Financial Times: Ukraine Stand-off Aids Case for Renewables

Originally posted on Climate Denial Crock of the Week:

Financial Times:

But the idea that Russia could threaten to turn off Europe’s gas is likely to change the way people think about the cost of renewable energy, some analysts say.

“It creates a different mindset about renewables,” says offshore wind analyst, Sophia von Waldow, of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance research group. “People no longer think, ‘This is very expensive and it’s affecting our energy bills’.” Instead, they start to see the benefits of having an independent source of electricity, she adds

Offshore wind power companies are among the most likely beneficiaries of such a shift in opinion, if it lasts.

Offshore wind is newer and more expensive than the two leading renewable technologies, onshore wind or solar power, meaning it will rely on subsidies for longer than its older counterparts.

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What Makes UX Your Passion?

Originally posted on UX Passion:

A user experience (UX) designer defines how a user feels while interacting with the system. Below is a set of skills that makes you a passionate user experience designer. These skills are truly simple to learn and adopt in your design process.

Do Research

A must skill for a UX designer is to do research, and do it at all the time. Make yourself up to date to latest trends. Spend maximum possible time to explore upcoming designs, techniques and tools in your field.

Always compare the knowledge that you are attaining each day and see how quickly things are evolving. And you will see that how amazing you feel when this exploration clicks into your mind while designing the UI.

Think as if you are a User, not a Designer

It is very important to satisfy your user; the client who will use your product. Never try to impose…

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Energy Storage + Solar = A Game Changer

Originally posted on Climate Denial Crock of the Week:

Key factor seems to be that we expect “grid parity”, the point where solar+storage costs undercut the cost of utility power, – to come within the 30 year lifetime of conventional power plants being built today.

That means potential huge stranded assets for utilities and their shareholders, unless plans are made for a smooth transition to new technology. Based on the record of technological innovation in recent decades, I’d bet that grid-parity will come sooner, rather than later, than projections.

Bloomberg:

The rapid development of rooftop solar and battery storage technology could be as transformative to the economy and modern life as the U.S. oil and gas boom, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said.

“It’s pretty dramatic,” Moniz said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg News at the IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston. “They are growing very, very fast.”

Batteries allow customers with solar panels to store energy during the day…

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Ecuador’s sharing economy

Originally posted on Make Wealth History:

Not every country in the world is in hock to GDP growth the way that Britain is. More balanced views are out there on the margins, where growth takes its place as one metric among many – not irrelevant, but not “the government’s number one priority” as Gordon Brown declared it to be when he was PM. I’ve mentioned Thailand’s sufficiency economy before, or Bhutan ‘s experiment in Gross National Happiness . To that we can add another: Ecuador.

In 2007 Ecuador began an interesting experiment – a national development plan for good living. It’s based around social justice, participation, diversity, sustainability and human wellbeing. It specifically rejects the Washington Consensus and neoliberal economics, and redefines development as ‘good living’.

“Good Living is based on a vision that surpasses the narrow confines of quantitative economicism and challenges the notion of material, mechanic and endless accumulation of goods. Instead the…

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Olafur Eliasson Puts Sunshine In Your Pocket

Originally posted on TED Blog:

This week, so much TED-related news hit the transom. Below, some of the highlights.

Artist Olafur Eliasson (watch his TED Talk) muses on his latest work — “Little Sun,” a miniature solar-powered lamp that puts five hours of sunlight in your pocket — in this awesome video from our friends at The Creators Project. The best part: the video brings you inside Eliasson’s studio, where  off-kilter geometric forms rule.

Thomas Dolby (watch his TED performance) is moving to Baltimore to fill a new role at Johns Hopkins. According to The Baltimore Sun, he’ll be the university’s first Homewood Professor of the Arts, heading up a center that will serve as an incubator for technology in the arts.

Intriguing news: research from the Human Security Report Project indicates that global violence is indeed declining — just like Steven Pinker suggested in his TED Talk.

In…

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Four principles of the Circular Economy

Originally posted on Make Wealth History:

The Circular Economy is an approach to industry that moves away from linear consumption and towards reuse. If you’ve heard the phrase and aren’t entirely sure what it means, here are four principles that explain the philosophy.

  1. A true circular economy is zero waste. Nothing is thrown away, because waste is designed out by making things for repair, disassembly and reuse.
  2. There are two types of industrial ‘ingredients’: disposable and durable. Disposable ingredients are those that can biodegrade, such as paper or fabric. Second, there are ‘technical’ ingredients like metal or plastic that can be reused. Things must be one or the other so that everything can be either reused or put back into nature. More complex objects should be designed to be dismantled so that they can be sorted into those two categories at the end of their lives.
  3. If this industrial cycle is to be sustainable, then the…

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David LaChapelle’s Toxic Landscapes

Originally posted on The Dirt:

chapelle3
Once named the “Fellini of photography,” David LaChapelle has left his popular commercial work behind to return to his original fine art photography. In a new series called Land Scape, LaChapelle created handcrafted scale models of gas stations and refineries and photographed them with hundreds of LED lights. The work is an eerie look at the unsustainable landscape of today’s global, industrial oil production and distribution system.

In the exhibition catalog, Shana Dambrot writes: “The gas stations and refineries that populate iconic locations are staged as architectural avatars of a planet coping with the stresses of peak-oil — even as the buildings’ dazzling spectacle and retro-future aesthetic distracts from the dangers of their function.” To build these incredible models, LaChapelle used cardboard and recycled materials, like “tea canisters, hair curlers, and other by-products of our petroleum-based, disposability-obsessed culture.”

chapelle4
In the Refineries set (see images above and below), LaChapelle turns…

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More Devices, Less Energy. The Future of Tech is Here.

Originally posted on Climate Denial Crock of the Week:

netzeroa2

More evidence that the trend I’ve been reporting for years is not slowing down.

Associated Press:

NEW YORK (AP) — The average amount of electricity consumed in U.S. homes has fallen to levels last seen more than a decade ago, back when the smartest device in people’s pockets was a Palm pilot and anyone talking about a tablet was probably an archaeologist or a preacher.

Because of more energy-efficient housing, appliances and gadgets, power usage is on track to decline in 2013 for the third year in a row, to 10,819 kilowatt-hours per household, according to the Energy Information Administration.

That’s the lowest level since 2001, when households averaged 10,535 kwh. And the drop has occurred even though our lives are more electrified.

Here’s a look at what has changed since the last time consumption was so low.

BETTER HOMES

In the early 2000s, as energy prices rose, more states adopted or toughened…

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How Cheap Are EV Batteries?

Originally posted on Climate Denial Crock of the Week:

Ask me tomorrow.
I’m heading to Detroit today to talk to some insiders in the Auto and EV industry.

Cleantechnica:

A couple of CleanTechnica’s readers/advisors recently gathered together some interesting numbers and insights. To start this piece, I’ll just repost what one of them passed along to me:

I’m finding Chevy Volt replacement batteries online for about $2,300.

$2,300/16 kWh = $144/kWh

Retail.

On the GM Parts Store site a replacement battery for the 2012 Chevy Volt is listed at $2,305.88. No core (used battery) return required.

That’s 16 kWh. $144.12/kWh. Retail.

From the Volt forum -

“When I checked thru a friends Shop about this time last year (to get the ‘good guy’ price), the ‘complete propulsion battery assembly’ for a 2012 (they didn’t Have a price for the 2013 yet at that time) was quoted at $1900. And NO exchange or “core” – they did Not want the…

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13 Clean Energy Breakthroughs in 2013

Originally posted on Climate Denial Crock of the Week:

Cleantechnica:

While the news about climate change seems to get worse every day, the rapidly improving technology, declining costs, and increasing accessibility of clean energy is the true bright spot in the march toward a zero-carbon future. 2013 had more clean energy milestones than we could fit on one page, but here are thirteen of the key breakthroughs that happened this year.

1. Using salt to keep producing solar power even when the sun goes down. 
Helped along by the Department of Energy’s loan program, Solana’s massive 280 megawatt (MW) solar plant came online in Arizona this October, with one unique distinction: the plant will use a ‘salt battery’ that will allow it to keep generating electricity even when the sun isn’t shining. Not only is this a first for the United States in terms of thermal energy storage, the Solana plant is also the largest in the world to…

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It’s Not OK That Your Employees Can’t Afford to Eat

Originally posted on HBR Blog Network - Harvard Business Review:

It wasn’t that long ago that in most companies, especially large ones, a fair amount of time was spent worrying about whether the company’s practices towards employees were fair. One of the functions of human resource departments was to advocate for the interests of employees.

The motivation wasn’t entirely altruistic. Since WWI, employers figured they could keep unions out by giving employees virtually all of the wage and benefits they would have gotten from joining unions. Even without that concern, though, the leadership of the company considered it part of their job to strike a balance between the other demands on the business and the needs of employees.  They were one of the important stakeholders in the business, along with customers, shareholders, and the community around them.

There is no doubt that shareholder activism as well as court cases sympathetic to shareholder interests pushed publicly-held companies to pay more attention…

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Gallery: A school and a clinic, built from compressed clay

Originally posted on TED Blog:

Kéré designed a primary school for Gando in 1999 and, with the help of residents of the village, construction was completed in 2001. The school’s walls are made from compressed clay, and the ceiling is made of corrugated metal on a steel truss to let air flow in freely. It has three classrooms, separated by shaded outdoor spaces. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

Kéré designed a primary school for the village of Gando in Burkina Faso in 1999. With the help of residents of the village, construction was completed in 2001. The school’s walls are made from compressed clay, and the ceiling is made of corrugated metal on a steel truss to let air flow freely. The school has three classrooms, separated by shaded outdoor spaces. Photo: Erik-Jan Ouwerkerk

Diébédo Francis Kéré grew up in a small village in Gando, Burkina Faso, before heading to Germany to study architecture. And as a student there, he came up with a very ambitious project.[ted_talkteaser id=1888]

“I wanted to open up better opportunities to other kids in Gando. I wanted to use my skills to build a school. But how do you do that when you’re still a student and don’t have money?” he says in this moving talk. “Fundraising was not an easy task…

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The Top Ten 2013 Clean Energy Stories to be Thankful for

Originally posted on Climate Change Reports:

The Top Ten Clean Energy Stories to be Thankful for in 2013 list was published by the Sierra Club, in case you were wondering if the the entire planet was being led solely by foolish turkeys instead.  They are:

  1. Wind Power Save Money in Oklahoma
  2. Colorado Doubles its Renewable Energy Standard
  3. Minnesota Passes Comprehensive Clean Energy Legislation
  4. 2013 is a Banner Year for Wind Power in the Midwest
  5. Nebraska To Expand Its Wind Power Industry, as activists urged
  6. Nevada is Moving from Coal Towards Clean Energy
  7. 150,000 Solar Rooftops in California… and counting!!!!
  8. Tea Party and Enviros Unite to Fight for Solar Power in George
  9. New York invests in 380 MW More of Solar Power
  10.   Maryland Makes Off-Shore Wind Power History!

 

So, take pride, gobble some turkey, but then roll up your shirt sleeves, because we’ve got a lot more work to do….

 

Join the swelling numbers…

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Renewables Provide 99% of All New US Electrical Generating Capacity in October

Originally posted on Wired Industry:

by Staff Writers | Solar Daily

A second new federal study, the latest issue of "Electric Power Monthly" by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (with data through September 30, 2013), notes that renewable energy sources accounted for 12.95% net electrical generation for the first three-quarters of 2013 (hydropower - 6.90%, wind - 4.03%, wood + biomass - 1.40%, geothermal - 0.41%, solar - 0.21%).

A second new federal study, the latest issue of “Electric Power Monthly” by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (with data through September 30, 2013), notes that renewable energy sources accounted for 12.95% net electrical generation for the first three-quarters of 2013 (hydropower – 6.90%, wind – 4.03%, wood + biomass – 1.40%, geothermal – 0.41%, solar – 0.21%).

Washington DC (SPX) Nov 25, 2013 – According to the latest “Energy Infrastructure Update” report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission‘s Office of Energy Projects, solar, biomass, and wind “units” provided 694 MW of new electrical generating capacity last month or 99.3% of all new generation placed in-service (the balance of 5 MW was provided by oil.)

Twelve new solar units accounted for 504 MW or 72.1% of all new electrical generating capacity in October 2013 followed by four biomass units (124 MW…

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US Taxpayer Backed California Valley Solar Ranch Now at Full Power

Originally posted on Jerry Graf - Energy Strategy:

California Valley Solar Ranch

California Valley Solar Ranch

The huge California Valley Solar Ranch (CVSR) is apparently now at “full power” thanks to a loan guarantee from the US taxpayers of $1,237,000,000. Please refer to the following articles and published information from the Department of Energy:

http://lpo.energy.gov/projects/sunpower-corporation-systems-california-valley-solar-ranch/

http://www.earthtechling.com/2013/11/us-backed-250-mw-california-solar-plant-at-full-strength/

CVSR DOE Information

CVSR DOE Information

Realistic Appraisal & Comparison:

The 250 MW Solar Ranch required a $1.237 billion loan guarantee. It is not clear to me if this the entire investment or if additional money was required; however, by itself this is equates to $4.95 per Watt.

The Solar Ranch is projected to produce 482,000 MWh per year, implying an operating capacity factor of around 22%.  Why is there such a disparity in the published figures for how many homes this amount of energy can support?  The DOE says 42,700 homes, other published media reports claim as many as 100,000 homes.

Given the value of 482,000 MWh per…

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Climate Science Takes Big Hit from Shutdown

Originally posted on Climate Denial Crock of the Week:

The Laurence M. Gould The Antarctic Research and Supply Vessel Laurence M. Gould pulls away from Palmer Station. Jennifer Bogo

The Republican War on Science is no small part of the motivation congress has to shut down government.  Part of the  Tea Party narrative is that righteous God-fearing, science denying ‘Merricuns are targets of Godless watermelon commie scientists and their pesky facts and data.

Jennifer Bogo, articles Editor of Popular Science, bumped me with these items.

Popular Science:

As the icebreaker Laurence M. Gould barrels south through the Drake Passage, cutting through the largest ocean current in the world, its portholes look exactly like a row of front-loading washers. Waves relentlessly churn against the glass. Above decks, they crash over the stern. Passengers—those that aren’t sleeping off seasickness meds—place their dinner plates on sticky mats and learn to walk with the ship’s rolling gait. This is the only way…

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Bicycling in the US, from a Dutch Perspective

Originally posted on Climate Denial Crock of the Week:

In Copenhagen, where I was briefly in June, you notice a few things.

a. How much quieter the city center is

b. How many people are riding bicycles, not for pleasure (only), but to actually get somewhere

c. How many more very slender and healthy looking middle age and older people you see

The video above does a very nice job of picking out glaring (to European eyes) deficiencies in how bicycle lanes, racks, and other amenities are so far applied in the US.  Those nice new bike lanes you may have in your neighborhood? Maybe not as nice as they could be if we were more serious that bicycling is a real alternative way to move, rather than just a sport for kids or athletes.

Progress is being made on this, for sure – but this is one area of our transportation system that could have so many positive…

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Sustainable companies of the future will build loyalty through less not more

Originally posted on SIMON WILD:

consume-less-live-more-by-grahamc99And it probably isn’t too far into the future. Patagonia are already starting to build loyalty with it’s ‘Please don’t buy this campaign’ from late last year and I am sure there are many more. But what would it mean for the property industry, for building owners? What are the new models of the property industry?

Well, let’s have a look at what what is behind the trend. From the McKinsey 12 disruptive technologies ‘The Internet of Things‘ and ‘The Cloud‘ are increasing the amount of data, knowledge and connection that brands and companies have to consumers. In a great article from Fast Company the author describes how “We have the technology today to track exactly what we consume, when we consume it and how much it costs – individually and collectively. Branded products and services are increasingly connected, as are the people that use them…

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From the Future: A Smarter Highway

Originally posted on The Dirt:

eletric
While Google is racing ahead to create a data-driven, self-driving car, one Dutch designer is working on the opposite end: designing a smart highway that will communicate with your car. As one of the winners of this year’s Index awards, which comes with a €100,000 prize, Daan Roosegaarde, collaborating with Hijmans Infrastructure, will test out a road that will “communicate with its drivers in order to promote both traffic safety and efficiency.”

Roosegaarde writes: “We live in cities of endless gray concrete roads, surrounded by steel lamps and they have a huge visual impact on our cities. But why do the roads remain so rough and without imagination? Why not turn them into a vision of mobility – a symbol of the future?”

His smart highway concept is pretty mind-bending. He wants to embed highways with technology that can “visually communicate when the road is slippery,” actually charge…

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REPOST: Geothermal Energy

Originally posted on The Green Joe:

Commonly used in volcanic countries with large reservoirs of hot springs, geothermal energy is clean and sustainable energy gathered from the ground itself. Read more about this and other sources of clean energy from the National Geographic website.

Image Source: images.nationalgeographic.com

This Geothermal power plant in Reykjavik, Iceland, is using their underground reservoirs of steam and hot water to generate electricity and to heat and cool buildings directly.
Image source: nationalgeographic.com

Geothermal energy has been used for thousands of years in some countries for cooking and heating. It is simply power derived from the Earth’s internal heat.This thermal energy is contained in the rock and fluids beneath Earth’s crust. It can be found from shallow ground to several miles below the surface, and even farther down to the extremely hot molten rock called magma.

These underground reservoirs of steam and hot water can be tapped to generate electricity or…

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Scientists Discover a Mega-Canyon Beneath the Melting Ice Sheets of Greenland

Originally posted on Science & Space:

As its name suggests, the Grand Canyon is pretty grand, running nearly 300 miles long, with a width that ranges from 4 to 18 miles and a depth of over a mile. Theodore Roosevelt, who declared the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908, said the great gorge was a “natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”

True enough. But the Grand Canyon may have some new company. Researchers from Canada and Britain announced that they discovered a massive new canyon underneath the thick ice sheet that covers most of Greenland. The still unnamed canyon, which snakes its way up through the center of Greenland and empties past the northern coastline, is some 500 miles long and up to half a mile deep, putting it on the same scale as the Grand Canyon. It may be that the previously undiscovered canyon could play…

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Coal export is a bad investment says Goldman Sachs

Originally posted on SIMON WILD:

20130805-210832.jpg An interesting one from Grist – a report from Goldman Sachs has highlighted the financial investment risk of coal export terminals in the US.

Grist starts off by highlighting the famous Warren Buffet saying that the financial investment in new coal fired power stations is a bad bet – certainly something that has been muted in Australia. Plus the fact that a large proportion of the planned new power generation facilities are renewable or gas is a good indication of the lack of financial viability of coal, not sure what this means for CCS.

The article then goes on to suggest that US coil companies are now starting to look at coal exports as a way of continuing a revenue stream from thermal coal – if I can’t sell it locally, flog it elsewhere. We have certainly been taking advantage of the rapid growth in China and India, particularly…

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Questions to ask of any new technology

Originally posted on Make Wealth History:

Yesterday I wrote about the latest development in food technology, the advent of synthetic meat. My general view is that it is good news, though too far from practical application to make any difference right now. But I am aware that I’m an optimist and my views aren’t necessarily shared.

In one more extreme example, Joanna Blythman damns “frankenburgers” as “a poor imitation of meat” in the Daily Mail. “Every feature of it is bogus”. She goes on to predict it will be tough and tasteless, and questions its nutritional properties. She says the arguments for it are Malthusian and misguided, and that it will “probably turn out to be another cynical, profit-driven piece of marketing.”

Most reports were more balanced, but it’s interesting to see how a news item can yield such divergence of opinion. I thought it might be worth pausing on reflect on perspective, because…

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New Climate to Present New Opportunities in the Arctic

In the early 19th century, the Panama Canal was constructed to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. This new canal provided a shorter, faster, and safer way to travel, cutting the time needed to be at sea by half. Additionally, the canal further developed nearby countries with increased traffic and economic opportunities. Fast-forward almost 100 years. The canal is used 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, transporting 4% of world trade and 16% of the US trade[1] generating $1 billion in revenue in 2012 alone. Clearly a profitable venture, the Panama Canal is an example of foreseeing the impossible to create exponential economic growth. 

Today we face different challenges. Climate change, a uniquely different and global issue will require adaptation and mitigation solutions. It will present challenges and opportunities to those who are cognizant of this unprecedented issue. One of these opportunities lies in the cold of the Arctic. Symbolically known as the hotbed of the scientific research for climate change, this region will witness the direct effects of climate change.

 A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by UCLA geographer, Laurence Smith predicts that by 2050 ships with reinforced hulls will have new shipping routes due to the effects of the climate change. The melting sea ice will provide “robust new routes for moderately ice-strengthened (Polar Class 6) ships over the North Pole, and new routes through the Northwest Passage for both vessel classes.” In it’s current state, the Northwest Passage is navigable every seven years, making it an impractical sea route. What is more startling is that by 2050 this route will become navigable every other year.  Consequently this will create a new opportunity to the transportation and shipping sectors. Newly forming shipping lanes will provide shipping companies’ savings in fuel consumption while decreasing time needed to be at sea. With the ability to reach new markets with greater ease, there will be plenty of new opportunities. Forward thinking companies have already started preparing how these changes may affect their business as usual approach.

Computer simulations of Arctic shipping routes.

In these computer predictions, the blue lines indicate the fastest routes for open water ships in the summer. While the red lines indicate the need for icebreaker capacity. Using these simulations, Smith is able to draw conclusions that with the predicted temperature fluctuations, we would be able to access a significant portion of new and uncharted Arctic shipping lanes. Looking at the diagram, the changes will be quite significant which will provide immense savings in fuel economy. Laurence Smith also estimates that time at sea could be reduced by 40% from a typical shipping route from Rotterdam, Netherlands to Yokohama, Japan.

In addition to the climate changing, it is likely that there will be constrained geopolitical shifts, as economic opportunities play a larger role in politics. What may be even more interesting is to see, how countries will secure special interests, changes in international boundaries and newly discovered territories. We have already begun to see northern countries like Norway and Sweden strategically assembling navy capacity for the predicted increased needs. To add to the instability, the changes in the Arctic landscape may open access to natural resources like oil and natural gas. In a resource-constrained future, these new discoveries will be explored aggressively further driving conflict in the region.  

In the near future, we will be witness to the impacts of climate change presenting immense opportunities for development and economic growth. The expanding Arctic shipping lanes is only one example how our exacerbating climate will provide an extraordinary economic opportunity. Viewing climate change today is similar to viewing the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 19th century. A daring and bold venture into the impossible. Those willing to push the boundaries of engineering, geopolitics, and economic development will become the winners in the inevitable climate-changed world.  


In the Greenhouse: Forests Get More Water Efficient as Carbon Dioxide Levels Rise

Originally posted on Science & Space:

The response to climate change has two sides: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means reducing greenhouse gases in an effort to slow the pace of warming and lessen its effects. Adaptation means responding to those effects, working to blunt climate change as it unfolds. It’s offense versus defense.

Mitigation gets most of the attention because it mostly involves changing the way we use energy, something that we spend trillions of dollars on. Such shifts can have a huge impact on the economy—for better and for worse—which is why the political battle over climate policy tends to be so heated. But as extreme weather events like Sandy have given us coming attractions of what life in a warmer world could well be like—insert caveat that you can’t directly tie any single weather event to warming—adaptation has moved up the political agenda. This is as it should be—whatever the impacts of pumping billions…

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Developing World Leapfrogging to Green Energy

Originally posted on Climate Denial Crock of the Week:

While fossil fuel interests continue to cling to 19th century technology in developed nations, the developing world increasingly is betting on the technologies of the 21st century.

IPS News:

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jun 13 2013 (IPS) - Emerging economies such as Mexico and India are shifting energy investments into renewable resources while industrialised countries hesitate, noted two new United Nations reports released Wednesday in Nairobi, Kenya.

“There is a structural change in the global energy sector underway,” said Ulf Moslener, head of research of the Frankfurt School in Germany.

“Costs are dropping radically. Renewables represented 6.5 percent of all electricity generated and reduced carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes in 2012,” said Moslener, co-author of Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2013, a report sponsored by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).

Developing countries are finding installing green energy to be far less expensive than relying on fossil fuels, Moslener told IPS…

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Google X Acquires Makani Power And Its Airborne Wind Turbines

Originally posted on TechCrunch:

After previously investing in the company, Google has now acquired Makani Power, a green energy startup that is currently buildingairborne wind turbines. The acquisition was first reported in Brad Stone’s Businessweek story about Google X, and judging from Stone’s story, the team will join Google X. Google invested $10 million in the Alameda, Calif.-based company in 2006 and another $5 million in 2008. As far as we can see, this also marks the first time Google has acquired a company specifically for its Google X skunkworks.

Stone reports that Google CEO Larry Page approved the acquisition, but as Google X’s director Astro Teller notes, Page said that X “could have the budget and the people to go do this, but that we had to make sure to crash at least five of the devices in the near future.”

The company was founded by Saul Griffith and…

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Systems Thinking: Applications to Climate Change Solutions

Image

As climate change impacts emerge, people are becoming increasingly aware of the problems that it will pose to all aspects of life. Last year alone, there were Australian heat waves so hot that scientists needed to add another color to display extreme heats. Droughts in the Midwest affected crop markets and abnormally long fire seasons lead to uncontrollable wild fires in Colorado. Of course it is hard to forget Super-storm Sandy, which affected the entire eastern seaboard questioning our readiness for the future. Year after year we are exposed to more climate change impacts and as we prepare for the inevitable, we must ask ourselves if the solutions we continue to use are genuinely effective. It is easy to succumb to the traditional process of doing things, but sometimes the best solution is to step back and refocus. When you utilize systems thinking, you are able to rationalize the relationships between the current situation and the multiple paths to reach your goal.  

A good start to understanding systems thinking is defining what a system is. According to Wikipedia, a system is a set of independent and interacting components, forming an integrated whole. For example, it can be an engineered car, a political system, a body system to an ecological system. All of these systems have independent and interacting components that serve a larger purpose to a system. Systems thinking is a way of understanding by the relationships between systems parts, rather than the parts by themselves.

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges that we will face and just finding a place to start can be daunting. Due to global scope of climate change, it would be logical to start with some form of international environmental policy limiting greenhouse gas emissions. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol attempted to do exactly that. It was an international environmental policy that set limits on greenhouse gas emissions for all UN countries. In theory, this policy would work if all nations collectively adopted the policy. Andorra, Canada, South Sudan and the United States were the only countries not to ratify the protocol. For the United States, it was an embarrassingly defiant and self-interested move in defense of economic development. For all it’s merits the Kyoto Protocol failed with it’s larger than life ambition and unmanageable scope and for the most part international environmental policies work too slowly and are cumbersome to enforce.

Local governments on the other hand have seen this as an opportunity to lead coming up with local solutions. For example, Cap and Trade mechanisms have moved away from broad international scopes, except for the EU ETS (European Union Electronic Trading Scheme).  What has come about is a regional approach to Cap and Trade with the development of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the California Cap and Trade program. These initiatives are great examples of systems thinking solutions that bypass the ineffectiveness of international policies. In particular, California’s carbon market has seen rising costs of carbon allowances, which experts deem to be an indicator of a maturing carbon market. These initiatives are still in the early phases and before any consensus can be made, we need to be patient to assess the long-term viability of these initiatives.  

Another example of systems thinking applied to climate change solutions is the C40 Cities program. The C40 Cities program is a network of the world’s largest cities taking action by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cities and addressing environmental risks posed to urban environments. It is widely known that as cities continue to grow they will produce the largest environmental footprints and continue to be particularly susceptible to climate change impacts. Taking note of this, the C40 has grown from the frustration of working through red tapped federal governments, proving that localized approach can be more effective. With a strong focus on urban life, this initiative will address water issues, urban planning, building emissions, public transportation, infrastructure retrofits and quality of life issues. Ultimately, the C40 will become a tremendous source of information and collaboration for developing cities searching for insights on sustainable development.

Using a systems thinking based approach will help us to better understand the independent components of society, business and politics and the relationship it has on our climate system. Our pre-established views tell us to follow typical “pathways” when sometimes it can be more beneficial to step back to view the big picture. The value in systems thinking is that it addresses problems through different angles providing holistic solutions, which are typically more sustainable. Given the complexity of political systems, business agendas, and diverse social views, it is normal to follow existing “pathways” which may sometimes lead us to dead ends. What must change is our ability to recognize a dead end and abandon an idea if we are certain that it is the wrong path. This is not easy thing to learn, as it is human nature to hold onto something that we have nurtured. Essentially if we are to successfully address climate change, we must relearn how to think, stepping away from traditional solutions and deeply rooted dogma. 

EPA Proposed Regulations Will Require Cleaner Gasoline Production

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The EPA has announced that it will be requiring cleaner gasoline and cars across the country. The new regulations have been stalled since December 2011 with regulatory deadlock and political opposition. The preliminary rules released on Friday will limit the amount of Sulfur in gas to 10 parts per million from the current standard of 30 parts per million. Sulfur, a natural ingredient in crude oil, reduces the performance of the car’s catalytic converter. A lower sulfur content in gasoline will enables the car to operate more efficiently and cleanly.

“We estimate the rule will reduce smog by 30% when fully implemented” said Bill Becker of National Association of Clean Air Agencies

The proposed rules are set to take effect in 2017 and have been backed by environmental groups, state regulators and auto companies, but oil industry officials argue that the new regulation would raise the price of gasoline because of increased costs of upgrading their oil refineries. Some experts estimate a high increase of 10 cents, while others only see small increases of 1-2 cents per gallon.

Oil refineries that serve California, Japan and the European Union have already begun to meet the stricter regulations given the already progressive rules on clean gasoline production. Additionally, U.S. Automakers generally support this regulation as they already face similar requirements in a dozen U.S. states.

The Obama administration already faces tough pressure from environmental groups about the development of the Keystone XL pipeline and the proposal to limit greenhouse gases from power plants, controversially excluding coal power plants. This victory advocated by environmentalists, say this new regulation will eliminate air pollution from an equivalent of 33 million cars on the road.

Greenwashing – A Byproduct of Sustainability

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A reality in the world of sustainability, greenwashing is used to promote products or actions as environmentally conscious. It can be considered greenwashing if an organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” than actually implementing practices that minimize environmental impact. The main objective is to manipulate consumer opinion and/or increase profits. Greenwashing is prevalent through all types of industries and is mainly seen in energy, as that industry is most susceptible to environmental accidents. It is common for organizations to use greenwashing to rebrand themselves, either attempting to target a new demographic or to recover from a PR incident.  A form of spin in the PR world, greenwashing has had a significant increase in the past decade and is an unintended consequence of an otherwise ethical movement.

According to Wikipedia, New York environmentalist, Jay Westerveld coined the word greenwashing. In his 1986 essay about hotel industry practices, he researched the practice of placing “Save the Environment” hotel placards in each room, which promoted the reuse of towels and sheets. In his findings, Westerveld noted that little or no effort was made into reducing waste or energy and that the actual objective was savings in operating costs.

Greenwashing has manifested itself through all types of industries, however a good example is an oil and gas company running a marketing campaign touting new “green” energy – while in reality that “green” energy only represents a small portion of the total revenue. This can be seen in 2009 right before the COP Copenhagen, when Shell ran a sponsored research project and advertising campaign in the Economist magazine, titled Countdown to Copenhagen. It contained ads about Shell developing new low carbon technologies, carbon capture and biofuels with the intention of “helping customers save energy.” In the ad campaign, it depicted pictures of wind turbines, a butterfly net catching CO2 and a pocket calculator with a button marked “less CO2.” Soon thereafter, environmental groups criticized the new campaign for violating advertising standards and misleading consumers.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission provides voluntary guidelines for environmental marketing claims. These guidelines give the FTC the right to prosecute false and misleading advertising claims. It is important to note, that greenwashing claims are subject to jurisdiction and that a greenwashing case by the Nuclear Energy Institute claiming to be environmentally clean was thrown out due to jurisdiction.

So how can you differentiate greenwashing and meaningful environmental initiatives? Here are some tips according to Sourcewatch:

  1. Use your Intuition – Simple and effective. Just because it has an “official seal of approval” or uses the color green does not merit legitimate environmental claims.
  2. Test Access to Information – A quick Google search of the company, the products should come up with accurate information. Using technology, we can access this information on our smart phones, even using dedicated iPhone apps that allow you to scan the bar codes of products. (Check out Good Guide)
  3. Look for Consistency – How long has an organization been integrating an environmental program?  Have there been recent events prompting environmental programs? Do they write an annual CSR, GRI or CDP report?
  4. Follow the Membership Trail – Are they apart of any industry associations? Many companies boast about their environmental programs but hide anti-environmentalism behind an industry association. In some cases, organizations will hire journalists or writers to write favorably for them, known in PR as third party technique.
  5. Follow the Money – Do they disclose political, lobbying or think tank contributions? This one is a more tricky as sometimes companies do not disclose this information, however the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has a databases specializing on campaign finance and political contributions.

We are witness to the free market with consumers proving that buying power has major influence. Unafraid to put their money where their mouth is, consumers engage with companies  like never before. Companies have caught on using social media to understand their customers.  Because of this, there have been sincere changes to adapt, while others have disguised themselves in these attempts. Advertising in its nature is inherently attractive and for the most part deceiving. What kind of consumer would we be if we believed everything we read or saw? If you should take away anything from this, it is that research and due diligence are a must for any conscious consumer. Begin to question everything about the product, the company, the process of making the product, the supply chain, the materials sourced, etc.  Doing so will make you a conscious consumer and help you to distinguish the difference between greenwashing and genuine corporate social responsibility.

Obama Pushes Energy Research at Argonne

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In a recent visit to Argonne National laboratory, President Obama reiterated the importance of national laboratories and energy research to wean the US from oil dependence. Argonne is a network of multidisciplinary laboratories run by the DOE and is a fitting location as two decades ago scientists started working on the lithium batteries for cars. Today, these cars are rolling out of factories across the U.S. and into people’s homes. In his speech, the president praised these achievements and was inspired to see what these technologies could do for domestic natural gas production and new wind and solar developments. The president did not stray from the economy though, making a connection between economic stability and job growth. Obama viewed many ongoing projects at Argonne National laboratory, speaking in depth with researchers and lab technicians, curiously asking the details of each project.

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“Few areas hold more promise for creating good jobs and growing our economy than how we use American energy…we have to keep investing in scientific research…we cant afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races forward,”

In his speech, Obama touted his Energy Security Trust program to funnel roughly $2 billion in revenues from the government’s offshore oil leasing program into energy research. This funding would specifically targeted advancing technologies towards electric vehicles, natural gas production, biofuels and hydrogen cells. Obama’s Energy Security Trust proposal comes at a conflicted time given the recently implemented sequester cuts.

“One of the reasons I was opposed to these cuts is because they don’t distinguish between wasteful programs and vital investments…they don’t trim the fat; they cut into muscle and into bone—like research and development being done right here”

Facing the reality of sequestration, laboratories across the United States will face the threat of 5% reductions by the end of the fiscal year. Obama made light of the situation and joked about the audience standing due to the lack of chairs. The audience roared with laughter and applause, followed by an awkward silence realizing the truth. Under the sequester, Argonne would lose up to $35 million from it’s operating budget and many scientists and researchers fear the long term affect of losing talented individuals to other laboratories across the world. Additionally, these cuts will dull America’s innovating edge while closing the door on a needed domestic energy industry to other advanced nations like Japan, China and Germany.

“Any American democracy-promotion strategy that does not also include a credible and sustainable strategy for finding alternatives to oil and bringing down the price of crude is utterly meaningless and doomed to fail…You cannot be either an effective foreign-policy realist or an effective democracy-promoting idealist without also being an effective energy environmentalist.”

Thomas Friedman on PetroPolitics

Discovery of New Energy Source “Fire Ice” or Methane Hydrate near Japan

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Japanese researchers have moved closer to energy independence, discovering a new energy source, methane hydrates. Also called fire ice, it is found in undersea deposits deep in the seabed. Scientifically known as methane clathrate, it is a solid compound where large amounts of methane are trapped within the crystal structure of water, similar to ice. It forms when shallow subsurface bacteria makes contact with water at high pressures and cold temperatures. To produce usable gas, methane is separated from the ice by sucking out the seawater to lower the surrounding pressure. With a relatively high yield, one cubic foot of methane hydrate will produce 164 cubic feet of gas.

 

“It is the world’s first offshore experiment producing gas from methane hydrate” - Japan’s Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry

 The new discovery is welcomed by the resource lacking country, with hopes of achieving diversified energy independence. This particular discovery was found 30 miles from Japan’s mainland, however methane hydrate can be found all over the world.

 

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The United States has had interest in methane hydrates for a while and is currently funding 14 different research projects into developing the energy source. In 2011, field experiments conducted by Conoco Philips and Japan Oil, estimate amounts 85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas located in Alaska’s North Slope. Experts say that it is at least twice as plentiful compared to all known natural gas reserves.

Currently, knowledge of the extraction process is still limited and more research and development needs to be conducted before considering the feasibility for commercial development. Ryo Minami, director of the Oil and Gas division at Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources, compared methane hydrate to shale gas:

“Ten years ago, everybody knew there was shale gas in the ground, but to extract it was too costly. Yet now it’s commercialized.”

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If Japanese researchers are able to extract methane hydrates in a safe manner and at a commercial scale, the advanced nation could potentially decrease its reliance on foreign energy. With the current pace of advancement in research and technology, it is estimated that methane hydrates could be commercially viable in 6 years. Still a ways out, be sure to keep an eye on this new energy source as the world’s demand for energy increases.

Understandably traumatized by Fukushima, the Japanese have good reason to be cautious of new energy developments. With a crippled nuclear industry and practically no domestic fossil fuel production, Japan’s economy is extremely vulnerable to the global energy market. Hopefully with cautious exploration, and extensive research, methane hydrates just may be the answer to powering Japan. 

 

Masdar: Arabian Glitz or True Sustainable Design?

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in an environmentally perfect city? One development in the Middle East intends to prove that creating a carbon neutral and environmentally conscious city is possible. Named Masdar, the city is geographically located in the Arabian Peninsula, about eighteen miles from the capital, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As a country, the UAE claims over ten percent of the world’s oil reserves, with the ability to survive on it’s own oil production at least for the next 100 years. For the most part this gulf state has no direct need for energy efficient cities. On the other hand, the rest of the world constrained by high-energy consumption, urban growth, and environmental degradation would benefit if it can be successfully adapted to cities. The UAE clearly sees the value in transitioning to smart energy future given its economic reliance on the oil.

Fosters and Partners, the British Architectural firm known for their approach to sustainable architecture, is tasked with designing Masdar Institute and much of the city. Rooted in the belief that a built environment must prioritize energy efficiency, smart public transit, and sustainability as a cross-disciplinary component, the firm will employ smart urban planning and the latest technologies resembling a highly futuristic city. No matter how futuristic, the city’s success will depend on whether these ideals can be translated to modern applications.

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Financially, Masdar is funded by the Abu Dahbi Future Energy Company, a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company. A large portion of seed capital will come from the government, recognizing the value that it would bring to Abu Dhabi and the region. Breaking ground in 2006, the project is expected to cost $19 Billion with a final construction date of 2025. The final completion date has moved around, given the financial crisis and construction delays in the Middle East. The city will be built through multiple phases with the first phase comprising of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), two laboratory buildings and residential units for students. The second phase will add more commercial space to the city, implementing both local business and corporate business. The global technology giant Siemens will have a Middle East Headquarters in Masdar ultimately tripling the size and population of the city. In it’s completion, the city will be home to 50,000 people with a daytime population surging to under 100,000. At the moment, there are no plans for more expansion and we will see how this city will integrate itself into the greater Abu Dhabi region.

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Set in the middle of the desert, designers plans to utilize the latest developments in energy efficiency, smart buildings, and urban design. Relying solely on renewable energy, the city will use a combination of photovoltaic, concentrated solar and concentrated thermal to power the city. Buildings will incorporate the use of passive environmental strategies, which emphasizes the building’s directional orientation and natural setting, and active environmental strategies, which focuses on energy management and building performance optimization. Buildings throughout the city will be covered with an insulative façade, which will help to regulate the deserts fluctuation in extreme temperatures. In addition, sunshades with photovoltaic cells that automatically open and close depending on lighting conditions will be used to block out direct sunlight and collect solar energy.

“All aspects of urban planning, architecture, design, construction and operations are being assessed…We are looking at every place where we can reduce our embodied and operational carbon and shrink our environmental footprint.”

Early in the design process, utilizing the natural features of the desert was a top priority. Masdar will incorporate natural features like cooling air currents directed through public spaces to keep the city in a comfortable temperature range. The entire city will be elevated to allow for the desert breezes to cool buildings and large infrastructures, cutting energy dramatically. Landscape designers will use local plants and fauna combined with fountains to provide evaporative cooling, in addition to enhancing the aesthetics and livability of the city. A meticulous effort is being made to use elements that are culturally and environmentally conscious. For example, the insulating façade will use a contemporary interpretation of a Mashrabiya – a traditional oriel window with latticework commonly used traditional Arabic architecture. Functionally, it will serve to block sunlight and promote air circulation, while still providing privacy. Additionally the façade’s color will be a rust and orange color matching the natural surroundings eliminating the need for cleaning down the road.

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“We will position Abu Dhabi as the hub of future energy,” - Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, Masdar’s CEO

Masdar plans to attract like-minded academics, businesses and any with interests in sustainable design. The city will be host to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and is intended to be a hub for cleantech, not only in the region but around the world. The first occupant will be the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate level science research university, assisted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As phases of the city are completed, there is a priority for cleantech organizations and businesses, which create a campus like environment. For the most part, Masdar will hopefully create a new industry in the region, similar to what Silicon Valley did for the Bay Area. Ironic, because this city is located at the epicenter of one of the highest oil producing countries.

Masdar’s initial design opted to ban the use of automobiles throughout the city. All the transit in the city will either be public transit or the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). The PRT is a sleek four-person vehicle that runs on an electric motor. Automatically driven by a computer system, it will be guided by magnets embedded in the road. Resembling a pod like car from the Sci Fi movie Tron, the rider will select a destination on a LCD screen and sit back as the vehicle maneuvers through the city. Extremely futuristic, the PRT will certainly be tested in it’s capability as Masdar’s population grows. Using so much technology, it can be easy to forget the original form of sustainable transportation; walking. Masdar is designed to be a highly walkable city. Slim pedestrian only streets are designed to maximize the amount of available shade. Designers also wanted to subtlety incorporate daily physical activity, purposely hiding the elevators to promote the use of stairs. The pedestrian only streets try to incentivize walking and biking, free from the dangers and distractions of cars and accidents.

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With so much foresight and planning, it is impossible to appeal to everyone. Nicolai Ourossoff of the New York Times critiqued in his article In Arabian Desert, A Sustainable City Risescalling Masdar a “gated community concept”. True in some respects, the nature of building something entirely new is that it represents the ideals of enclaves instead of the reality of communities. Yes, this city may lack social and economic diversity, compared to other cities. Demographically, Masdar will be inhabited primarily by upper/middle class businessmen, academics and scientists. In the beginning, Masdar will lack a lower class, along with individuals that cultivate in this environment like artists. What is overlooked though, is that Masdar is meant to be an environmentally perfect society and that aspects of cities will develop only with time. Given the amount of technology and investment used to build Masdar, it will be not be economically viable to introduce this at a lower cost. It is intended that as time progresses and technology becomes cheaper, to apply these concepts to the real world.

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What sets Masdar apart from other urban planning projects is that Masdar is meant to symbolize something more. Something ambitious but not out of reach. Something that in high demand but yet people have yet to create. This is what makes Masdar something special. Despite it’s faults, Masdar creates a built environment that is more conscious than anything that currently exists. If Masdar were to become a success, its legacy will prove that a better life in cities is attainable through smart technology and urban planning.

Outside of Masdar, cities without proper management are developing to consume more energy, polluting in larger amounts and creating more stressful environments. Through projects like Masdar, we are exposed to these concepts at work which intend to create a conscious city, not only for the environment but also for people. Naturally, we should question every detail and motive behind the designs as that is absolutely necessary in progressing as a society. However, we should not be too quick to make conclusions, as some benefits will develop over time. The word Masdar in Arabic translates in English as “the Source”. If this new city were to accomplish becoming truly sustainable, its name would be ambitiously fitting serving as a source of knowledge, innovation, and economic development for future cities and generations to come.

Post Chavez: A Scramble for Venezuela and it’s Oil?

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With the passing of Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, American oil companies and state owned Russian and Chinese Oil companies will closely monitor the coming Venezuelan presidential elections to protect oil interests in the region. The Latin American country relies heavily on its oil reserves making it a key geopolitical interest in the region. Already an unstable country, Venezuela receives a significant amount of oil revenues from the U.S. Ironic, because of its fragmented political relationship. Despite this, the U.S. imports more oil annually from Venezuela and Mexico than the entire Persian Gulf.

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A champion for the poor, Chavez employed a “Robin Hood” mentality and was well known to help those in extreme poverty. According to the Center for Economic Policy and Research, poverty has declined by 50 percent since 2004. Extreme poverty has declined by 70 percent. Over the same time period college enrollment has doubled, millions have access to healthcare and many are getting free healthcare entirely. His social programs were very successful, however when you dig deeper all of this has been financed by one thing, Oil. 

Chavez, the charismatic and highly intelligent politician is known to appeal to many Venezuelans by keeping both feet on different sides of politics. He was a master of politics, able to manage multiple agendas simultaneously. Economically, Chavez benefitted from the record high price of crude oil rising over $100 a barrel. However in Venezuela, subsidies have left the costs of gas at 8 cents a gallon. This large disparity is why he appealed to many Venezuelans, while condemned across the world. Chavez was known for tightening controls on oil production and influencing the pricing of oil; the new president will need to find a balance in the of utilizing the nation’s commodities 

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Aware of the demand for oil, Chavez has managed to negotiate oil trades with China and Russia, and controversially Iran and Cuba. China in particular will have more interest in the presidential transition, since loaning $20 Billion used to finance power, agriculture and technology projects across the country.  According to Bloomberg, Venezuela has been shipping 200,000 barrels of oil everyday to China. That number has already increased to 1 million barrels a day and will continue for a 10-year period. Should any sweeping administrative changes take place in the coming election, it is likely that China and these countries will have a watchful eye on the next administration.

Although a critic of the United States, Chavez heavily relied on the American refineries, to process Venezuela’s thick and low quality crude oil. However, if the Keystone XL pipeline were to develop, the Tar Sand oil from Canada may compete with the demand of Venezuelan crude oil. With the latest environmental impact statement, the Keystone XL pipeline is a likely development which may jeopardize the already strained relationship.

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Venezuela continues to walk a fine geopolitical line, due to its high production of oil in region and the controversial relationship to Cuba and Iran. Whoever the next president may be will have to choose between staying on the path of “Chavismo” and the ideals of the “Bolivarian Revolution. Or attempting to build a new administration fostering sustainable political, economic and social values, leveraging the country’s natural resources for the benefit of its people.  

“We as a nation must have the foresight and the courage to make the investments necessary to safeguard the most sacred trust we keep for our children and our grandchildren, and that is an environment not ravaged by rising seas, deadly superstorms, devastating droughts, and the other hallmarks of a dramatically changing climate. President Obama is committed to moving forward on that, and so am I, and so must you be ready to join us in that effort.”

John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State

‘State Department’ Keystone XL Report Actually Written By TransCanada Contractor

“The State Department’s “don’t worry” environmental impact statement for the proposed Keystone XL tarsands pipeline, released late Friday afternoon, was written not by government officials but by a private company in the pay of the pipeline’s owner. The “sustainability consultancy” Environmental Resources Management (ERM) was paid an undisclosed amount under contract to TransCanada to write the statement, which is now an official government document.”

By Brad Johnson - Girst 3/6

Keystone XL: Obama’s Pipeline and Energy Legacy

 

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The State Department recently released a draft of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement of the Keystone XL project. Highly controversial, the proposed pipeline would stretch 875 miles crossing through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska and continuing further down to Texas.  In 2008, the proposed plans for the Keystone Pipeline were rejected because the route would traverse through an environmentally sensitive region of Nebraska, known as the Sand Hills. The new 2012 plan has been rerouted to avoid the Sand Hills however the plans crossing Montana and South Dakota have stayed pretty much the same.

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The new State Department report states:

“The analyses of the potential impacts associated with construction and normal operation of the proposed project suggests there would be no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed project route”

Environmentalists see the State Department’s report differently, failing to account for greenhouse gas emissions increases and the potential risks associated with a tar sands spill. In calculating greenhouse gas emissions increases, refining tar sands produces about 5-15% more greenhouse gases than conventional crude oil.  Moving towards a direction of more greenhouse gas emissions would be a flawed decision, failing to account the big picture risks associated with climate change.

Oil derived from tar sands is not like conventional crude oil and requires more complex extraction and transportation techniques. Known as bitumen, tar sands are heavier, stickier and sink to the bottom, unlike crude oil, which is lighter and floats to the surface of water. Bitumen is a mixture of tarlike hydrocarbons mixed with sand. It is so thick that is unable to flow through a pipeline on it’s own and needs to be pumped with chemicals loosening it’s viscosity to increase flow rate.

The process of cleaning up a tar sands spill is significantly more costly and time consuming needing different techniques to clean the oil. In 2010, the Enbridge Pipeline ruptured where 877,000 gallons of tar sand oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River. Due to tar sands sinking, workers need to dredge the riverbed and aerate the water so that the oil would rise to the surface. Dredging a riverbed is known to be environmentally destructive to the local ecosystem and at the moment is the only known remediation to clean up a tar sands spill.

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It is not entirely accurate to compare the Enbridge pipeline to the Keystone XL pipeline because there are key differences in the quality and technologies of pipeline. The Keystone XL pipeline will employ the latest monitoring techniques and pipeline material technologies. Despite these advances in pipeline technologies, spills and accidents are unforeseeable and will continue to happen. What is particularly disturbing is that there is not enough research and development in tar sands clean up and remediation. If the potential risk exists there should be a substantial amount of remediation and clean up research in the likely scenario of a pipeline rupture or oil spill. Similar to the field of medicine, preventative solutions are easier to predict and cost effective rather than reactive solutions.

The Keystone XL pipeline has become a divisive topic in American energy politics. Supporters of the pipeline have urged the Obama administration to approve the project as a source of jobs and domestic energy. Environmental groups have pressured the president reject the pipeline due to the risks of transporting tar sands over American land and waterways. With the recent State Department publication advocating the development, it is likely that the Keystone XL pipeline will move forward.

This past inauguration, President Obama spoke optimistically on the role of American politics in addressing climate change and energy. Pending an executive approval of the Keystone XL, this pipeline will undoubtedly be a part of Obama’s energy legacy. Recently appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry echoed the same promises of Obama inauguration speech with a strong focus on climate diplomacy. This administration has promised much and if the Keystone XL pipeline is passed, it will tarnish Obama’s environmental position, making this pipeline part of his energy legacy.

Brasilia: An Attempt to Build the Future

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Brasilia, a highly promising and futuristic city was built in the Brazilian highlands in the interior of the country. Construction started in 1956 and was completed in 1960 where it was fully completed in 41 months, a phenomenal feat at the time given the scale and magnitude of the project. Funded by the government, the main purpose in building Brasilia was to create a new capital city, built entirely from scratch, inspired by modern architecture and applying forward thinking urban planning.  Perhaps the largest caveat of Brasilia is that it is a culturally and ideologically misplaced city, based more on European ideals rather than Brazilian ones.

Contrasting from the old world coastal capital of Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia sought to escape the country’s colonial history, focusing on the future of Brazil. Under the direction of Lucio Costa, the principal urban planner, Oscar Niemeyer, the principal architect and Roberto Burle Marx, the principal landscape designer, these three individuals pushed the boundaries of urban planning, constructing larger than life ideas.

Brasilia was stylized with clean lines, rational planning and the abundance of space. In fact so much space, that it was designed not for pedestrians but strictly for cars exclusively with large roads and superhighways. In one sense, the car and its technological promises failed Brasilia, proving that cities thrive on public transportation, local communities and mixed use spaces that included housing, commerce and public works together.

Deciding between Mixed-Use Development vs. Zone Development, Costa opted for the zone development. Theoretically, zoning is used to protect existing residents, businesses or to preserve “the character” of a community. Both concepts when used appropriately in context have their benefits and shortcomings. Brasilia failed in using zone development because it promoted a sterile living environment disassociating locals from normal activities of everyday city life.

Brasilia is considered to be a great place to work, however locals complain about not having activities and street life. Known a weekday city, locals have been known to fly to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro for weekends. A sad reality Brasilia was designed with more focus on aesthetics and design rather than livability. A flaw that was realized much too late.

The problem that lies within Brasilia is that it is very much not a city. It is beautiful and an architectural marvel, but that aside and you left with an unlivable environment that resembles more of a tech company’s “campus” or Tomorrow Land from Disneyland. It misses natural aspects of the city – people walking around, store lined streets, offices nearby. The mixture of commerce and life does not exist which is ultimately its downfall.

The lesson that can be learned from Brasilia is the consequence of over planning, instead of trying to build something organically and the letting growth come from within. It is through the process of trial and error that we are able to determine what works best for a particular environment. Brasilia leaves little room for individuality and imagination, a key component in the livability of a city.

Brasilia was not entirely a complete failure and there were unforeseen success stories in its building.  Brasilia served as a tremendous source of hope and pride for the country. Architecturally, the speed in which the city was built set precedent on the standards for the pace of construction. Brasilia proved to the world the capabilities and ingenuity of it’s people. At the same time, Brasilia also promoted awareness and expansion to the interior of the country and the opportunities that it could bring.

Currently, Brasilia is the largest city in the world that did not exist at the beginning of the 20th century. Incredibly young, this city still has much time to prove that it can evolve into something larger. Something that can rival how cities should be built and more importantly, something that Brazilians can call their own.

Glacier Blankets

The Swiss cover their glaciers with blankets to protect them from melting. They’ve been doing this since 2005, so it’s not new news, but it’s still happening.

China’s Proposed Carbon Tax Moves Forward

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China, the largest emitter of carbon emissions in the world, announced plans to establish a carbon tax and a tax increase for coal power plants. This latest news coming from Xinhua, the state owned news service. This proposed carbon tax would be administered by the Ministry of Finance (MoF) and regulated by the local taxation authority rather than the environmental protection department. No specifications have been made as to the allotment of emissions or the baseline year which emissions will be measured from. This proposed plan will test the boundaries of China’s intensifying environmental goals and the ability to effectively govern China’s big business. If implemented and regulated properly, this carbon tax will be a huge step forward for China, proving that it’s government can take swift action to benefit it’s people and the environment.

Meanwhile, in the United States there has been no progress towards a federal carbon tax policy. The biggest success story in the U.S. has been California’s Cap and Trade program, recently started in early 2013. So far, the Cap and Trade program is well received, however it is still in the early stages of growth and its effectiveness can only be determined with more time. Republicans in the U.S. argue the validity of implementing a carbon tax without the participation of the world’s largest emitters. And to be honest, a fair concern given the scale of climate change as a global problem. Now that China, the largest emitter of carbon emissions has proposed a carbon tax, when will Americans see progress towards any federal legislation?

A trending political topic, carbon taxes will soon be on the agenda of politicians in the most industrious countries across the world. With the Kyoto Protocol already expired in 2012, there has not been any real attempt to reinstate this protocol or any similar legislations thereafter. Global binding agreements like the Kyoto Protocol failed because of their over determination and variable economic and environmental conditions that applied to so many countries.

Instead of a top down approach, there has been more success in a bottom up approach with countries able to determine climate change policies on their own. Climate change policy faces many barriers that international treaties face and this bottom up approach is being turned around with countries determining what works best in their own economic market and environmental conditions.

High-Speed Rail in the United States

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The state of high-speed rail in the United States continues to stagger along at a dismal pace.  The two largest supporters of high-speed rail in the United States are Amtrak and the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA). They have partnered together with the goal of developing an efficient high speed rail system to operate in the North East Corridor, servicing cities between Boston and Washington D.C and the California Corridor, servicing cities in the Bay Area all the way to San Diego. With the hopes of using these two routes as success stories, this partnership is also looking to develop a U.S. standard for manufacturing and supplying train and rail equipment to be used domestically and internationally.

Given the state of rail technology overseas, the United States will have some stiff competition, especially to its European and Asian counterparts. With competitive advancements in Japan and through Europe, it will be a challenge for the United States to innovate the high-speed rail industry. The U.S. hasn’t been the best role model for developing a large scale, regional transportation system. It seems to be caught in the web of politics, funding, infrastructure and technology, lagging way behind the Japan and some European countries.  

In recent news, Ray LaHood, the Transportation Secretary under Obama’s administration has announced that he would be leaving his post in one month’s time. A long time supporter of high-speed rail, LaHood has faced limited funding making the development of high-speed rail infrastructure financially impossible. Plague of trying to do too much with too little, LaHood argues that funding cannot solely rely on the government, and investments through the private sector need to be made in order to accelerate development.  According to LaHood, more federal funding and private investments are needed to compete on the international scale. When asked about other country’s high-speed rail development, LaHood stated:

“For the first time since people have been looking at infrastructure, America is behind…We are behind other countries because other countries are making the investments that we used to make…We need to do better and we need to make sure that America does not fall further behind when it comes to infrastructure.” 

In 2009, President Obama allocated $12 billion in federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to develop a high-speed rail system. A substantial amount of funding indeed; however the California Corridor alone is expected to cost upwards of $68 billion. Underfunded, the North East and California Corridor’s development has additionally been stalled by political legislation.

Political battles aside, the United States has seriously fallen behind in this development and even countries in Asia, are making tremendous strides in high speed rail. Recently, China launched their own version of high-speed rail line to meet the growing transportation demands. With recent the bullet train crash in 2011 in the southeastern city of Wenzhou, the Chinese government has been accused of prioritizing development and profit before public safety. Despite this tragic event, the Chinese government has a firm commitment in establishing a high-speed rail system. In addition, other Asian countries are also following this trend, with a proposed high-speed rail route between Malaysia and Singapore. With a planned target date of 2020, this new route will make the commute only 90 minutes between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Given so much international development and consumer interest, why has the United States stalled in making any progress in developing its own high-speed rail system?

Obama Argues for Climate Change with the development of “Energy Security Trust”.

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Long awaited by many, President Obama spoke in the State of Union candidly on energy and climate change in the future of American politics. This was not the first time that Obama had mentioned climate change in the State of the Union, and has done so beforehand. However this is one of the first times, where he proposes specific initiatives to combat climate change. Compared to last year’s State of the Union, Obama spent a significantly longer time speaking on domestic energy policy and climate change, acknowledging the affects of recent wildfires, droughts in the Midwest and Superstorm Sandy.

Related to Obama’s new approach on energy, he also spoke on education and the impact that it has on innovation and the future of energy in America.

“Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race. And today, no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy.”

This comparison of the space race makes us question whether climate change and energy will receive the same amount of attention and government funding into NASA as it did in the 1960’s. Nevertheless, it is clear that climate and energy are strong priorities for this administration’s coming year.

Most interesting to me is Obama’s proposal to set up an “Energy Security Trust” which would divert a portion of revenues from federal oil and gas drilling into research of alternative energies.

“Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.”

With the big focus on domestic energy production Obama reiterated on improving hydraulic fracturing techniques along with exploration of new areas of domestic oil production.  Particularly controversial “Fracking” – is an oil extraction process that involves injecting pressurized water deep into the ground to obtain pockets gas deep within the ground. According to San Antonio Express News, Hydraulic Fracturing has been increasing at a steady pace with a 28 percent increase since 2008 and as we shift our energy dependence domestically, we will certainly see that number rise.

“We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years. We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar – with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it. We produce more natural gas than ever before – and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it.”

With this newfound energy independence, this administration must focus on further developing new extraction technologies and create firm safety standards at fracking sites, as to not contaminate local water wells. America’s dependence on foreign oil is a security interest and the promotion and development of these technologies is absolutely necessary if we are to produce domestic energy safely, while being conscious to the future generation.

Seemingly timid in his first term, Obama’s administration has not made ground breaking strides or promises in climate change and energy.  Alternatively from his State of the Union speech, this may seem like a turning point in Obama’s administration. Now the real test of American politics begins and whether these proposed plans and programs come to fruition is yet to be determined.

Biophilic Design

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Living in an urban environment, I am intrigued with the concept of Biophilia. Introduced and popularized by Edward O. Wilson, an American biologist, researcher and conservationist, Biophilia suggests an instinctive bond between human beings and living systems. Wilson proposed the possibility of a deep connection between humans and nature rooted in our biology, basically stating humans have an innate affinity to the natural world. 

As I consider the validity of this concept, I realize that nature has been a sanctuary from the stresses of life. For me, nature inspires and gives me new meaning to working in environmental services.  As we grow older we prioritize our careers preferring to live in cities. The vibrancy and allure of city life is not without it’s compromises as we sacrifice space, fresh air, noise and solitude. Using biophilic design, an urban planner or architect is able to incorporate elements of the natural world enhancing the quality of city life.

According to the World Health Organization, by 2030, 6 out 10 people in the world will live in cities, and by 2050 that number will rise to 7 out of 10. This rapid urbanization and growth in city populations will most likely lead to increased pollution, a larger environmental footprint and a more competitive market for space. As cities continue to grow, urban planners will need to face the reality of mega cities and challenge the status quo of urban design.

Early city planning has taken cues from Biophilia with the building of public parks and urban green spaces. With major parks like Central Park in New York City and Goldengate park in San Francisco, these parks have served as a concerted effort to bring the “natural world” into the cities. Beyond parks, there is opportunity everywhere in a city and we must ask ourselves, Why does do we stop at parks? Are we able to incorporate natural elements in other ways?

Architects and urban planners have tremendous power to create beautiful, efficient and productive work environments for people to thrive in. Biophilic design cues in architecture will enhance daily life, especially in the work place. It is common to see traditional cubicle spaces being phased out with companies wanting a open work space, replicating the home and natural environments. Not only do these biophilic inspired work spaces promote creativity but they also maintain and attract talented employees. I bring up biophilic design in the work environment as this is where a many individuals spend their time. However this is one application of many and I see biophilic design improving almost every facet of urban life.  

Cities are undoubtedly complex and using inspiration from biophilia will not solve all urban problems but it will undoubtedly create a more natural and appealing experience for all.