easily extend their useful life. With the coming of electric vehicles it will be easier than ever to attain, practical modularized vehicles that could last for a lifetime.
A goal of doubling useful product life is easily attainable. This cuts in half the materials churning required to bring these products to market. The revenues lost from manufacturing, can be made up by servicing, upgrading and customizing modular systems.
Today, in some vehicles, if the engine dies, you might as well throw the car away. The same thing with washing machines, electronics devices, power-tools, etc.; if one difficult to replace part fails, throw it in the landfill. By incorporating the strategies of product life-extension, we can put a big dent in this problem.
Ultimately, the end-user is not buying an automobile, but transport miles to the expected level of performance, style and comfort. It is possible to start with a low cost basic version that can overtime be substantially modified with upgraded components. This has already been demonstrated in a large after-market industry to provide upgraded parts for automobiles that are modified for performance. This model needs to be expanded upon.
This will probably mean a per-capita down-sizing of the manufacturing sector, but this is inevitable as it is actually the best business practice to gain as much revenue from as few inputs as possible. The last several decades have been spent replacing a significant part of the labor force with robots, now it is time to turn that same conservative strategy to the reduction of materials-use and an increase in recycling.
Set ambitious goals to achieve these changes and award substantial prizes to those whose creative and technical efforts demonstrate the way forward. Make these intellectual achievements public domain.
In all of human history no better way has been found to stimulate creative solutions to problems than to offer incentives to those who achieve breakthrough ideas, products and systems. These incentives can include money, honors and acknowledgement. The Nobel prizes are a good model of prizes that are awarded after some pioneering work is successfully undertaken. Such prizes must be put into place to acknowledge, reward and honor the pioneers who develop the means and methods for pulling humankind back from the brink of extinction. There can be prizes for:
the development of renewable energy technology breakthroughs.
recycling technology breakthroughs
pioneering development of economic theory to include all costs to the biosphere
energy efficiency technology breakthroughs
energy and materials conservation breakthroughs
Other prizes can be offered to stimulate such work. The X-Prize ($10 million) which was offered for the first private entity to put man in space is an example. These large monetary prizes stimulate public interest and attention on very specific technological/economic problems. They seek to encourage technological development in a distinct direction.
Prizes such as these can also be offered to stimulate:
The development of automated recycling systems that allow sorting of materials by machines. Durable, machine readable labeling systems are the goal.
The development of the first photovoltaic panel to reach $1 per watt retail price while maintaining a 20 year guarantee.
The first battery technology to demonstrate $0.03 per kwHr stored over the life of the battery
These are just a few examples of rewards for technological-development milestones that could be offered.
Honors could also be given for those in the Social Marketing arena. Such things:
Best short educational program for building public awareness about the importance of saving energy
The one minute advertisement that has the greatest impact on protecting the biosphere
The most successful promotion to children of the importance of stewardship of the natural world.
These awards could be like the Oscars are to those in the film industry, or the Emmys are to the musical world. There can be an acknowledgement of those creative efforts in the marketing of socially beneficial ideas that really make a difference. By building a set of standards that grow ever higher we can reach out to the people of the world and get them to join in a truly global movement of stewardship of our shared biosphere and understanding that the only alternatives are a downhill slide into impoverishment, disease and extinction. As I see it, that is not a hard choice to make.
Seek leadership within the communities of teachers, engineers, managers, politicians and entrepreneurs with the capabilities needed for leading this revolution.
In the study of human history it can generally be demonstrated that the leadership for developing fundamentally new directions in society arises from a small percentage of the population. It seems that it does not take that many people to change the world.
What such people seem to possess is intelligence, education (often self-taught), a compelling vision and the commitment to see this vision actualized. Such a commitment can only arise when intelligence and education allow the development of a skill known as critical analysis or critical thinking. This ability allows the details of ideas as they play out in reality to be looked at in detail, before and after the fact. It is the application of education and observation to create scenarios that attempt to look at the future outcomes of present action. Critical thinking tries to identify obvious fallacies and to make correction before the fallacies become a part of our foundational systems.
Such fallacies (incorrect foundational assumptions) are widely seen in our world today. Not accounting for the full costs of our activities on the natural world is one of the most pressing of these fallacies and includes a wide range of human systems including economic, industrial and individual behavior.
To make corrections to these critical errors will require leadership from many directions. This leadership will dedicate itself to identifying the fallacies that threaten us and incorporating corrective measures into our underlying assumptions and most importantly into our human culture.
These leaders must come from many professions and walks of life. They will focus on their unique experiences and seek to exercise leadership where they have the most experience.
They must also form alliances of purpose that support the overall goals of correcting our foundational approaches to living with nature. Without these alliances, vested interests in opposition to change will be able to easily defeat any corrective actions.
Identify and expose people and organizations whose short term career and economic ambitions stand in the way of the movement toward a healthful, durable prosperity.
It has been widely demonstrated that any living species that cannot make adaptive change to the threats from its environment will perish. This ability to adapt to the ever changing conditions of nature has been one of the great strengths of the human species; but not always.
Throughout history are seen cultures that arise to large populations supported by substantial infrastructure and wealth only to founder on some critical fallacies and then disappear from the face of the earth. In the course of their downfall great suffering is experienced before the ultimate extinction. This is the fate that awaits the global human community if we cannot adapt to the self-made threats that we face.
In order to make these changes we need to understand the false assumptions and their roots in our behavior.
It is commonly acknowledged that self-interest plays a large role in the choices we make. However, there is clearly much confusion in this area, due to the fact that self-interest is made up of many subsets of interests which are sometimes in conflict.
In economics we see the idea that the average outcome of many self-interested behaviors will yield the best results. This is a fallacy. Although it may occur in situations where there is a population who share certain underlying cultural and ethical traditions, such self-interest driven economies topple into self-destruction when a large number of people take its most radical interpretation. That interpretation assumes that the most important thing is me and the most important time is now. It does not consider other life-forms, other people or even one’s own descendants, but instead, takes whatever it can get regardless of the cost, even to one’s own life-support systems and health. This is pathological behavior and must end. Strange as it may seem, this interpretation is a wave that threatens to inundate the world.
This behavior, a form of self-destructiveness, is unfortunately practiced by many wealthy, powerful and influential people. Many lower echelon people are influenced to take on the same beliefs of immediate, economic self-interest over all other issues. This unhealthy trend is an excuse for acutely selfish and anti-social behavior, including the mockery of ideas about stewardship of the planetary eco-systems. This fundamentally flawed approach to life is anti-scientific, irrational and very harmful to the healthy functioning of society and all natural systems. It tends to make excuses for behavior that is a threat to us all.
People holding such beliefs must be identified and either re-educated or held to account for the damage they do to the world’s living systems. We can no longer tolerate such dangerous behavior in the centers of power. Pursuing self-interest is a valid concept of one of the inherent human rights. With rights come responsibilities to the community, to future generations and to our biosphere. We must demand that from those in positions of power and responsibility and we must rebuild a culture that is based on rationality and best management practices (both short and long-term). Otherwise humanity itself faces extinction.
Use the internet to establish independent citizen movements to monitor the activities of individuals, corporations and governmental organizations and to reward the responsible innovators with commendations and to penalize the irresponsible with boycotts and legal actions. Organize support for responsible political leadership.
Today we have at our disposal a powerful tool for swiftly initiating and consolidating change in our foundational understanding and systems. The internet provides the means for coalitions of concerned citizens to both identify and monitor the behavior of individuals and organizations that exhibit anti-social, anti-life tendencies.
By organizing and bringing together the voices of millions, it is possible to overcome the forces of greed and irresponsibility. Simultaneously, those exhibiting social responsibility can be identified and held up as role models.
These internet based organizations can be a foundation for the development of an educational curriculum that embeds the functional social and ecological responsibilities into the equation of self-interest. This is the way forward.
Societies generally function as a balance of incentives and disincentives. A large part of the problem that we face is that the balance is skewed toward incentives. When incentives are the primary social force, there is a tendency for people to find loopholes that leverage the incentives and privileges. Ultimately, there has to be a cost to excessive evasion of responsible behavior. Building a mechanism to expose irresponsibility is simply a corrective mechanism that insures balance. As governments have largely come to serving the powerful, individuals must band together and make their voices heard
Some of the activities that can be undertaken by organized internet groups to develop and institute disincentives for irresponsible behavior are:
·To expose it with the goal of educating the overly self-interested individuals, businesses and governmental organizations to the costs that the public can impose upon them. Public scrutiny, loss of respect, and withdrawal of economic support are all powerful tools for bringing about change.
·To organize boycotts of products and companies
·To organize tax boycotts for irresponsible behavior by government
·To shine light on specific illegal, environmentally destructive activities
·To expose collusion and corruption that can bring the world to ruin
·To encourage, support and protect whistle-blowers who expose such activities
·To make alliances with legal authorities to identify legal remedies
These groups can also organize support for responsible political leadership. They can be active in supporting rational leaders who demonstrates the understanding of the over-riding principals of responsibility and stewardship. Those that take personal risks in pursuit of these principles must be supported and protected.
Information can be collected about research that identifies threats and solutions to these problems. Email newsletters can keep members involved and aware of the big picture.
Other organizations that promote the well-being of the biosphere can be linked to the web site and promoted.
We have the tools, we have the technology, and we have the experience of the penalties that poor choices bring. This is an opportunity to take corrective actions and to bring human activities and culture back into balance with the rest of the natural world. Will we take this opportunity? Will we do the right thing? I certainly hope so.
The following appendix is a compilation of scientific news articles that support the information presented in this paper.
Scientists From Around the Globe Join ABC News in a Forum on Surviving the Century
Join the Debate: We Want Your Thoughts, Videos on the Earth's Future
By SARAH NAMIAS
June 12, 2008—
Are we living in the last century of our civilization? Is it possible that all of our technology, knowledge and wealth cannot save us from ourselves? Could our society actually be heading towards collapse?
According to many of the world's top scientists, the answer is yes, unless we take action now.
This September, in Earth 2100, a dramatic ABC News 2-hour broadcast, the greatest minds across the globe will join together in a countdown to the year 2100 to tell us what we must do to survive the next century & And what may happen if we don't.
The time to act is now, says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute.
"The 21st century is going to be the century which determine[s] whether we live or die as a sustainable species," Gleick said. "As populations grow, as our use of resources grows, I think we get closer and closer to that edge."
Experts say that extreme changes in climate, combined with dwindling resources, famine, war and disease have the potential to create a post-apocalyptic world in less than a hundred years. HarvardUniversity and Woods Hole climatologist John Holdrens says we cannot continue going down the same path.
"If we continue on business as usual, we are going to see more floods, more droughts, more heat waves, more wildfires, more ice melting, faster sea level rise," Holdren said.
"We really have less than a decade to start getting this right. If we're still dragging our feet in 2015 I think it really becomes at that point almost impossible for the world to avert a degree of climate change that we simply will not be able to manage without intolerable cost and consequences."
In order to avoid this chilling future, we have to first imagine it. In an unprecedented Internet event, ABC is inviting people from around the world to bring the future to life.
We are asking you to use your imagination to create short videos about what it would be like to live through the next century if we stay on our current path. Using predictions from top experts, we will brief participants on global conditions in the years 2015, 2050, 2070 and 2100 -- and we want you to describe the dangers that are unfolding before your eyes.
Submitted videos will be combined with the projections of top scientists, historians, and economists to form a powerful Web-based narrative about the perils of our future. We will also select the most compelling reports to form the backbone of our two-hour primetime ABC News broadcast: Earth 2100, airing this fall.
For the energy industry and the financial players that have bet on surging oil prices, this should be a time of euphoria. Not only do prices keep hitting record highs, but trading volumes on contracts for everything from crude to gasoline to diesel have followed a similar arc, generating big profits for bourses like the New York Mercantile Exchange and the Intercontinental Exchange.
But as I wrote in my last column, the pickup in prices and trading has reignited the idea that speculators are to blame, not underlying market conditions. That claim isn't new: People have been blaming speculators for about as long as there have been markets. But in recent days, a more powerful group has joined the antispeculation bandwagon: members of Congress.
On Wednesday, as oil passed $133 a barrel, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee vented their wrath on oil industry executives. The day before, it was the turn of the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to get into the act.
Of course, Big Oil has drawn populist ire ever since the days of John D. Rockefeller and the muckrakers. And in an election year, with gas prices passing $4 a gallon, attacking the energy industry is a can't-lose proposition.
But this time, it's Wall Street and the newly public commodity exchanges that are sharing the congressional spotlight. Senate Democrats have already proposed legislation that would impose stiffer margin requirements on energy trading. Senator Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wants to tighten oversight of energy trading that takes place over the counter or outside of exchanges like the Nymex, which is regulated by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
"We had testimony that oil is the new gold, that it's something that people invest in," says Senator Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico. Higher prices, he says, have "become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Next month, Representative John Larson, a Connecticut Democrat, plans to go even further, proposing legislation that would essentially ban over-the-counter trading of energy futures by traders who don't plan to take physical delivery of the commodity. While Nymex trading would be largely unaffected, billions of other trades could potentially be brought to a halt.
The idea for the bill, Larson says, came from local suppliers of heating oil, gasoline and diesel in Connecticut, who say the price spike can't be explained by simple supply and demand. While advocates defend the futures market as a way of hedging against higher prices, Larson doesn't buy it. "We see this as nothing short of greed on the part of speculators," he says.
He acknowledges that other legislators are likely to think his bill "is a little too bold or goes too far."
"But there is a widespread feeling amongst the leadership in Congress and the rank and file that something has got to be done in this area," he says. "And this situation requires bold action."
It's not just Democrats who are adopting a populist stance. Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, says he is generally for "fewer regulations and less government but I'm very concerned about the high cost of energy."
"I think the price is higher than it should be, given supply and demand, and I'm looking at it to see if there's manipulative speculation," he added.
The situation is a turnabout for Big Oil and Wall Street, both of which have enjoyed mostly hands-off regulatory treatment from Congress and the White House over the last decade.
"The over-the-counter markets are a very important part of the way industry and institutions manage risk," says John Damgard, president of the Futures Industry Association. "Election-year politics gives everybody an opportunity to feel the pain of the average consumer. Everybody would like to see prices go down, but limiting the activity in any market is a bad idea."
While Larson's bill is unlikely to pass, much less be signed into law, it's notable that even legislators who consider it a bit drastic say they would consider voting for it.
Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and he has already proposed legislation that would tighten regulation of commodities trading. But he says that if Larson's bill comes to the floor, "I would probably end up having to support it, just to get the attention of the both the oil and financial services industry."
What about the view that this is a populist maneuver to garner votes? "So they call it populism," Stupak says. "It's called common sense."
That's debatable, but a similar effort in Congress to stop the filling of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve succeeded earlier this month, underscoring just how potent a political issue high gas prices have become.
It's too bad that old-fashioned conservationthe best way to reduce prices in the long termisn't such a guaranteed vote-getter.
Pioneers show Americans how to live "off-grid"
Sun May 25, 2008
By Tim Gaynor
BISBEE, Ariz (Reuters) - With energy prices going through the roof, an alternative lifestyle powered by solar panels and wind turbines has suddenly become more appealing to some. For architect Todd Bogatay, it has been reality for years.
When he bought this breezy patch of scrub-covered mountaintop with views to Mexico more than two decades ago, he was one of only a few Americans with an interest in wind- and solar-powered homes.
Now, Bogatay is surrounded by 15 neighbors who, like him, live off the electricity grid, with power from solar panels and wind turbines that he either built or helped to install.
"People used to be attracted to living off-grid for largely environmental reasons, although that is now changing as energy prices rise," he said, standing in blazing sunshine with a wind turbine thrashing the air like a weed whacker overhead.
Spry and energetic, Bogatay makes few sacrifices for his chosen lifestyle. He has a small, energy saving refrigerator, but otherwise his house is like any other, with satellite television and a computer with Internet service.
"Electric and gas are going to skyrocket very soon. There are going to be more reasons for doing it, economic reasons," he said.
Bogatay and his neighbors at the 120-acre development are among a very small but fast-growing group of Americans opting to meet their own energy needs as power prices surge and home repossessions grow.
Once the domain of a few hardy pioneers, the dispersed movement is now attracting not just a few individuals and families, but institutions and developers building subdivisions that meet their own energy needs.
"It has its roots in 1970s hippy culture and survivalism, but it has now superseded that completely," said Nick Rosen, a trend analyst and author of the book "How to Live Off-Grid."
"Because of technology advancing ... and because of high house and energy prices ... there are a lot more people moving off grid."
INCENTIVES, FALLING COSTS
Rosen estimates that there are as many as 350,000 U.S. households meet their own energy needs, and growing at 30 percent a year.
"As people are losing their homes, or finding the rent or mortgage too much to pay, they are choosing the off-grid alternative because it is so much cheaper," Rosen said
While installation costs for the solar panels, wind turbines, converters and batteries needed to power up an off-grid home were prohibitively expensive a few years back, improved technology and ramped up production has driven down costs significantly.
Popular solar-powered systems are made by Sharp Corp, Kyocera Corp and silicon Valley-based Nanosolar, among others, and according to the website Low Impact Living (click on www.lowimpactliving.com/), installation costs have fallen by more than 80 percent over 20 years.
"The cost is falling all the time as there is more and more manufacturing plant coming onstream. In fact, there may even be a glut in solar panels next year which would be very good news for the consumers," said Rosen.
Ten U.S. states, from California in the West to New Jersey and Pennsylvania on the eastern seaboard, offer incentives including grants and tax credits for solar panel installation under policies seeking a shift to renewable energies.
Power utilities such as Arizona Public Service, the principal subsidiary of Pinnacle West Capital Corp, is among utilities in several U.S. states that offer subsidies to consumers planning to meet their own power needs, so as to ease demand for a growing on-grid customer base.
"Not only is it getting cheaper to generate non-grid electricity, but it's getting cheap and comfortable to set up your off-grid home, and there are even bonuses from your local utility company for doing so," Rosen said.
FOLLOWING THE MONEY
One clear sign that the off-grid lifestyle is moving more mainstream is that developers and other organizations starting to look at off-grid alternatives, drawn by both environmental arguments and simply the bottom line.
Lonnie Gamble, a developer behind an off-grid subdivision in rural Iowa called Abundance Ecovillage, offers plots at $40,000 that include free wind and solar power from shared systems, as well as water from a rainwater collection system, waste recycling and access to shared amenities including a farm.
The cost of building such a home is little different from that of building any other home, and with a range of energy sipping appliances such as refrigerators, hi-fis and even hairdryers now available, the forced austerity associated with off-grid living is also changing.
"You can have hot showers and a cold beer," said Gamble. "You have no water bill, no sewer bill, no power bill and you can harvest something fresh from the greenhouse ... why would you ever do anything else?"
They are not alone. The Los Angeles Community College District, meanwhile, is steering a drive to take all nine of the district's campuses off-grid this year.
Larry Eisenberg, the district's executive director for facilities planning and development, estimates that, with a combination of incentives including tax credits, grants and rebates, switching to alternative energy will not cost them anything, and will save them $10 million a year in power costs going forward.
"When we began, it was to fulfill our sustainable mandate and fulfill our alternative energy policy, but it eventually became a budget strategy," Eisenberg said, adding that it also had educational value for the district's 180,000 students, who can study the shift as part of their curriculum.
With rising power prices, falling installation costs, and a web of incentives to switch, analysts like Rosen believe the number of users turning to off-grid living in the United States is set to grow to million in the next five to 10 years.
"I don't think we are going to see half the population of America going off-grid, ever. But I do think, we are going to see continued growth," he said.
Rosen also believes that more people still hooked up to the utilities will switch to energy saving appliances, saving money and becoming "off-grid ready" in the process.
For those who have already embarked on the adventure and have adapted to a lifestyle of eking out their energy sources, with houses designed to maximize light, retain warmth or circulate air for cooling, there is no turning back.
"I like being my own power company," said Chris Allen, a neighbor of Bogatay's who has lived off-grid for several years.
"I wouldn't take their electricity if they brought it to my back door. Living like this is financially and mentally very healthy."
What Is The Value Of Biodiversity To Our Collective Future?
ScienceDaily (May 25, 2008) — What will the loss of biodiversity cost us in the long term? How much do national economies need to invest now in order to stop the trend? And what price will we have to pay if we do not act? These are the questions the TEEB – The Economics of Eco-systems and Biodiversity – project is seeking to answer.
The pilot study led by Pavan Sukhdev, who is head of Deutsche Bank’s Global Market Centre in London, was commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMU) and the European Union. The BMU asked the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) to co-manage the scientific contributions to the study. Preliminary results will be presented during the 9th UN Conference on Biological Diversity (COP9) in Bonn, Germany on 29 May.
"Biological diversity not only maintains the equilibrium of ecosystems, it is also an inexhaustible source of potential new drugs. It helps sustain a healthy food chain and promotes water and soil quality," says Prof. Jürgen Mlynek, President of the Helmholtz Association. "Its value goes far beyond anything we can describe using economic indices, yet the material benefits it offers humankind are also tremendous.”
Five thousand United Nations delegates from 190 countries will gather in Bonn from 19 to 30 May 2008. During the conference, they will focus primarily on discussing potential ways to halt the steady decline of biological diversity. "We are currently experiencing the sixth wave of extinctions in the history of our planet; this one has primarily been caused by humans encroaching on the habitats of other species. And we are only now beginning to understand the economic value of biological diversity," explains Mlynek.
Financial expert Pavan Sukhdev estimates that the “value” of the services offered in the nature reserves on the world’s five continents (not counting marine parks and reserves) –adds up to around $5 billion per year. Yet establishing the global value of biodiversity is not the main focus of the study. As is the case with global warming, it is the poor, particularly those in developing and emerging economies, who stand to suffer the most from the loss of so-called ecosystemic services. Preserving biodiversity is thus necessary if we are to fight global poverty and attain the Millennium Development Goals.
The Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research acted as co-coordinator of the scientific contributions to the study. Researchers at the UFZ are currently preparing to continue collaborating on the report, which will move on to the next phase after COP9. Dr. Heidi Wittmer, a senior researcher at UFZ who helped compile the report, spoke of her hopes for the project:
"The Stern Review changed the way we look at the economic consequences of climate change. It is our hope that the TEEB Report will do the same for biodiversity. It is becoming clear that stopping the extinction of species is not merely a romantic notion, but is actually crucial for human survival."
Ocean Acidification: Another Undesired Side Effect Of Fossil Fuel-burning
ScienceDaily (May 24, 2008) — Up to now, the oceans have buffered climate change considerably by absorbing almost one third of the worldwide emitted carbon dioxide. The oceans represent a significant carbon sink, but the uptake of excess CO2 stemming from man's burning of fossil fuels comes at a high cost: ocean acidification.
Research on ocean acidification is a newly emerging field and was one of the major topics at this year's European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly held in Vienna in April.*
The chemistry is very straight-forward: ocean acidification is linearly related to the amount of CO2 we produce. CO2 dissolves in the ocean, reacts with seawater and decreases the pH. Since the industrial revolution, the oceans have become 30 percent more acidic (from 8.2 pH to 8.1 pH). "Under a "business as usual scenario, predictions for the end of the century are that we will lower the surface ocean pH by 0.4 pH units, which means that the surface oceans will become 150 percent more acidic -- and this is a 'hell of a lot' ", said Jelle Bijma, chair of the EuroCLIMATE programme Scientific Committee and a biogeochemist at the Alfred-Wegener-Institute Bremerhaven.
"Ocean acidification is more rapid than ever in the history of the earth and if you look at the pCO2 (partial pressure of carbon dioxide) levels we have reached now, you have to go back 35 million years in time to find the equivalents" continued Bijma. A maximum allowed change in pH, where the system is still controllable, needs to be found. This is a major challenge considering the multifaceted unknowns that still are to be clarified. This so-called "tipping point" is currently estimated to allow a drop of about 0.2 pH units, a value that could be reached in as near as 30 years. More research and further modeling needs to be undertaken to verify the predictions.
The expected biological impact of ocean acidification remains still uncertain. Most calcifying organisms such as corals, mussels, algae and plankton investigated so far, respond negatively to the more acidic ocean waters. Because of the increased acidity, less carbonate ions are available, which means the calcification rates of the organisms are decreasing and thus their shells and skeletons thinning. However, a recent study suggested that a specific form of single-celled algae called coccolithophores actually gets stimulated by elevated pCO2 levels in the oceans, creating even bigger uncertainties when it comes to the biological response.
"There are thousands of calcifying organisms on earth and we have investigated only six to ten of them, we need to have a much better understanding of the physiological mechanisms" demanded Jean-Pierre Gattuso, a speaker from Laboratoire d'Océanographie Villefranche invited by EuroCLIMATE. In addition, higher marine life forms are likely to be affected by the rapidly acidifying oceans and entire food webs might be changing.
So far, hardly any economic impact assessments of ocean acidification exist, but with the fragile marine ecosystems under threat, it can be assumed that fisheries and many coastal economies will be severely affected. Many of these societies depend on the sea as their main source of food and the loss of species is highly detrimental to them; coral reefs serve as highly valuable tourist destinations and as natural protections against natural hazards such as tsunamis. Together with climate change, ocean acidification poses a major challenge to the oceans as a human habitat.
"Ocean acidification is happening today and it's happening on top of global warming, so we are in double trouble" stated Bijma. Only a serious cut of CO2 emission can reduce ocean acidification. Therefore, knowledge on ocean acidification is being disseminated and awareness among policymakers and the general public raised. "We need to make sure that the message gets delivered to the right people at the right time" urged Carol Turley, lead author of the Nobel prize-winning IPCC report and scientist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. According to her, a concise integrated opinion of leading scientists is necessary, and it would be useful for policy makers to devote one integrated chapter on the impacts of climate change including ocean acidification on the marine environment in a future IPCC report.
European science has taken the initiative to act and gain more urgently needed insight on this phenomenon of global change; an EU project on ocean acidification will be launched next month. The European Geosciences Union (EGU), an influential interdisciplinary organization, is also being proactive: "EGU is in the process of putting together a position statement on ocean acidification" said Gerald Ganssen, President of the EGU. As a result attained at a strategic workshop held in January, the ESF is currently producing a 'Science Policy Briefing' which is to be targeted at the major stakeholders and actors in the field. In addition it was felt that the issue of ocean acidification needs to be addressed in a pan-European effort and that more intensive European collaboration is required, which could be achieved through one of the ESF Science Synergy tools such as EUROCORES.
The climate for the next century, and thereafter, is expected to be largely different from the present and the recent past. CO2 concentration is expected to reach levels unequalled over the past millions of years. Temperature is also rising rapidly. The last 150 years of meteorological observations and the reconstruction over the last millennium display a quite uniform climate. Only the reconstruction of paleoclimates extending much further back in time can help build a database with a broader climatic diversity. Such a database will, in addition, offer the possibility to test the reliability and robustness of the models used for future climate scenarios and thus to better understand how the climate system works. EuroCLIMATE focuses both on reconstructing past climates using different well-dated and calibrated proxy records and on modelling climate and climate variations for a better understanding of the underlying physical, chemical and biological processes involved.
*The European Science Foundation EUROCORES (European Collaborative Research) programme EuroCLIMATE, which addresses in particular global carbon cycle dynamics, organized and co-sponsored several sessions on ocean acidification.
Endocrine Disruptors In Common Plastics Linked To Obesity Risk
ScienceDaily (May 15, 2008) — Exposure during development either in the womb or during infancy to chemicals used to make products such as baby bottles, the lining of food tins and some plastic food wraps and containers, may contribute to the development of obesity, according to new research presented at the European Congress on Obesity.
While eating too much and exercising too little are still considered the major cause of obesity, scientists have recently started investigating whether chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, which mimic or alter the effects of hormones in the body, could also play a role in making people fat.
In a special session at the European Congress on Obesity supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in the USA and the Swiss National Science Foundation, experts reported new evidence that mice exposed to endocrine disrupting chemicals during pregnancy – at levels either comparable to or approaching those that humans are exposed to - produced offspring that became fat as adults and had altered gene and metabolic functions involved in regulating weight.
“The findings from these studies suggest that susceptibility to obesity is developed in the womb or early in life and that exposure to a variety of common household chemicals can, probably along with foetal nutrition, play a role in increasing that susceptibility,” said Jerry Heindel of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, an expert in the field, who was unconnected with the studies highlighted at the conference.
“This information has the potential to change how people view and treat obesity. If these findings are proven to be true in humans, then the focus must change from losing weight as adults to prevention of weight gain during development, through reducing the exposure to such substances.”
One of the chemicals under scrutiny is Bisphenol A, or BPA, an ingredient in polycarbonate plastics. Past research has found evidence that it leaches from plastic food containers and bottles, from plastic wrap and from the resin that lines food cans. It has been found in a large percentage of people examined in developed countries. Besides urine and blood, it has been noted in amniotic fluid, placenta, umbilical cord blood and breast milk. Laboratory experiments have found that BPA can increase the production of fat cells.
In one study, Professor Beverly Rubin, a neuroendocrinologist at TuftsUniversity in the United States, found that female mice whose mothers were exposed to BPA from early pregnancy through day 16 of lactation showed increased weight in adulthood. Food intake and activity levels were no different between the mice who became fat and those that did not. The study also found disturbance in insulin sensitivity and glucose balance and in the weight regulating hormone leptin.
“This study indicates that developmental exposure to this chemical prior to and just after birth can exert a long lasting influence on body weight regulation,” Professor Rubin said.
In another experiment outlined at the conference, Suzanne Fenton, a research biologist at the US Environmental Protection Agency, found that when the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) - a greaseproofing agent used in scores of products from microwave popcorn bags to pizza box liners and other food containers - was given to pregnant mice, their offspring were unusually small at birth then became overweight as adults. In contrast, the mice whose mothers were not exposed to the chemical had a normal growth pattern, as did mice that were exposed as adults only. PFOA is detected in the blood of people around the globe, but is detected at up to 100 times higher concentrations in people living in industrially polluted areas.
“Our mouse study involved the lowest doses we have investigated to date and it shows the weight effect does occur at fairly low doses. In fact, similar to what has been seen with other compounds, we only see this effect when the dose is low, which indicates that perhaps different doses trigger health problems in the body by various mechanisms or that the high doses cause more serious problems, and potentially mask the abnormal weight gain,” Fenton said. “What we need to do next is find the mechanism of action for this chemical to determine whether there is a corresponding health risk for the human population.”
A third study presented at the conference, outlined by Dr Bruce Blumberg, a developmental biologist at the University of California at Irvine, found that when scientists treated pregnant mice with the chemical tributylin at a dose comparable to that found in humans, a genetic programme was switched on in the offspring, that programmes them to become fat later in life. Tributylin is used in boat paint, in plastic food wrap and as a fungicide on crops and has been found to leach into food.
“Developmental exposure is probably more serious than adult exposure because the data with other such exposures suggest that the pro-obesity reprogramming is irreversible, which means you will spend your life fighting weight gain,” said Blumberg. “Whether the effect on animals is the same on humans will depend on the levels in the human population. The data we do have suggest that, at least for this chemical, it is in the range that we see effects, but more research on that is needed to determine the magnitude of the risk.”
Common Herbicide Disrupts Human Hormone Activity In Cell Studies
ScienceDaily (May 8, 2008) — A common weedkiller in the U.S., already suspected of causing sexual abnormalities in frogs and fish, has now been found to alter hormonal signaling in human cells, scientists from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) report.
The herbicide atrazine is the second most widely used weedkiller in the U.S., applied to corn and sorghum fields throughout the Midwest and also spread on suburban lawns and gardens. It was banned in Europe after studies linked the chemical to endocrine disruptions in fish and amphibians.
The UCSF study is the first to identify its full effect on human cells. It is being reported in the May 7 issue of the journal "PLoS One."
In studies with human placental cells in culture, the UCSF scientists found that atrazine increased the activity of a gene associated with abnormal human birth weight when over-expressed in the placenta. Atrazine also targeted a second gene that has been found to be amplified in the uterus of women with unexplained infertility.
In parallel studies of zebrafish, a widely used animal in development studies, the research team showed that atrazine "feminized" the fish population -- increasing the proportion of fish that developed into females. In water with atrazine concentrations comparable to those found in runoff from agricultural fields, the proportion of female fish increased two-fold. Environmental factors are known to influence the sex of zebrafish and many other fish and amphibians as they develop.
"These fish are very sensitive to endocrine disrupting chemicals, so one might think of them as 'sentinels' to potential developmental dangers in humans," said Holly Ingraham, PhD, senior author on the study and a UCSF Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology. "These atrazine- sensitive genes are central to normal reproduction and are found in steroid producing tissues. You have to wonder about the long-term effects of exposing the rapidly developing fetus to atrazine or other endocrine disruptors."
Ingraham intends to determine precisely how atrazine affects human and other mammalian endocrine cells and why these cells are particularly sensitive to it. She notes that bisphenol A, a compound in many hard plastic consumer products, is also an endocrine disrupter and is now under increased study for its safety. In April, Canada announced a decision to ban sale of consumer products with bisphenol A.
The lead author of the study is Miyuki Suzawa, a postdoctoral fellow in Ingraham's lab.
UCSF researchers exposed sexually immature zebrafish to atrazine and other chemicals for different periods of time. They found that exposure to atrazine for 48 hours at concentrations that might be found in water containing agricultural runoff, produced twice as many female fish.
Through genetic analysis, they found that atrazine preferentially activates a class of receptors in the cell nucleus, including two known as SF-1 and LRH-1. SF-1 regulates production of enzymes involved in the synthesis of steroids in the body and development of many endocrine tissues. One of these enzymes, known as Aromatase, plays a role in determining whether lower vertebrates, such as fish will become male or female. Aromatase is known as a feminizing enzyme.
In the human placental cell culture studies, the scientists found that a 24-hour exposure to atrazine activates a cluster of genes involved in hormone signaling and steroid synthesis.
They report, "Endocrine-related cell types with a capacity for steroid generation appear to be especially sensitive (to Atrazine), as demonstrated by the "exquisite" cellular specificity of the atrazine response."
The finding that a pervasive and persistent environmental chemical appears to significantly change hormone networks means that scientists must take a broader look at this herbicide's potential effect on human health, Ingraham said. Up to now, much of the focus has been on breast cancer, but since proper development of the endocrine system is important for normal reproduction, stress responses and metabolism, early exposure to this chemical in a fetus or infant might alter normal physiology later in life, she said.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.
ScienceDaily (May 27, 2008) — A new study into the potential health hazards of the revolutionary nano-sized particles known as 'buckyballs' predicts that the molecules are easily absorbed into animal cells, providing a possible explanation for how the molecules could be toxic to humans and other organisms.
Using computer simulations, University of Calgary biochemist Peter Tieleman, post-doctoral fellow Luca Monticelli and colleagues modeled the interaction between carbon-60 molecules and cell membranes and found that the particles are able to enter cells by permeating their membranes without causing mechanical damage.
"Buckyballs are already being made on a commercial scale for use in coatings and materials but we have not determined their toxicity," said Tieleman, a Senior Scholar of the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research who specializes in membrane biophysics and biocomputing. "There are studies showing that they can cross the blood-brain barrier and alter cell functions, which raises a lot of questions about their toxicity and what impact they may have if released into the environment."
Tieleman's team used the high-powered computing resources of WestGrid, a partnership between 14 Western Canadian institutions, to run some of the cell behaviour simulations. The resulting model showed that buckyball particles are able to dissolve in cell membranes, pass into cells and re-form particles on the other side where they can cause damage to cells.
Spherical carbon-60 molecules were discovered in 1985, leading to the Nobel Prize in physics for researchers from the University of Sussex and RiceUniversity who named the round, hollow molecules Buckminsterfullerene after renowned American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome.
Popularly known as buckyballs, carbon-60 molecules form naturally in minute quantities under extreme conditions such as lightning strikes. They can also be produced artificially as spheres or oblong-shaped balls, known as fullerenes, and can be used to produce hollow fibers known as carbon nanotubes. Both substances are considered to be promising materials in the field of nanotechnology because of their incredible strength and heat resistance. Potential applications include the production of industrial materials, drug delivery systems, fuel cells and even cosmetics.
In recent years, much research has focused on the potential health and environmental impacts of buckyballs and carbon nanotubes. Fullerenes have been shown to cause brain damage in fish and inhaling carbon nanotubes results in lung damage similar to that caused by asbestos.
"Buckyballs commonly form into clumps that could easily be inhaled by a person as dust particles," Tieleman said. "How they enter cells and cause damage is still poorly understood but our model shows a possible mechanism for how this might occur."
I've made my punch line the title of this piece. I was never good at telling jokes. This joke, however, isn't really funny anyway because it is a boondoggle being played on the American people.
The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were created by Congress in 1975 as part of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. Over the first nine years of its existence the CAFE standard — and powerful market forces — led to 62% improved vehicle fuel economy. Over the next twenty years or so, better vehicle technologies were used to increase power instead of to increase fuel economy. The end result: average fuel economy for cars in the U.S. is only about 26 miles per gallon in 2008.
In the era of skyrocketing oil, gas and diesel prices, however, Congress took bold action, passing the Energy Independence and Security Act in December of 2007. The key feature of this law was a re-vamping of the CAFE standard for the first time in a generation, setting a new standard of 35 mpg by 2020.
Or so the story goes.
Upon examination, the CAFE standard "improvements" are revealed as little more than a loophole-ridden shell game.
The major changes in the new regulations are a new tradable credit system and a new way of calculating required vehicle improvements based on the size of each vehicle model sold instead of a fleet-wide requirement.
The tradable credit system makes the CAFE "standard" a cap-and-trade system instead of an actual standard. Standards are the prototypical example of a command and control regulatory approach, which, while generally effective in achieving outcomes also generate strong resistance from the regulated businesses. Cap and trade is more market friendly because it sets a limit on the activity at issue but also gives some choices to the regulated businesses as to how they meet that limit. In this case, each size class is "limited" in terms of the gas mileage it must achieve. The "trade" part of this cap and trade allows each manufacturer to trade credits with other manufacturers who are exceeding their requirements, and to trade between size classes within each fleet — and to buy credits from the U.S. government at a set price ceiling.
It is this last part that is most disturbing. By allowing manufacturers to avoid actually improving gas mileage by simply buying credits from the government at a set price, the cap itself may be completely destroyed because there is no limit on how many credits the government may sell. So it's not really a cap and trade system either. It's just a trade system with huge potential to be gamed without any guaranteed benefits for consumers or the environment.
The size class system also has many troubling effects. The NHTSA regulations themselves state the most disturbing outcome: "We were particularly encouraged that Reformed CAFE will eliminate the incentive to downsize some of their fleet as a CAFE compliance strategy, thereby reducing the adverse safety risks associated with the Unreformed CAFE program." (p. 34, emphasis added) NHTSA is here stating that they don't want manufacturers to build smaller cars and are removing, with these regulations, any incentive to do so! Building smaller, more efficient, cars is the most obvious and most environmentally friendly way to achieve better fuel economy throughout a fleet. NHTSA, however, believes that the safety tradeoffs from smaller cars strongly outweigh the benefits of smaller car fuel economy. (The jury is very much out on whether a shift to smaller cars, with today's improved safety features, will in fact lead to more injuries or fatalities).
The size class system also places different burdens on U.S. and foreign manufacturers. An LA Times review of the CAFE standard update calculated that U.S. manufacturers would have to achieve about 33.2 mpg by 2020, whereas foreign manufacturers would have to achieve 39.2 mpg by 2020. Trade policy implications aside, this outcome shows perhaps why U.S. auto manufacturers ended up supporting this CAFE update. My interpretation: because it doesn't really require them to do anything they're not already going to do.
The NHTSA regulations also continue the current compliance credit for ethanol vehicles (flex fuel vehicles), though this credit is phased out by 2020. This system allows manufacturers to earn credits against the CAFE requirements for flex-fuel vehicles they sell — even if those vehicles never use a drop of ethanol.
Regarding cost-benefit analysis, the NHTSA regulations assume that gasoline prices will "rise" to $2.51 per gallon by 2030. With U.S. gas prices already at $3.60 a gallon in 2007 and set to rise much higher over the coming years, the absurdity of this projection is made clear. If real world prices were used, the feasible improvements to vehicles — that would save consumers money over the first five years of ownership on a net basis — would be far higher than the targeted 31.8 mpg by 2020.
The CAFE standard law also prohibits NHTSA from considering the cost of tradable credits and the flex-fuel vehicle credit in its cost-benefit analysis. A more clear admission of boondogglery has never been found.
Last, the proposed NHTSA regulations would explicitly preempt all state efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. California and other states have already threatened lawsuits if this provision is approved because of state efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under their own state authority.
The NHTSA regulations should be exposed for the fraud they are and not approved.
After all of this bad news, the good news is this: market forces will very likely achieve far more than the 35 mpg by 2020 the CAFE standard "requires." SUV and light truck sales fell 28% in the first quarter of 2008 versus 2007. California's gasoline demand fell last year for the first time in 14 years and will probably fall even further this year due to even higher prices. Gas mileage now tops the list of concerns for new car buyers. Maybe markets can work after all?
Tam Hunt is Energy Program Director and Attorney for the Community Environmental Council in Santa Barbara. More information on our programs can be found at www.fossilfreeby33.org. He is also a Lecturer in renewable energy law and policy at the BrenSchool of Environmental Science & Management at UC Santa Barbara.
Q: My friend and I are unable to find the exact chemical composition of coal in either books or the Internet and were wondering if you could please help us? Also if you know any information that would help us out regarding fossil fuels and their negative effects, it would be greatly appreciated. -- Amelia R., Queensland, Australia
Amelia, you ask a good question, because while many people are preoccupied with the carbon output of coal use, coal's composition causes lots of other bad consequences that tend to be hidden from public view. An Australian website that lays out the basics states it this way:
"Coal is a combustible carbonaceous rock, formed from accumulated vegetable matter that has been altered by decay and various amounts of heat and pressure over millions of years. Inter-layered with other sedimentary rocks,...Coal varies widely in its composition. It is composed chiefly of rings of six carbon atoms joined together in an extremely complex composition of layered arrangements that have in them, not only hydrogen but significant amounts of oxygen and nitrogen. The structure also includes varying amounts of sulphur and other environmental pollutants. Up to one tenth of the total mass of coal can be material with no fuel value...Coal is usually analysed for moisture, volatile matter, fixed carbon and ash. The sulphur and nitrogen content are important as emissions of their chemical oxides during coal burning can cause acid rain. Uncontrolled emissions resulted in widespread damage to forests and lakes in Europe, the USA and Canada."
Mountaintop removal is a form of strip mining that already covers 800 square miles just in just the eastern USA. A direct consequence of this type of mining is that there have been 6,000 "valley fills" of debris from mountain tops in West Virginia and Kentucky. Since 1980, according to the National Mining Association, only 5% of the destroyed land has been returned to some kind of "economic development" such as wildlife habitat.
"Sludge impoundment" is the way that some coal companies deal with the waste that is generated from washing coal. The solid waste (rocks and soil) is used to damn the liquid waste in former valleys. These impoundments have been known to become a source of toxic leaks. Further, dam failure is an historic fact. Another way to deal with sludge is to put it into old underground coal mines, however, this contaminates ground water for drinking. Other issues that pose risks involving coal are processing — very poisonous — and transport.
According to an East Coast utility quoted in a Washington Post article, "Between 1999 and 2005, Pepco officials point out, the price of coal climbed 150 percent, oil prices rose 300 percent and natural gas costs jumped 400 percent."
I always point out that even before climate change entered our global awareness, we knew that burning coal emits carcinogens, mercury and regulated emissions under the Clean Air Act (NOx, SO2, and particulates) in addition to carbon. Processing coal requires lots of energy and water and the impact to the land is devastating. While mining deaths are always evident, U.S. taxpayers still underwrite part of the costs of brown and black lung disease. I personally have met miners and seen the immediate impacts of mountaintop removal in terms of devastating streams and rivers, farmland, and homes and communities. When I hear clean coal advocates, even among the environmental community, I remind them they are only focusing on carbon, not the myriad of these other adverse impacts.
In my talks, I pass out coal, this combustible carbonaceous composite of rock we mine and burn and dump the waste produced by doing that. The more we expose ourselves and our kids to its make up and understand how its use and conversion negatively impact human health, the environment and our global climate, the quicker we realize that we should rush to ease ourselves off of this resource as fast as humanly possible.
GOTEBORG, Sweden: Taking a road trip? Remember to visit the toilet first. This city is among dozens of municipalities in Sweden with facilities that transform sewage waste into enough biogas to run thousands of cars and buses.
Cars using biogas created a stir when they began to be rolled out on a large scale at the start of the decade. The tailpipe emissions are virtually odorless, the fuel is cheaper than gasoline and diesel, and the idea of recovering energy from toilet waste appealed to green-minded Swedes.
"When you're in the bathroom in the morning and you can see something good come of that, it's easy to be taken in by the idea - it's like a utopia," said Andreas Kask, a business consultant who drives a taxi in Goteborg. "But it hasn't worked out that well in reality."
Drivers complained that there were too few filling stations and that cars only held enough biogas for two or three hours of driving. Some also said early models of biogas cars performed poorly on steep climbs, were sluggish on damp mornings and had reduced trunk room because of bulky tanks.
Critics also question the sustainability of the technology because some of the systems use pipelines that carry natural gas to reach consumers, thereby mixing the two fuels together.
Two years ago, Volvo, which is owned by Ford Motor, announced that it would stop production of biogas cars and instead focus on making environmentally friendly vehicles powered by ethanol blended with gasoline.
"We didn't sell enough cars," said Maria Bohlin, a spokeswoman for Volvo, referring to biogas models. "We might consider making biogas cars again, although we're not there at the moment."
Since Volvo's decision to stop using the biogas technology, ethanol has made deeper inroads into the Swedish market, despite criticism that it contributes to deforestation and raises food prices. Made from cereal and sugar crops, ethanol also sells for slightly less than biogas in Goteborg, although proponents of biogas say that their fuel is far more efficient per kilometer.
Goran Varmby, an official at Business Region Goteborg, a nonprofit company that promotes trade and industry in the region, said he hoped that Volvo would resume production of biogas cars.
"But there are a lot of big economic interests behind ethanol," Varmby said. He was alluding to the generous subsidies farmers and biofuels producers in Europe and the United States earn for growing and processing crop fuels.
Chemically, biogas is the same as natural gas from fossil fuels, but its manufacture relies on a process where bacteria feed on fecal waste for about three weeks in an oxygen-free chamber. The result is two-thirds methane and one-third carbon dioxide, as well as a nutrient-rich residue that can be used as soil or construction material.
Once the methane is purified, it is pumped through Goteborg's network of gas pipelines to specialized filling stations, where it is pressurized for delivery. Any car with an engine and tank configured for compressed natural gas can use biogas.
After each fill-up, the corresponding amount of biogas is injected into the natural gas grid as an offset, said Bo Ramberg, chief executive of FordonsGas, which is based in Goteborg and operates the largest chain of biogas filling stations in Scandinavia.
The idea is that the amount of gas used by vehicles is offset by the gas produced by organic waste.
Ramberg, formerly an executive at Volvo, said he left the company about a decade ago to start FordonsGas when he spotted an opportunity to promote the infrastructure needed to deliver biogas to drivers.
"We're looking to certify the emissions from the entire life cycle of biogas production and use," Ramberg said.
"But we already strongly believe that biogas is the best fuel for lower emissions - no discussion about it," he said.
FordonsGas, which is half-owned by Dong Energy, a Danish company, makes a small profit and is continuing to invest in new biogas filling stations, Ramberg said.
Biogas promoters acknowledge that the decision by Volvo to halt production of biogas cars had dealt the technology a serious blow.
But they said decisions by Mercedes and Volkswagen to introduce a new models of biogas cars in Sweden this year, and rebates and tax breaks for drivers, could still invigorate sales of the cars and fuel.
Biogas as a vehicle fuel is also available in Switzerland, France, Germany and Austria, but Sweden is the leading user in Europe, said Irmgard Herold, an analyst at New Energy Finance in London.
Many people in Goteborg remain optimistic about the virtuous link they have created between waste and secure energy supplies.
Ola Fredriksson, an engineer at Gryaab, the sewage facility in Goteborg, said that what an average person flushed down the toilet each year created enough biogas to drive 120 kilometers, or 75 miles.
"If the oil price keeps on going up, and people are prepared to pay more for renewable energy, then it will make our company interested in producing more biogas," he said. "We have the capacity.'
Are speculators responsible for increased oil and agricultural commodity prices? One market participant answers, "Yes, unequivocally." (Photo: Chip East / Reuters File photo)
Without necessarily denouncing, as some have done, the "vile speculators who starve millions of the poor," one may legitimately wonder: aren't financial investors making the prices of foodstuffs and oil climb artificially? In spite of the assurance from financial milieus - which maintain that speculators merely go along with increases essentially due to the progress of physical supply and demand - this question is justified. For the debate is far from being settled.
At the end of May, fascinating hearings organized around this theme in the American Senate rather left the impression that a new type of financial investor is playing a big role in the present raw materials price explosion. So it was interesting to note the defensive posture of the chief economist for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), the American regulator for derivatives products. If, according to him, "our studies do not support the thesis [of speculators' influence]," he peppered his testimony with appeals for proof of the opposite. Witness for the opposing view Michael Masters, a hedge fund manager no longer active in these markets, pulled no punches. "My answer to the question you ask is, yes, unequivocally," he declared before asking pardon from those in his profession who might feel "disappointed" by his positions.
What are the arguments of the two sides? The CFTC side emphasizes that speculators - non-commercial market participants in the regulator's typology - do not represent a more significant share of the total trades on the markets involved than they previously did. Along these lines, all the studies conducted by this authority show that speculators follow, rather than provoke, a trend: they generally invest just after a price rise has been set in motion. Moreover, the markets for certain foodstuffs in which speculators do not invest have also mounted. Finally, still according to the CFTC, funds betting on a price rise and funds anticipating a price drop are about equal in number, at least so far as oil and wheat are concerned.
The opposing side showcases the appearance of a new category of investors on these markets - sovereign funds, pension funds, university foundations and other types of institutional investors. In search of advantageous investments following the bursting of the Internet and real estate bubbles, as well as of protection against inflation, they are massively investing in raw materials. According to figures cited by Michael Masters, their allocations reserved for that category went from $13 billion in 2003 to ... $260 billion in March 2008. And, according to that hedge fund manager, their demand on the oil market has grown by around 848 million barrels a year over the course of the last five years, or the equivalent of the growth in Chinese demand. They also are supposedly holding enough wheat to make all the bread, pasta and baked goods that Americans will swallow over the course of the next two years. Their impact on the market will be all the greater for their very long-term investment practices and their coverage of their exposure through derivative instruments.
It is, in fact, quite difficult to imagine, when big investment banks like Morgan Stanley boast in their marketing materials for clients about the merits of raw materials in an asset allocation strategy, that there's no impact on prices. For Andrew Clare, professor at London's CassBusinessSchool and former chief economist for asset management at Legal and General, the impact of speculation is obvious. His models show that it has increased the price of oil by 30 to 40 percent and there are no reasons, he believes, why foodstuff prices should not, on average, be affected to the same degree.
How, then, should the CFTC, which studies the participants in these markets and assures that manipulation does not disturb them, have failed to identify this new type of investor? Because investment banks are authorized to intervene in the futures markets for the account of investors with which they place transactions by mutual agreement. And they do so virtually without limits, since these position-takings have been counted since 1991 as emanating from "commercial" investors, notes the Michael Masters camp. So, not only are these transactions not identified as emanating from non-commercial investors, but they are also not subject to any ceiling.
It remains to be known whether speculation poses a real problem should it prove that it does have a major impact on raw materials prices. The negative connotation of the term "speculate" cannot make us forget that etymologically this term means "to see far." Now it seems obvious that as of now we must get used to much higher oil and food prices than those that obtained in the past, and for fundamental reasons: the growth of emerging countries, climate [change], the increase in ethanol production, etc. The subprime crisis illustrates the weakness of this line of reasoning by reminding us that bubbles form quickly. And that their bursting causes serious damage. After the Internet and risky American real estate loans, an irrational exuberance is perhaps now taking possession of the raw materials markets. Now, the markets for foodstuffs are among those most vulnerable to the hazards of finance. Already today, small farmers, for whom there is no doubt that the new financial market entrants have changed everything, complain about having to work three more hours a day to understand the erratic developments of the complex derivative products that affect their commodities. They are all the more boxed in, in that the transformers who want to buy their harvests want less and less to acquire them for the future, before seeding time, since the risks of a price drop are high. The balance between short-term speculators and actors in this business, which prevailed rather harmoniously on the markets for agricultural products, is now disturbed.
Another reason to deplore the disturbances linked to financial investors is that agricultural commodities are not stocks and bonds. They affect the survival of certain populations. Even if it is not obvious how to correct possible imbalances provoked by finance without provoking still worse ones, it is important to continue to look into the question of the impact of financial investors on the markets. At least for agricultural commodities. The CFTC, which has increased its declarations to this effect in recent days, tends to confirm this conclusion.
Excerpt from The Rise of Corporations by Anup Shah
Adam Smith, often regarded as the father of modern capitalism, wrote the influential famous book, The Wealth of Nations in 1776. This book exposed the mercantile and monopoly capitalism of the preceeding centuries as unjust and unfair, and proposed a free market system. He himself was very critical of the influences of concentrated ownership (which is also a way to reduce competition) and large corporations as interfering with free market capitalism (although many who do exert influence don’t mind doing so in his name, and calling it “free market”!) Smith is worth quoting at length:
“Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their good both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.
Merchants and master manufacturers are ... the two classes of people who commonly employ the largest capitals, and who by their wealth draw to themselves the greatest share of the public consideration. As during their whole lives they are engaged in plans and projects, they have frequently more acuteness of understanding than the greater part of country gentlemen. As their thoughts, however, are commonly exercised rather about the interest of their own particular branch of business, than about that of the society, their judgment, even when given with the greatest candour (which it has not been upon every occasion) is much more to be depended upon with regard to the former of those two objects than with regard to the latter. Their superiority over the country gentleman is not so much in their knowledge of the public interest, as in their having a better knowledge of their own interest than he has of his. It is by this superior knowledge of their own interest that they have frequently imposed upon his generosity, and persuaded him to give up both his own interest and that of the public, from a very simple but honest conviction that their interest, and not his, was the interest of the public. The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can serve only to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” (Emphasis Added)
—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, (Everyman’s Library, Sixth Printing, 1991), pp. 87-88, 231-232
As Adam Smith warns, only after great precaution, careful, scrupulous and “suspicious attention” should commerce-related policies from corporate interests be accepted. However, as described in detail on this web site’s media section, corporations also have concentrated ownership of the mainstream media, which makes it even more difficult these days for the general public to apply great precaution, careful, scrupulous and “suspicious attention.”
* Greenhouse gases that cause global warming * By-products which are pollutants that cause global dimming
What is global dimming?
Fossil fuel use, as well as producing greenhouse gases, creates other by-products. These by-products are also pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, soot, and ash. These pollutants however, also change the properties of clouds.
Clouds are formed when water droplets are seeded by air-borne particles, such as pollen. Polluted air results in clouds with larger number of droplets than unpolluted clouds. This then makes those clouds more reflective. More of the sun’s heat and energy is therefore reflected back into space.
This reduction of heat reaching the earth is known as Global Dimming. Impacts of global dimming: millions already killed by it?
Global warming results from the greenhouse effect caused by, amongst other things, excessive amounts of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere from fossil fuel burning. It would seem then, that the other by-products which cause global dimming may be an ironic savior.
A deeper look at this, however, shows that unfortunately this is not the case.
Health and environmental effects
The pollutants that lead to global dimming also lead to various human and environmental problems, such as smog, respiratory problems, and acid rain.
The impacts of global dimming itself, however, can be devastating. Millions from Famines in the Sahel in the 70s and 80s
The death toll that global dimming may have already caused is thought to be massive.
Climatologists studying this phenomenon believe that the reflection of heat have made waters in the northern hemisphere cooler. As a result, less rain has formed in key areas and crucial rainfall has failed to arrive over the Sahel in Northern Africa.
In the 1970s and 1980s, massive famines were caused by failed rains which climatologists had never quite understood why they had failed.
The answers that global dimming models seemed to provide, the documentary noted, has led to a chilling conclusion: “what came out of our exhaust pipes and power stations [from Europe and North America] contributed to the deaths of a million people in Africa, and afflicted 50 million more” with hunger and starvation.
Billions are likely to be affected in Asia from similar effects
Scientists said that the impact of global dimming might not be in the millions, but billions. The Asian monsoons bring rainfall to half the world’s population. If this air pollution and global dimming has a detrimental impact on the Asian monsoons some 3 billion people could be affected.
As well as fossil fuel burning, contrails is another source
Contrails (the vapor from planes flying high in the sky) were seen as another significant cause of heat reflection.
During the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, all commercial flights were grounded for the next three days.
This allowed climate scientists to look at the effect on the climate when there were no contrails and no heat reflection.
What scientists found was that the temperature rose by some 1 degree centigrade in that period of 3 days.
Global Dimming is hiding the true power of Global Warming The above impacts of global dimming have led to fears that global dimming has been hiding the true power of global warming.
Currently, most climate change models predict a 5 degrees increase in temperature over the next century, which is already considered extremely grave. However, global dimming has led to an underestimation of the power of global warming. Addressing global dimming only will lead to massive global warming
Global dimming can be dealt with by cleaning up emissions.
However, if global dimming problems are only addressed, then the effects of global warming will increase even more. This may be what happened to Europe in 2003.
In Europe, various measures have been taken in recent years to clean up the emissions to reduce pollutants that create smog and other problems, but without reducing the greenhouse gas emissions in parallel. This seems to have had a few effects:
* This may have already lessened the severity of droughts and failed rains in the Sahel. * However, it seems that it may have caused, or contributed to, the European heat wave in 2003 that killed thousands in France, saw forest fires in Portugal, and caused many other problems throughout the continent.
The documentary noted that the impacts of addressing global dimming only would increase global warming more rapidly. Irreversible damage would be only about 30 years away. Global level impacts would include:
* The melting of ice in Greenland, which would lead to more rising sea levels. This in turn would impact many of our major world cities * Drying tropical rain forests would increase the risk of burning. This would release even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further increasing global warming effects. (Some countries have pushed for using “carbon sinks” to count as part of their emission targets. This has already been controversial because these store carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere when burnt. Global dimming worries increase these concerns even more.)
These and other effects could combine to lead to an increase of 10 degrees centigrade in temperature over the next 100 years, not the standard 5 degrees which most models currently predict.
This would be a more rapid warming than any other time in history, the documentary noted. With such an increase,
* Vegetation will die off even more quickly * Soil erosion will increase and food production will fail * A Sahara type of climate could be possible in places such as England, while other parts of the world would fare even worse. * Such an increase in temperature would also release one of the biggest stores of greenhouse gases on earth, methane hydrate, currently contained at the bottom of the earth’s oceans and known to destabilize with warming. This gas is eight times stronger than carbon dioxide in its greenhouse effect. As the documentary also added, due to the sheer amounts that would be released, by this time, whatever we would try to curb emissions, it would be too late.
“This is not a prediction,” the documentary said, “it is a warning of what will happen if we clean up the pollution while doing nothing about greenhouse gases.” Root causes of global warming also must be addressed
If we were to use global dimming pollutants to stave off the effects of global warming, we would still face many problems, such as:
* Human health problems from the soot/smog * Environmental problems such as acid rain * Ecological problems such as changes in rainfall patterns (as the Ethiopian famine example above reminds us) which can kill millions, if not billions.
Climatologists are stressing that the roots of both global dimming causing pollutants and global warming causing greenhouse gases have to be dealt with together and soon.
We may have to change our way of life, the documentary warned. While this has been a message for over 20 years, as part of the climate change concerns, little has actually been done. “Rapidly,” the documentary concluded, “we are running out of time.”
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Chastened financial firms are destined to repeat their mistakes in a few years unless they overhaul risk management practices and rethink compensation for employees who are supposed to blow the whistle, financial market experts said on Thursday.
Now that the U.S. Federal Reserve is able to provide emergency cash to a wider range of companies, another Bear Stearns debacle is unlikely -- but the next cycle peak will inevitably bring new excesses unless the model is changed -- the experts said in a panel discussion on risk management.
"We're starting to see the risk managers have a seat at the board. We're seeing them be respected much more. They're being paid attention to," Larry Tabb, founder and chief executive of Westborough, Massachusetts-based research and advisory firm TABB Group, said at the Reuters Investment Outlook Summit in New York.
"When we get into another bull cycle, we'll see what happens then. Everyone likes the risk manager when there's problems. When things are going well, human nature is not to pay attention to them," Tabb said.
Wall Street firms have always struggled to strike the right balance between making money and managing risk, and blowups like the global credit crisis push the pendulum the other way.
While the latest episode is likely to bring greater regulation and oversight, meaningful change will have to come from within, said Tad Rivelle, chief investment officer at Metropolitan West Asset Management in Los Angeles.
The trouble, Rivelle said, is that top executives have little or no incentive to stand in the way of the latest market obsession -- particularly when competitors are profiting from it. Annual bonuses tied to share price encourage short-term risk-taking. CEOs who refuse to go with the tide risk incurring the wrath of shareholders and ultimately the board of directors.
"Capitalism is such a potent force, it makes these periods of time happen," Rivelle said. "Woe betide the individual who gets in its way."
The panelists expected tighter regulation in the aftermath of the credit crisis, and said the Fed's stronger oversight of primary bond dealers should ensure that there is no repeat of the Bear Stearns collapse in March.
But no amount of regulation can take the place of companies listening to their own risk managers and having the courage to slow the pursuit of profits, the panelists said. That will never be popular on Wall Street, although in crises it becomes more palatable.
Terry Marsh, president and CEO of Quantal Asset Management in San Francisco, said that companies all over the world mismanaged risk from the U.S. mortgage market because they relied on trends going back only a couple of years -- when the housing market was booming and default rates were low.
The housing market began to fade in 2006 and there were plenty of experts warning of the impending bust, but it was at least another 18 months before ratings agencies, banks and investors finally accepted that losses were going to be far more severe than they had expected.
"Things were very predictable this time," Marsh said. "People just weren't adapting correctly. Did anyone have an incentive to adapt correctly? Around the world everybody had low interest rates, and they were all trying to make a few little basis points" in profit.
The short-term response to the newfound admiration of restraint will be a spike in demand for risk-management software as firms scramble to improve operations now that shareholders, directors and regulators are watching closely.
In the longer term, companies must find a way to make sure those given the job of managing risk have enough incentive to make their voices heard, even during the boom times.
"The whole reason that you compensate the senior management of these organizations is not to parrot to you that the 'value at risk' model says everything is going to fine, but rather to say these deleveragings occur. This is the nature of it. Let's not pretend that they don't," MWAM's Rivelle said, referring to times when companies are purging risk.
"Think like Warren Buffett, a guy who makes money during the deleveraging."
For generations, we've taken it for granted. But as prices soar and reserves dwindle, the time is fast approaching when mankind will have to live without oil. Are we ready to confront some really inconvenient truths? Michael Savage reports from the North Sea