The other day, my wife saw our three cats in a circle staring at something in the yard. She and my stepson found that a rabbit doe – the one that seems to enjoy outrunning our cats – had just laid a litter of bunnies in a hole. The doe apparently finds a fenced yard with three big cats safer than the rest of the neighborhood. So my stepson puts a big bowl over the hole during the day, and takes it off at night. But we’ve told him: No more pets.
I grew up watching real and television Dads mow and weed their pristine lawns. In a dose of reality, I was once hit in the chest by a twisted old nail thrown from my Dad’s real gasoline-powered lawnmower. We later moved to an old farm, and he treated almost all seven acres like a big lawn, buying a small tractor to mow it, but hardly growing anything. Later I mowed, trimmed and weeded my own tiny lawns partly out of habit, and partly because the neighbors look at you disparagingly if you don’t. My latest lawn is a comparative disgrace because the soil is bumpy, full of shale, and often in shade.
Influenced by HGTV, my wife once suggested hardscapes would be a lot less work. Since we didn’t live in a desert, I preferred the green growing lawn, but now I am reading that aristocratic lawns are bad news. Healthy Land Ethic, which I found through various ScienceBlogs posts, recommends we go back to native prairie species:
Prairies – those critically endangered and complex ecosystems understood by few and misunderstood and destroyed by millions of people.
Lawns – those myopically obsessive (and evil) urban, suburban, and increasingly rural monoculture eyesores that displace native ecosystems at a rate between 5,000 and 385,000 acres per day* in favor of sterile, chemically-filled, artificial environments bloated with a tremendous European influence that provide no benefits over the long term; no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage. And there’s the unbearable ubiquitousness of mowing associated with such a useless cultural practice, which creates a ridiculous amount of noise pollution, air and water pollution, and a bustling busyness that destroys many peaceful Saturday mornings. The American lawn is the epitome of unsustainability.
In my defense, I did use a push mower, and later an electric mower. And I never laid down all the lye and chemicals that my Dad once used. In the Tyee, though, a discussion of potlatch turns to a practical consideration:
High-class Coast Salish families inherited rights to abundant salmon runs, and they consolidated wealth by marrying other elites. Heh goos — “head men” in the Tla’amin language — made decisions on when and how to fish, and their status was legitimized through the public ceremonies of the potlatch, when they gave away their wealth. The lower-class Coast Salish had little social mobility. Status, for the most part, was inherited and changes in the social hierarchy were rare. The lower class had a lot of incentive to cooperate with the wealthy. Soon after potlatches were outlawed in 1885, the chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw — ancestors of the tribes belonging to the Laich-Kwil-Tach Treaty Society — told anthropologist Franz Boas: “It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbours. It is a good law.”
Potlatches not only distributed wealth — a finite natural resource — they also distributed knowledge, which is not finite unless it gets lost. That’s always a danger, especially if it’s not written down. Washington is teary when she talks about knowledge disappearing. The Coast Salish way of living was hard won and will not easily be retrieved. “My Granny used to say something that I never quite understood until I got older,” Washington says. “She would look at expensive homes with manicured lawns and say, in our language, ‘Oh those poor people, they have no medicines or food in their yard. How are they going to feed themselves and take care of themselves if anything happens?'”
Thirty years ago, the staff running a test on reactor #4 at the Lenin Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, USSR were reading unexpectedly high radiation levels. They debated stopping the test, but decided to keep going to find the limits. When the temperature readings climbed too high as well, they tried to shut the reactor down by inserting carbon rods.
There was, however, a design flaw, known by upper levels in the government, but not by the staff doing the testing. Inserting those rods somehow increased the reaction, increasing the heat. Containment water became steam, the roof of the reactor blew off and some ten tons of radioactive uranium became airborne, and was carried southeast, contaminating a large swath of Europe.
McClatchy has a very good article, Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years, in which they actually mention other nuclear accidents:
What they figured out was the worst nuclear-energy disaster in human history, far worse than the explosion at Kyshtym nuclear complex in 1957 in what was then the Soviet Union, which released 70 tons of radioactive material into the air, or the 1957 fire at the Windscale Nuclear Reactor in northwestern England, which forced a ban on milk sales for a month, or the Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania on March 29, 1979, where a cooling malfunction led to a partial meltdown.
There are also persistent leaks threatening groundwater at Hanford in the US, and the ongoing Fukushima disaster in Japan.
CNN tries to consign the radiation problems to history, offering more upbeat articles about Chernobyl. In Meet the New Face of Chernobyl they focus on fetching young Yulia, who lives in a nearby community, Slavutych, and was chronicled over three years by Swiss photographer Neils Ackermann:
Ackermann isn’t interested in making you sit through another telling of that tragic tale about the firefighters who couldn’t put out the flames in 1986, or the technicians who failed to stop the poisonous radioactive particles from escaping the facility and raining down on nearby residents.
Instead, he wants to introduce you to Yulia.
“She’s intense, like an energy bomb,” Ackermann said, describing the 23-year-old woman he met in 2012. At the time, Yulia was kissing a man in a park in the center of Slavutych, a town near Chernobyl built for disaster evacuees.
Yulia was born three years after the disaster. Ackermann once asked her what she thought about its consequences. “She was looking at me like it was a really stupid question,” he recalled. “Because now, the scale of health consequences resulting from radioactivity in Slavutych are much more limited than what we may think about in the West.” Slavutych residents who work in Chernobyl are protected by strict control systems. The town’s attitude about radioactivity is much more realistic and pragmatic than it would be elsewhere. One young man showed Ackermann the tomb of his best friend in a cemetery and said more people in town die because of drugs and alcohol than radioactivity.
In another article, CNN emphasizes the precautions taken as Ukraine builds a new arched structure over the decrepit sarcophagus that was built quickly after the explosion. This New Safe Confinement structure is supposed to last at least one hundred years, but the buried mass will be a threat for at least three thousand years, so I wonder who will build the next thirty structures?
Just after Thanksgiving I needed laundry detergent. I usually get the Seventh Generation in the recyclable cardboard container, but I didn’t see it at the Shoppers supermarket. They did have Arm and Hammer, but unfortunately I grabbed a plastic container with a blue cap instead of the clear cap my wife uses at our house. Clear cap is their fragrance-free Essentials. Blue cap turned out to be their Clean Burst product.
On Skype my wife told me to take it back, but I figured I’d just pay more attention the next time. Bad move. Within a few weeks I noticed a musty smell throughout the apartment. I had recently cleaned out moldy dryer lint, and at first I thought there was a new growth somewhere, but it was actually the perfume from the Clean Burst. The stuff is pervasive. On a holiday visit, as soon as I walked in the door at our house both my wife and stepson complained about the smell surrounding me. He is immune-compromised and very sensitive to perfumes and chemicals wafting into our yard from neighboring dryer vents. She washed my clothing repeatedly – rinsing with vinegar – and got some of the smell out.
But Clean Burst was also irritating to my skin. When I wore freshly-laundered clothing, I felt wisps of something across my face and hands. Later I felt pinpricks as if something was breaking out of, or into, my skin. Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives Clean Burst a D rating with moderate concerns for cancer, respiratory effects and skin irritation. The Arm and Hammer Essentials perfume-free version my wife uses gets a C rating, but thought it had no awful smell, I still felt some irritation from the clothing she laundered.
Though I never had a reaction to it, EWG also gives the Seventh Generation liquid detergent I used before a D rating – though for different concerns. EWG’s top ratings go to products I haven’t used, but will certainly try.
In, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, the local laird has a problem – who to support in the final Jacobite rebellion of Charles Edward Stuart against the Hanovers. The Durie family is sympathetic to Bonnie Prince Charlie, but rather than risk aligning themselves entirely with the losing side, one son supports the status quo while the other goes off to join the insurgency. The plan was that no matter who wins, a Durie would keep the land and title. Stevenson’s plot gets a lot more complicated, though, as things often do.
In the climate change debate, a lot of people have picked a side, and are fightly fiercely in the media (and courts) to convince others of the cause. The climate, of course, is changing more obviously every month, but deniers are fighting a rearguard action. Like the Duries, many in the media are trying play to both sides. I have read claims that most mainstream media meteorologists accept climate change, but you’d never know that from watching the weather on television. I’m guessing most station managers expect only decreased ratings if they so much as mention climate change on air.
Recently Pope Francis, the public face of the Catholic Church, issued an encyclical called Laudatum Si, (Praise Be To You) subtitled On the Care For Our Common Home, which recognizes climate change as a threat, and calls on the world to stop destroying the environment. Predictably, environmentalists have hailed Laudatum Si, and, also predictably, deniers have suggested the pope should stay out of science and politics. At the New York Times DotEarth blog, Andrew Revkin takes a cautionary tone, warning us, Beware Casting Pope Francis as a Caped Crusader, where he applauds the pontiff:
The greatest value in the pope’s decision to press on climate policy and environmental care, to my mind, lies in the reminder that, while science matters enormously in identifying the risks from an unabated buildup of greenhouse gases, the choices we make are shaped more by values and appropriately should involve every sector of society.
… but also quietly undercuts the message:
… “It’s important not to conclude that moral arguments for action on global warming, even conveyed by a pope, are a world-changing breakthrough. The reason is that the climate issue doesn’t exist in a moral vacuum. A powerful moral argument can also be built around the right of poorer countries to get out of poverty using fossil fuels. That argument bolsters Prime Minister Modi’s commitment to double coal production by 2020, for example, even as India also (at a much, much smaller scale) expands solar capacity and nuclear power.”
I’m excited to see such an influential and thoughtful figure pressing the case for action, and acknowledging the need for dialogue.
But Francis remains a man, not a Superman.
Dot Earth was moved from News to Opinion several years ago, and the Times dropped a lot of other ‘green’ blogs in 2013, so Revkin is politically smart to be cautious. But Greg Laden, who I follow on Science Blogs, has called him out for playing to the middle:
But then I look at Dot Earth, and I see two things. First is Andy Revkin’s tendency to occupy that space between serious concern about climate change and acceptance of consensus science on one hand, and questioning of the reality and importance of climate change, on the other. In other words, Andy likes to write, often, in the space between what deniers call “warmists” and what warmists call “deniers.”
And now there’s a lot of finger-pointing on both blogs.
IMO, it isn’t just DotEarth, it is the entire mainstream media, many so-called environmental groups and even people like me that accept climate change, but are trying not to alienate our spouses and bosses while slowly making a transition to a more sustainable existence. Just how long the climate lets us live in the middle is hard to predict.
In, Killing The Colorado, ProPublica looks at manmade projects as a culprit in the current drought. In the Explore the River section of the series of articles, each dam, each power generating station is shown to lose vast vast amounts of water to evaporation and seepage.
In the first article, Holy Crop, farmers feel compelled to grow thirsty cotton to benefit from, and survive on, government subsidies:
The water shortages that have brought California, Arizona and other Western states to the edge of an environmental cliff have been attributed to a historic climate event — a dry spell that experts worry could be the worst in 1,000 years. But an examination by ProPublica shows that the scarcity of water is as much a man-made crisis as a natural one, the result of decades of missteps and misapprehensions by governments and businesses as they have faced surging demand driven by a booming population.
Even in the face of a drought, the current laws actually encourage wasting water:
… He knows his fields could thrive with much smaller amounts of water — he’s seen them do so in dry years — but the property owners he works for have the legal right to take a large supply, and he applies the water generously. … Ketterhagen feels he has little choice. A vestige of 139-year-old water law pushes ranchers to use as much water as they possibly can, even during a drought. “Use it or lose it” clauses, as they are known, are common in state laws throughout the Colorado River basin and give the farmers, ranchers and governments holding water rights a powerful incentive to use more water than they need. Under the provisions of these measures, people who use less water than they are legally entitled to risk seeing their allotment slashed.
And moving that water takes a toll on the climate:
The power generated enables a modern wonder. It drives a set of pumps 325 miles down the Colorado River that heave trillions of gallons of water out of the river and send it shooting over mountains and through canals. That water — lifted 3,000 vertical feet and carried 336 miles — has enabled the cities of Phoenix and Tucson to rapidly expand. This achievement in moving water, however, is gained at an enormous cost. Every hour the Navajo’s generators spin, the plant spews more climate-warming gases into the atmosphere than almost any other facility in the United States. Alone, it accounts for 29 percent of Arizona’s emissions from energy generation. The Navajo station’s infernos gobble 15 tons of coal each minute, 24 hours each day, every day.
There has been a lot of positive press for renewable energy lately, but despite international conferences and resolutions about greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change, about 90% of the energy the world uses is still the result of burning some fossilized sink of carbon, whether coal, petroleum or natural gas. With petroleum I include tar sands bitumen which the Canadians cook to make synthetic oil.
As they have begun turning to oil and natural gas, China’s coal consumption and production fell by 3% last year, but they still burned almost four million short tons, four times as much coal as the US. In the US we still produce 40% of our electricity with coal, “clean” or otherwise. India burns slightly less than the US, but it is often dirtier, low grade coal. Russia and Germany each burn less than a third than the US. Germany has quite a bit of wind and photovoltaic (PV) solar installed and probably leads the world in passive solar, but were also relying heavily on nuclear plants until the Fukushima Daichi failure. They then closed their nuclear plants and returned to coal, but even Japan is considering giving nuclear another go. Hardly any African nations burn much coal except South Africa which burns about 200,000 short tons. Australia burns less than SA and sells a lot to China. South Korea burns slightly less than Oz. Canada burns relatively little coal, but after processing tar sands into dilbit, sells its dirty pet coke byproducts across North and South America where they are burned like coal. Coal is nasty stuff, and more deadly in the short term than nuclear, but we’ll probably have to see a lot more devastating climate events before we give it up.
Fracking is slowly being revealed as a financial bubble, but even with the boomlet, the US is still a net importer of oil. Canada exports its diluted bitumen (dilbit) to Asia, and wants to use the XL Keystone pipeline to move it instead of railway cars. Indonesia generates its electricity with oil. It used to export oil, now it is a net importer. Pakistan relies on Saudi oil, and Saudi debt forgiveness, for electricity, but experiences load-shedding so often that it has become a regular part of life.
The US has replaced many of its coal-fired electrical plants with cleaner natural gas plants. Russia sells natural gas throughout Europe. Canada uses natural gas to process its tar sands. But though it burns cleaner than oil, natural gas is not a renewable resource, and the output from gas wells can decline very quickly with little warning.
Despite the gloomy prospects for carbon fuel, a Deutsche Bank report notes that the Solar Investment Tax Credit drops from 30% to 10% in 2017, and new subsidies for renewables seem unlikely in an election season. Nevertheless, many media outlets, like Clean Technica, are quoting that study’s claim that the world will achieve “grid parity” by 2030 as evidence that we can smoothly transition from a world burning carbon to a world run with energy from renewable sources – meaning the sun, wind, trees and flowing water.
Investment bank Deutsche Bank is predicting that solar systems will be at grid parity in up to 80 per cent of the global market within 2 years, and says the collapse in the oil price will do little to slow down the solar juggernaut.
In his 2015 solar outlook, leading analyst Vishal Shah says solar will be at grid parity in most of the world by the end of 2017. That’s because grid-based electricity prices are rising across the world, and solar costs are still falling. Shah predicts solar module costs will fall another 40 per cent over the next four to five years.
Even if electricity prices remain stable – two thirds of the world will find solar to be cheaper than their current conventional energy supply. If electricity costs rise by around 3 per cent a year, then Deutsche’s “Blue sky” scenario is for 80 per cent of countries to be at grid parity for solar.
“We believe the trend is clear: grid parity without subsidies is already here, increasing parity will occur, and solar penetration rates are set to ramp worldwide,” Shah notes.
The technical definition of grid parity is when you can generate your own power, “at a levelized cost of electricity (LCoE) that is less than or equal to the price of purchasing power from the electricity grid.” That would seem to indicate that powering one’s home or small business with PV would make financial sense.
The reality of grid parity is less compelling. For example, Australia achieved grid parity in 2012, but less than two percent of their electricity is generated by solar energy. The electrical demand curve of a house or business is vastly different than the supply curve of an array of panels. The difference means that either each user only use electricity when the sun shines, store a great deal of power in a great many batteries for dark and stormy nights, or draw power from the wind and natural gas-fired grid when necessary.
As noted in the Washington Post, utilities are not excited about their delivery interface getting more complicated.
Electric utilities appear poorly equipped for how technology will transform the energy industry. For years there hasn’t been an incentive to innovate, in part due to a lack of competition. Plus, making their product cheaper means less revenue, so why innovate?
I’ve been reading about battles between early solar adopters and their local electrical utilities since the 1970s. It may be a tall tale, but back then I was told that one Western US utility expected to be paid for any electricity generated in the state, even if you were off the grid. I am still running across articles about disputes, but it seems that sometimes a developer or panel vendor can actually strike a deal with the local power company where the homeowner both generates power and uses the grid.
As an aside, we have no solar panels, but we just got an offer from Penelec to, “insure” the outside power lines for some amount of money per month. “Be a shame if something were to happen to our line where it runs across your property.”
Batteries are getting better, and cheaper, but don’t last forever. Elon Musk and others are trying to invest billions to advance the technology for Electric Vehicles (EVs), and that may cross over to home batteries. Hence we see the idea of using your EV battery array as a storage unit for your home’s solar panels.
What is likely to happen? Over time, electricity will become much more expensive and more intermittent. People will adapt their schedules to the vagaries of the power grid, as they do in Pakistan now. I see rich people investing in solar arrays, inverters and battery arrays, as they do in Pakistan now, to stay up late and get through the downtime. Even though many condensers are natural gas-fired, I can’t see how forcing cold air through buildings the way we do now can continue on a renewable grid. Perhaps office dwellers will rediscover operable windows.
As far as transportation, wealthy people are already transitioning from gasoline to battery and fuel cell personal vehicles. Some middle class people are already driving smaller cars, hybrids and motorcycles, but the big tree falling will be when American pickup truck sales decline. Electric assist bikes are very popular in Asia, and will catch on elsewhere, but dirty two-stroke motor scooters are still faster and cheaper.
I can see more people accepting EVs. I already see buses with fuel cells. I have a hard time seeing industrial farm vehicles, which run all day, running on batteries or fuel cells instead of diesel. I can see construction workers switching their handheld tools from air compressors to batteries, but I can’t see battery-powered dump trucks and concrete mixers putting in a full day. I can see street lights being replaced by larger versions of those lawn lights with the little PV panel and rechargeable battery. In Pakistan now, manufacturers simply can’t run their textile machines during load shedding, so I expect there will be a series of ideas floated to solve that problem elsewhere, many of which will fail.
I’ve written about it before, but I’m still thinking back to a Harper’s article from 2008, The Next Bubble. That bubble was to be in renewables, or Cleantech:
There is one industry that fits the bill: alternative energy, the development of more energy-efficient products, along with viable alternatives to oil, including wind, solar, and geothermal power, along with the use of nuclear energy to produce sustainable oil substitutes, such as liquefied hydrogen from water. … Other ventures … are funding an array of startups working on improvements to solar cells, to biofuels production, to batteries, to “energy management” software, and so on.
… The Energy Policy Act of 2005, a massive bill known to morning commuters for extending daylight savings time, contained provisions guaranteeing loans for alternative-energy businesses, including nuclear-power technology. The bill authorizes $200 million annually for clean-coal initiatives, repeals the current 160-acre cap on coal leases, offers subsidies for wind energy and other alternative-energy producers, and promises $50 million annually, over the life of the bill, for a biomass grant program. …
There certainly has been a great expansion of renewable energy, but it hasn’t had the sheen and bluster of a bubble. Here and there, wind turbine ‘farms’ are built and subsidized by tax credits. Sometimes they stop turning when the credits dry up. Photovoltaic solar panels suddenly became more efficient, but local manufacturers were undercut by cheaper products from China, and concerns were raised about PV waste. Molycorp reopened an old mine, and attempted to break the Chinese stranglehold on rare earths, but as recently reported on 60 Minutes, has yet to turn a profit.
Supporting this alternative-energy bubble will be a boom in infrastructure—transportation and communications systems, water, and power.
Harper’s missed the call on US infrastructure. Although the media regularly raises alarms about rusting bridges, and despite President Obama championing infrastructure spending, federal, state and local governments are still reactive rather than proactive. Harper’s also missed that the next bubble was actually in unconventional energy sources like fracking and tight oil and tar sands, but they may be on the verge of being right about the next, next bubble:
… the gross market value of all enterprises needed to develop hydroelectric power, geothermal energy, nuclear energy, wind farms, solar power, and hydrogen-powered fuel-cell technology—and the infrastructure to support it—is somewhere between $2 trillion and $4 trillion; assuming the bubble can get started, the hyperinflated fictitious value could add another $12 trillion. In a hyperinflation, infrastructure upgrades will accelerate, with plenty of opportunity for big government contractors fleeing the declining market in Iraq. Thus, we can expect to see the creation of another $8 trillion in fictitious value, which gives us an estimate of $20 trillion in speculative wealth, money that inevitably will be employed to increase share prices rather than to deliver “energy security.” When the bubble finally bursts, we will be left to mop up after yet another devastated industry. …
Will Harper’s be correct? Or can we adopt aspects of renewable energy with careful consideration rather than believing the hype that we can continue to live a non-renewable lifestyle using renewable energy sources? It does seem clear that the financial industry knows that their customers are not going to be satisfied with slow steady returns. That’s why we see Deutsche Bank hyping grid parity into a done deal on renewable energy.
In the Calgary Herald, T. Boone Pickens writes, an OpEd, Calgary, I’m so sorry about the Keystone pipeline:
Because the pipeline crosses national boundaries, the State Department is charged with producing reports. Yet, after State made its report, the White House went “agency shopping” and asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take another look at Keystone. To no one’s surprise, the EPA fired off a letter objecting to pipeline construction, citing concerns of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Not once does Pickens mention that a primary objection to the KXL is that it will be carrying dilbit – a much hotter, more toxic raw material than ordinary crude oil – across the Ogallala Aquifer.
The problem with the EPA’s math is that Canadians don’t need permission from the U.S. to recover that oil and sell it. Canadians will extract it and ship it overland by train or via pipeline and tanker, not south to the United States, but west to Asia, or elsewhere. When oil prices come back up, Korea, Japan, China and others will benefit from the Canadian oilsands, not the U.S.
Pickens fails to mention that even with the KXL in place, all the oil from that dilbit will be shipped to Asia anyway. Nor does he mention that Canada does not currently have refineries with coker units needed to process the comparatively dirty dilbit. The US does have refineries with coker units near the Gulf of Mexico, but such refining would lead to additional carbon in the atmosphere both in the US and abroad.
Roughly 15% of dilbit ends up as a petroleum coke byproduct. ‘Pet coke’ is like a charcoal containing heavy metals, sulphur and other impurities removed from dilbit during the coking part of the refining process. Pet coke can be used as an alternative fuel in coal-fired powerplants, but produces 5 – 10% more greenhouse gasses than coal. Pet coke is often sold by North American firms to Asian and South American firms for energy production.
Pet Coke could be called Pet Koch, because the largest US sellers are Koch Carbon, owned by Charles and David Koch, and Oxbow Corporation, owned by William I Koch.