Archive for the ‘energy’ Category

The Boys in Green

October 24, 2008

So I’ve been furrowing my brow upon this Green revolution stuff, not only because of the strong capitalist bent to it and the glaring lack of political feasibility, but also because I hear about it so much — and as a rule, whenever something crosses that threshold of being in my face all the time, I start to find it annoying.

HOWEVER last night in class I saw a terrific presentation by the incomparable Scott Sklar of the Stella Group which executes renewable energy projects for industrial and commercial interests worldwide. This man gave me a much needed positive vibe about the notion that possibilities exist for our future.

Check it out: the military is always on the cutting edge of new technology, and they’re *great* at getting public funding in this country. So I thought what Mr. Sklar had to say about current military projects particular interesting — since they tend to end up in the public sphere and thus the market for consumer goods (like our fair internet).

Did you know that 80% of combat deaths in Iraq are due to soldiers traveling in convoys, hence making easy targets of themselves? And of course what are they carrying in the vast majority of these convoys? Fuel!

Did you know that the military has been one of the prime movers in the development of PV-nanotechnology that can be used in dyes? You will be able to generate energy for your house by painting it with this stuff — they’ve even been able to print it on paper to make little flexible polaroid-sized solar cells. Absolutely insane.

Did you know that they make portable solar powered water purification systems? (These will come in handy in the battlefield as well as in turmoil following natural disasters, the incidence of which we can expect to go up!)

Did you know that there are also a lot of folks within the DOD who are advocating for the strategic importance of “distributed energy” — finding ways to generate energy in a de-centralized, renewables based way?

There are the same people (though military man McCain is obviously not part of this group) who worry about nuclear power and our insanely inefficient power grid as national security risks! Our energy grid needs to be more flexible, like the cell phone network — which, by the way, depends on cell towers 20% of which operate off of solar energy!

Did you know that they already sell backpacks with little solar panels embedded in them, so you can charge your laptop while you walk around?

And finally: Did you know that the solar and wind industries are the third largest employers in Germany and Spain? You can’t keep military prowess and hence global hegemony while the economy suffers…so I think there’s a faction in the Pentagon pushing for this move towards renewables. And these people tend to have quite a bit of political clout. And hell, if there’s anything that People’s Liberation Army over in China likes to do, its try to get our technology…

Here I am a peacenick quasi-anarchist and its *the military* that get me excited about the move to green energy…absolutely insane!


There is hope

August 1, 2008

This just in: MIT researchers, up to their necks in old fashioned Yankee ingenuity, may have revealed an elegant solution to our energy problem!

What’s really interesting about this is that the process is described as “artificial photosynthesis” i.e. Nature already figured out the best chemical solution to the energy problem, all we had to do was imitate her.

The question remains whether we can transmit this insight to other global crises as well.

Check out this video for yet another breakthrough from the folks at MIT, published in a recent issue of Science. It’s about “a sophisticated, yet affordable, method to turn ordinary glass into a high-tech solar concentrator.”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Thomas L. Friedman

April 30, 2008

Star Trek II is an amazing movie. Perhaps, just perhaps it has unexpected relevance to our lives?

Any nerd worth his or her own salt has seen this film and remembers the Kobiyashi Maru test — the infamous command evaluation given at Starfleet Academy in which the cadet is presented with a no-win scenario. But if you need a refresher, it goes like this:

Imagine you’re the cadet. If you rescue the imperiled ship, you face certain destruction as well as possibly sparking an inter-galactic war. But If you don’t respond to the distress signal, the passengers and crew of the Kobiyashi Maru will definitely die. You lose either way. What do you do?

Now imagine you’re a candidate in the super tight Democratic nomination contest for the 2008 Presidential election.

Do you support suspending gas tax (a very silly policy at best) in order to possibly gain some popular ground against your charismatic opponent? Or do you stick with a somewhat more sensible policy but risk being branded an elitist? You lose either way.

Author and NYT columnist Thomas L. Friedman is getting more and more frustrated with the the fact that no one supports his initiative to increase gas taxes, even though it clearly makes a lot of sense. (He’s probably also still reeling from a recent pie in the face at Brown University) He refuses to accept that it is impossible to make real strides away from the oil economy in a political system whose very existence is based on the abundance of cheap oil. The situation itself is an excellent example of the no-win scenario.

Spock, always the epitome of logic, points out that the point of the Kobiyashi Maru test is to see how the cadet faces death. Kirk, the wise-cracking cowboy Captain, is supposed to have beaten the no-win scenario by cheating– he re-programmed the simulator’s computer banks so that it was possible to win. He even got a medal for his ingenuity!

*That’s* what needs to happen, and fast.

Food For Naught: Oil, Capitalism, and difference

April 8, 2008

In my post about pimps (below) I was trying, albeit in an extraordinarily silly way, to allude to a troubling systematic problem which I will now proceed to talk about in a more sober fashion.


The ready availability of cheap oil, upon which the entire edifice of contemporary civilization rests, is no longer dependable.

While this fact is connected with a whole host of emerging problems, I find it particularly alarming that agriculture, which is perhaps the deepest and richest connection between mankind and the planet, is now almost entirely bound up in the oil economy. The globalized, mass production model of agriculture leads to infamous policy snafus (like farming subsidies) as well as dependency upon (petroleum-based) chemical fertilizer, which is unbelievably bad for the flora and fauna. More importantly, it ignores bio-diversity, which is crucial to any natural system.

Pesticide and toxic herbicide (weed killer) are needed to sustain mono-culture crops like rice, wheat, soy, and maize (which together now constitute 60% of the world’s food supply). Not only does this lead to more chemical toxins in the ground water, it also encourages poison-resistant pests and weeds. When weeds naturally evolve pesticide/herbicide resistance, grains themselves must be genetically engineered to be toxin resistant just to survive. So you see, genetic engineering of crops is touted as a fabulous new technology, but it is instead a corporate quick-fix effort to sew up larger, systematic problems rather than really addressing them.

I admit that industrial agriculture has been successful for decades; at enormous costs in soil depletion and pollution. Also, since it is totally dependent on energy-intensive machinery, fertilizers and irrigation, industrial agriculture will become increasingly expensive as the price of oil continue to rise. (Indeed, Paul Krugman points out that food prices have soared)

Sustainable agriculture methods offer another way: rebuilding soils with compost and mulch, conserving water through ecologically intelligent landscape design, and replacing monoculture by planting mutually beneficial crops together. With permaculture, we can create sustainable farming jobs and abundant harvests, while rebuilding ecosystems. (See here for permaculture issues and ideas specifically for New York City and Brooklyn. Incidentally, I saw the author of that article speak at the Friends Meeting House near Union Square last month…fascinating stuff.)

Sustainable food production is now all the rage as a political issue– there are widespread calls to localize, regionalize, and diversify agriculture. Which is fantastic.

But for me, this is not enough. The oil-dependent food production system, which extends worldwide thanks to the efforts of agribusiness, represents just one facet of a deeper cultural issue endemic to modern Western civilization. This is difference. Capitalism, science, fossil-fuel-burning, nationalism…all are based on the illusion that human life is *not* primarily and most importantly dependent upon the biosphere, a fact which connects your interests fundamentally with mine. The crucial mechanism of difference is cutting an analytical slash between subject and object and passing it off as common sense. One of the most dangerous corollaries of difference is the idea of profit, the notion that you could be entitled to reaping *more* than you input into a system. This encourages narrow-minded individualism and ignores (or purposefully obfuscates) the real sources of wealth.

Why did I choose pimps and hoes as a metaphor? Because the expansion of colonialism, capitalism, science, and technology have historically been couched in the language of sexuality, sexual conquest, and sexual difference.

But that’s a whole ‘nother story, folks.

Local Warming

February 25, 2008

If you were there for the TORNADO that touched down in Bay Ridge/Sunset Park last summer, let alone the bizarre February fluctuations of temperature we’ve been going through (from 5 degrees to 65 degrees and back), you know that climate change is a very real, tangible thing here in Brooklyn. It seems that neighborhood organizations and city officials have also noticed this, and have started to do something about it! And as a member of the Sunset Park Community HealthCorps, I guess I’m sort of already implicated in all this.

This Friday I attended a community gathering to learn/raise awareness about what the concrete effects of climate change will be in the foreseeable future. The meeting, hosted by UPROSE, “Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community based organization,” focused on what we can expect in Brooklyn, particularly in Sunset Park. It turns out that since most of the industry and crucial infrastructure in SP is located close to the waterfront, small changes in sea-level rise, the intensity of tropical storms, and the length of heat waves will drastically impact the quality of life here. Presenters from the Office of Emergency Management and the Mayor’s Office PLANYC2030 gave talks in which they expressed keen unwavering awareness of the following facts:

  • Scientists predict an increase in the frequency and severity of hurricanes; it is more and more likely that a storm will hit us, even this far North. Hurricane season starts in the summer time, so you should prepare accordingly
  • OEM has calculated that if a hurricane strikes NYC or the environs (apparently Atlantic City is more likely based on meteorological data) this will likely leave about 2.3 million New Yorkers without housing, approximately 650,000 of whom will have to seek public housing. That is an insane number.
  • By 2039, NYC expects to experience over 70 days per year with temperatures over 90 degrees.
  • Today’s impacts come from emissions generated 50 years ago. Even if we drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we are going to experience intensifying climate change impacts. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions in NYC are going steadily UP.
  • Nearly 80% of greenhouse emissions can be attributed to heating, cooling, and lighting buildings. Hence, amending the building code to promote green building practices will be a crucial step in cutting down on the carbon.

NYC is generally considered to be on the up and up. For the past 3 decades, NYC has been reviving its industries, infrastructure, parks, etc. and has been concurrently experiencing a decrease in crime, an increase in tourism, population, etc. I’m pretty impressed that the Mayor’s Office is taking this growth as an opportunity to raise awareness not only about mitigation of global warming but about adaptation to the coming changes; in fact, according to them,this represents the first climate change adaptation project in the United States. AND this meeting is the first neighborhood-level community outreach in the adaptation project, hence the first such meeting in the US! How bout that?


January 14, 2008

Oil costs 18 times as much as Coal per unit of heat energy generated!
I guess that’s why 50% of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal, while only 2% comes from petroleum?

Instead of doing useful things at work today, I did the following simple algebra:

Let’s say for simplicity of calculation that 1 short ton of coal costs about $20 in the US, depending on what state you live in, (click here for super fun coal facts)

use this super fun energy converter to figure that 1 short ton of coal generates 20,754,000 Btu’s of heat energy. Put 20,754,000 in for Btu’s in the petroleum segment and you get that it takes 3.58 barrels to generate the same amount of heat energy.

Much to the chagrin of commentators everywhere, especially those who foresee the problem of having to compete for scarce resources with China et al., the price of a barrel of oil just hit $100. $20 times 5 = $100. hence…(3.6 x 5): 1 is the monetary value of oil versus coal = 18.

Most electricity is generated by giant moving turbines, which are pushed by steam, emitting from boiling water heated by some kind of fuel. Since the temperature at which water boils is (more or less) constant, it costs 18 times as much in terms of cash money to generate a given amount of electricity with oil as opposed to coal. Craziness!