Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Catastrophe: This Doesn't Happen With Clean Energy

As I've watched the Gulf of Mexico oil spill unfold over the last few days, a few thought have come to mind.

First, a note to God-fearing opponents of the bold climate change and clean energy legislation that will also help us deal with the looming Peak Oil crisis: watching the recent deadly coal mine disaster, quickly followed by this catastrophically costly, headline-grabbing (likely for weeks to come) offshore oil drilling disaster, does it seem kinda like The Lord is pissed about our dirty energy use?

It hasn't been a very good month for those raping Mother Earth for the dirty energy sources that are destabilizing the global climate system, threatening humanity's food and water supplies.

Second, how ironic that this oil spill catastrophe is going to hit the hardest economically in the deep southern U.S., the heart of political support for "Drill Baby Drill!"

The good news, especially given that the Senate is about to start debate on Climate Change and Clean Energy legislation: this type of disaster just doesn't happen with solar or wind power.

Sure, it's going to take a LOT of work and energy (and even fossil fuel use) to transition to clean energy.  But we CAN have energy without these deadly, catastrophically costly, economically destabilizing and toxic risks posed by fossil fuels.

Best of all, the building, installation, sales, administration, transport, you name it of all this clean energy infrastructure is going to create the millions of new jobs our economy badly needs.  They are good jobs that will make people proud -- coming with the badge of honor that they have joined the clean energy revolution that is freeing America from our addiction to dirty oil and other fossil fuels.

Now it's up to Congress to make it happen and unleash the tsunami of clean energy technology investment that's been waiting on the sidelines for the rules of the game to be established.

Let's play ball, and play to win.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Major Investment Bank Completes Uber-Green Renovation Project

When mighty, mega-rich investment banks start going with LEED-Platinum investments to renovate their corporate headquarters, heads turn.

Mine sure did -- here's the good news from The Triple Pundit about Deutsche Bank's newly (and sustainably) renovated headquarters:
Deutsche bank has spent upwards of €20 Million on a complete multi-year renovation project which will earn the company a LEED platinum rating for the million-plus square foot building–a rarity for a large skyscraper and arguably one of the “greenest” corporate headquarters in the world. 
A few facts on the renovation:
+ The thermal concrete mass of the old building is re-used to collect and store heat. This is just the way it was done in ancient times (see your local adobe for more information).
+ Electrical usage will be cut by over 50%. Lighting only comes on when needed and a fascinating intelligent elevator system (the subject of another post) that optimizes routing keeps usage low.
+ Heating energy cut by 2/3. Triple paned windows and excellent insulation combined with a heat exchanger that allows the sun’s energy on the hot side of the building to be transferred to areas of the building that are in the shade. Not only that, but most water will be heated by solar thermal panels.
+ Water use cut by almost 75%. A full greywater system will be in place for the toilets as well as rain catchment.
+ The new building will be 100% hydro powered. (By an agreement with a utility in Austria.)
+ LCD readouts in the elevators will show progress of each floor on meeting goals of energy use. This is especially fun because it allows for poor performing departments to be “called out,” creating informal competition between ares of the bank to use the least resources.
+ Operable windows to charm a banker’s heart. Remember the days when office buildings had operable windows? They’re back. Not only that, but these can be automated from central control if carelessly left open.
+ CO2 reduction will be cut by almost 90%. At the end of the day, an astonishing reduction on CO2 emissions is realized.
As for the payback on the bank’s investment, Noack told us it was definitely sound, but spared us the details on exactly how long the payback might be. That got me thinking that the payback for such an investment is a lot more than purely financial.
Clearly the rest of the return is about image.
There’s a lot of brand value in Deutsche Bank’s twin towers. Selling them and moving – even though Noack mentioned it would have actually been much cheaper to do so – would have resulted in considerable loss to the company’s image and mystique. The company board also saw considerable value in the cachet of being the bank that people might point to and say, “That’s the bank with the green building.” Evidently the value more than justifies €200 Million.
But so what? At the end of the day, one of Germany’s major corporate icons is offering the entire green building movement a huge publicity boost on the back of their own. It represents a great investment in engineering firms, design firms, and construction firms who have now been exposed to greener practices. It’s a real savings of resources and energy, and legitimizes green building in the eyes of the traditionally conservative banking and corporate sectors. Finally, knowing the ego of banks, they’ve issued a challenge for others to follow suit. Will we see Chase and Citibank greening their towers next? Time will tell.
That's my bold-facing above, since one of the most powerful motivating forces encouraging the spread of sustainable practices is seeing others doing it.  I sure hope this high-profile green building turns heads, attracts attention, and generates some copy-cats...

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Climate Change Water Shortages Emerging: Bolivian Villagers Forced to Relocate as Glaciers, Water Supplies Disappear

Child playing with Mount Illimani in the distance

Here's a preview of an impact of climate disruption that we can expect to see become far more common in the years to come:
For the Incas, and most of the Andean civilisations, snow-capped mountains were divinities to be honoured, as they supplied water.
But now it seems those gods are losing their powers. Researchers say that the glaciers are in dramatic retreat across the Andes due to rising temperatures.
We are very worried because we have no water. Half the people of this community have already left. Those who remain are struggling with the lack of water," says Max, an elderly Aymara Indian who chews coca leaves as he speaks in heavily-accented Spanish.
For the indigenous people of Khapi everything depends on the streams flowing through their land. The waters, which they consider sacred, keep their animals alive and allow their crops to flourish.
But over the past 10 or 15 years, changing weather patterns have led to irregular water flows - the streams become torrents or dwindle to just trickles.
"The weather has drastically changed and it is now two or three times hotter than it was. We cannot water our crops and the sun and the heat are very strong. Our crops are dry now, our animals are dying; we want to cry," Max says, before asking their Andean goddess, Pachamama or Mother Earth, for help.
 It won't be long before we start seeing things like this happen in the U.S. and other developed countries.  Do we really want to wait until we "get it" -- painfully -- before we take action?

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Scientists Call for Research on Climate Link to Geological Hazards

Iceland volcano sparked French Revolution
I've blogged about this highly speculative, yet eye-opening area of research before -- most recently after the Haiti earthquake.

Now, interestingly, top scientists are calling for further research:
Richard Betts, a climate modeller at the Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter, said: "This is a new area of academic research with potentially interesting implications. It was previously assumed there was no link at all between climate change and these events, but it is possible to speculate that climate change might make some more likely. If we do get large amounts of climate change in the long term then we might see some impacts."
He said there was no evidence that current levels of global warming were influencing events such as last week's earthquake in China that killed hundreds of people and the volcanic eruption in Iceland that grounded flights across Europe.
Experts say global warming could affect geological hazards such as earthquakes because of the way it can move large amounts of mass around on the Earth's surface. Melting glaciers and rising sea levels shift the distribution of huge amounts of water, which release and increase pressures through the ground.
These pressure changes could make ruptures and seismic shifts more likely. Research from Germany suggests that the Earth's crust can sometimes be so close to failure that tiny changes in surface pressure brought on my heavy rain can trigger quakes. Tropical storms, snowfall and shifting tides have all been linked to shifts in seismic activity.
Wow -- fascinating.  Certainly can't hurt to learn more about how these processes and triggers might work as the world warms...

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Food For Thought: Organic Food Worth Buying

Organic onions

The organic industry is running into some growing pains, reports this AOL piece -- especially when it comes to compliance monitoring (e.g.,  making sure that foods are being randomly tested and violators' products are immediately pulled from shelves).  Does that mean that one shouldn't buy organic?

Consider one recent study that demonstrated the potentially significant health benefits of organics -- avoiding what's NOT in them.
And at least one peer-reviewed study has shown that organic foods offer a potential benefit in what they don't contain. 
It was conducted in 2008 by Chensheng Lu, then a professor at Emory University's School of Public Health and a leading authority on pesticides and children, who took as his subjects a group of children living on Mercer Island, a wealthy suburb of Seattle.

Over the course of a year, Lu, now at Harvard, fed 21 children ages 3 to 11 conventional fruits, vegetables and juices from nearby grocery stores for five days at a time. Then the kids were switched to organic foods.

Twice daily on multiple days in each of the four growing seasons, he tested their urine and saliva. When the children ate conventional food, markers of organophosphates -- the family of pesticides spawned by the creation of nerve gas agents in World War II -- appeared in the biological samples. None was found when the children were eating organic.

"The transformation is extremely rapid. Within eight to 36 hours of the children switching to organic food, the pesticides were no longer detected," Lu said at the time.

"Once you switch from conventional food to organic, the pesticides (malathion and chlorpyrifos) that we can measure in the urine disappears. The level returns immediately when you go back to the conventional diets."

Lu is repeating the study in two different communities. The exposure levels observed in Lu's study were lower than the levels that the Environmental Protection Agency regards as safe. But many public health experts and advocates believe those levels are in fact not safe, especially for children.
That's pretty striking.  In addition to the peace of mind I get from avoiding nasty pesticides (and doing my part to help keep them out of the environment), I also find many organic products taste better. Furthermore, I have seen research detailing how they contain greater levels of several important vitamins, including powerful anti-oxidants.  A new book details many of these benefits, which are also summarized in this Planet Green piece...

Read more>>

More on the subject from Planet Green>>

Monday, April 19, 2010

Google Climate Chief: Price on Carbon Will Be Economic Bright Spot

In about a week, the new Senate climate change and clean energy bill is apparently going to be released by Senators Graham, Kerry and Lieberman.  You can be as certain as the sun's rise and set that we'll immediately hear a chorus of such blather as "it's going to wreck the economy" and "we can't pass an environmental bill like this during an economic downturn -- it will cost too much."

Nonsense, says Google's climate change and clean energy chief, Dan Reicher, in this Grist article:
Google is thinking about the big global picture. Reicher told me that, "in general terms, a carbon price will do a lot to advance the competitiveness of these technologies that offer serious climate reductions, help for our energy security, increase our domestic fuels, and can create all sorts of jobs."

But the search-engine-plus is also thinking about its own bottom line. It's already got products on the market that help consumers save electricity.

As Reicher puts it, "putting a serious price of carbon will both get us closer to the serious energy reductions we need to make, but also accelerate the domestic development and adoption of these technologies." It's that last part that's good for business. When government holds up its side of the "triangle of technology, policy, and finance" that Reicher says is essential for green development, it spurs the private investment and innovation that keeps businesses strong.

That's where Congress comes in. The most important policy is carbon pricing. That's what will change the economic fundamentals, augmented by other programs -- like energy efficiency standards and government revolving loans to bring new ideas  to the market. The technology and finance sides are ready and able; but we've been waiting for too long for the policy piece that can complete the puzzle.

Google hopes the Senate will act quickly to jumpstart what it thinks will be an economic bright spot in the current downturn.
Again, if you're against the Senate's climate change and clean energy bill, what are you for?  More drilling and continued dependence on oil?  Good luck with that one -- talk to me in 2-3 years when gas is $5-10/gallon, and I drive by you smiling in my plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle, which I've charged via my home solar system.  I see what's coming in our energy future and I'm preparing.  It will, of course, get cheaper and easier to prepare with the right incentives in place, such as the ones that will be in this bill.

The bill's supporters in the Senate are going to have to step up, though, and make a strong case about why passing it is going to make our lives and businesses better, and benefit our environment, economy, health, security and quality of life alike.  Let's hope they've learned how to do it by now...

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Chemical Reform Safety Gains Momentum In Congress

After having read articles such as this National Geographic expose about the chemicals building up in human bodies, would you be scared to be tested yourself?

I would.  I'm seriously afraid to find out what kinds of toxic chemicals have built up in my body, and what their impacts on my health might be.  Hopefully, though, the answers could be used to help protect me from related health threats.

Fortunately, reports Science, Chemical Safety Reform is gaining momentum in Congress:
Two bills in Congress would dramatically strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) ability to regulate chemicals. The bills shift the burden of proof to industry, which would have to demonstrate the safety of existing and new chemicals. That's a major change from the existing system, in which EPA must prove that chemicals are harmful before it can regulate them.
"This is a monumental sea change," says Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.
The bill also...directs EPA to create a green chemistry research grant program and establish a network of at least four research centers to help find safer alternatives to dangerous chemicals.
Strong Chemical Safety Reform is not only important for safeguarding our environment, but like Climate Change and Clean Energy legislation (and it's humongous associated health benefits), it is another crucial component of Health Care Reform.  After all, the build-up of chemicals in human bodies is another example of how chemical producers are profiting by deferring the costs of their products on to people -- and our health care providers and insurance companies.

Clearly, passing a strong Chemical Safety Reform bill will offer broad benefits to our environment, health, safety and economy alike.  Health Insurance Companies should be lining up to support it.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

U.S. Military Warns Oil Output May Dip, Causing Massive Shortages By 2015

We officially now have the U.S. Military issuing dire warnings about the imminent dangers of Peak Oil, reports The Guardian (where oh where are U.S. newspapers on this critical economic and national security issue?!)
The US military has warned that surplus oil production capacity could disappear within two years and there could be serious shortages by 2015 with a significant economic and political impact.
"By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day," says the report, which has a foreword by a senior commander, General James N Mattis.
It adds: "While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India."
The US military says its views cannot be taken as US government policy but admits they are meant to provide the Joint Forces with "an intellectual foundation upon which we will construct the concept to guide out future force developments."
This report adds a whole new angle of urgency to the need for the U.S. Senate to pass bold climate change and clean energy legislation, and for The House to support a far bolder bill than the one it passed last summer.  Whether you accept the facts on climate change or not, America needs to get our butts in gear in weaning ourselves from oil, or we'll be forced to do it the hard (and very painful and scary) way...

The good news -- the solutions to the Peak Oil crisis are also the solutions to our economic, jobs, energy, and climate crises all packaged into one.  Let's do this, people -- let me know how I can be of assistance.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Conservation Group Hands Out Native Plant Seed Bombs to Citizens

Now this is an idea I'd consider for helping to restore California's natural flora in our heavily invaded landscapes:
The Conservation Council of New Brunswick is hoping a new tool it's using to encourage the growth of native plants and species will take off with a bang.
The environmental group will be handing out so-called seed bombs at Fredericton's farmers market in the coming months.
People will be encouraged to throw the little balls of soil, nutrients and New Brunswick wildflower seeds into vacant lots, backyards and other places that need greening, spokeswoman Tracy Glynn said.
"It's needed. Our biodiversity is at threat and I think we need something to protect our native biodiversity," she said.
"We were trying to do something about the problem of the disappearing bumblebees, so we wanted to encourage biodiversity in urban areas, so we thought by planting pollinator-friendly vegetation like New Brunswick wildflowers, it would also help the bumblebees that are in trouble," she added.

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Disease Threatens Douglas Firs of the Pacific Northwest

Scientists have seen this coming for years, and climate change seems to have accelerated the vulnerability of Pacific Northwest forests to disease caused by unwise forest management and tree planting practices.  As the Oregonian reports:
A fungal disease attacking Douglas-fir trees along the Pacific Northwest coast is intensifying and may be linked to a warmer climate and extensive planting of Douglas-fir on logged tracts, new Oregon State University research suggests.

The epidemic of Swiss needle cast stunts growth in both older and younger trees and appears to be unprecedented over at least the past 100 years, OSU researchers Bryan Black, David Shaw, and Jeffrey Stone concluded.

Swiss needle cast, which originated in Europe, has spread sharply since 1996. It affects hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon and Washington, costing tens of millions a year in lost growth. It rarely kills trees but causes discoloration and loss of needles and stunts growth.

The disease has now been identified at varying levels of severity in western Oregon on more than 300,000 acres in each of the past four years, peaking at 376,000 acres in 2008, the researchers said in a paper published in the journal "Forest Ecology and Management."

Prior to this four-year period, it had affected as much as 300,000 acres only once in the 14-year history of aerial detection surveys, they said.

It could ultimately affect up to two million acres of forests near the Oregon coast, OSU said, and change the face of forestry in a huge region.

The new study concluded that warmer conditions, especially from March through August, are associated with significantly reduced growth in diseased trees, which may reflect earlier fruiting of the fungus. Wet, drizzly conditions in May through July are also important.

The warm, wet conditions within 20 miles or so of the Pacific Ocean make those areas a hotspot of disease in coastal Oregon and Washington.

Another key suspect, scientists say, is the planting for decades of a monoculture of Douglas-fir in replacement of coastal forests, which previously had trees of varying ages and different species.

When Douglas-fir was a small component of these forests, it appears the disease was relatively insignificant. Even-aged stands of Douglas-fir allow the fungus to build up, releasing spores that spread with the wind.
It's text book conservation biology that something like this would happen to the Pacific Northwest's forests -- scientists have been warning of the dangers of poor forest management and planting monocultures of Douglas Fir for years.  Now the timber industry's ignoring of scientific advice has the potential to become very very costly for the region's economy and the local communities that depend on sustainable forest management.  It's really too bad, because the problem could have been avoided.

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Read a different article on the subject -- from The Science Blog>>

Why Buy Local?

Tomatoes by SeenyaRita on FlickrLocal isn't just about sustainability, reflects the author of this post from The Triple Pundit.  It's about a whole range of benefits tied to community and happiness.  Here are a few of my favorites:
Local is more choices. Endless choices, all with unique stories, people and artisanship.
Local is buying from friends. Just as it used to be, I know companies right here in the Bay Area who love to invite people to their factory for a tour, or even to their homes for a meal. When was the last time you were invited to fly in the private Boeing 787s of a company that you buy from or even invest in?

Local is learning and knowing more. I want to know where my food comes from, appreciating the subtle differences and varieties as we often do wine (rather than by brand). I don’t want to have to watch a documentary or read breaking news to find out what is hidden from my view.
Local is about relationships. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable being considered a “consumer.” I am not a consumer, I am a person and I believe that our central role on our society is a hell of a lot more than to consume stuff.
Local is about slowing down and discovering our talents again. In our world of hyper productivity and endless information, is the goal to work every waking hour? A friend of mine, actually a successful CEO, has no TVs in his home, only music instruments and a garden. Perhaps we’ve lost something by having everything we could possibly want available to us in shopping aisles. Our parents or grandparents probably preserved their own jams, pickled their own pickles, and received more in return than just something for their sandwiches.
Local is making less of an impact. We all know that we are destroying our natural resources and that this can’t keep up. We’ve done a really good job at hiding the truth from ourselves, of the resources we are consuming and the endless waste we are creating. Yet, when you can look a local company owner in the eyes and ask them about the impact they (and we) are making, everything changes. We need to get back to that.
Local is reusing more. Nearly everything we buy is mostly packaging and a little of what we actually need or use. But when we buy local milk from Straus Family Creamery, for example, or local preserves from Happy Girl Kitchen, we can return the container, no waste, no recycling (as environmentalists will tell you, recycling isn’t nearly as effective as reuse).
Local is more delicious. When it comes to food, eating local means more variety and fresher food. Isn’t life about variety, not a burger that tastes exactly the same, made with exactly the same ingredients? A diet that changes with the seasons sounds fantastic to me, perhaps even a reminder that I’m still alive!
Want to know where to buy local?  Click here to search for your neighborhood farmers market.

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Energy Crops Impact Environmental Quality

A new review explores alternative approaches for providing the carbon-rich material used to create cellulosic ethanol.  While some have touted use of crop waste for conversion to fuels, this review touts important environmental benefits provided by crop residues, and suggests alternative crops for fuel production:
In the March-April 2010 issue of Agronomy Journal, published by the American Society of Agronomy, Dr. Humberto Blanco reviewed the impacts of crop residue removal, warm season grasses, and short-rotation woody crops on critical soil properties, carbon sequestration, and water quality as well as the performance of energy crops in marginal lands. The review found that crop residue removal from corn, wheat,and grain sorghumcan adversely impact soil and environmental quality. Removal of more than 50% of crop residue can have negative consequences for soil structure, reduce soil organic carbon sequestration, increase water erosion, and reduce nutrient cycling and crop production, particularly in erodible and sloping soils.
"Crop residue removal can make no-till soils a source rather than a sink of atmospheric carbon," says Blanco, even at rates lower than 50%. Residue removal at rates of less than 25% can cause loss of sediment in runoff relative to soils without residue removal. To avoid the negative impacts on soil, perhaps only a small fraction of residue might be available for removal. This small amount of crop residues is not economically feasible nor logistically possible. Blanco recomends developing other alternative biomass feedstock sources for cellulosic ethanol production.
An alternative to crop residue removal is growing warm season grasses and short-rotation woody crops as dedicated energy crops. These crops can provide a wide of range of ecosystems services over crop residue removal. Available data indicate that herbaceous and woody plants can improve soil characteristics, reduce soil water and wind erosion, filter pollutants in runoff, sequester soil organic carbon, reduce net emissions of greenhouse gases, and improve wildlife habitat and diversity.
Whereas crop residue removal reduces carbon concentration, dedicated energy crops can increase soil organic carbon concentration while providing biofuel feedstock. Because of their deep root systems, warm season grasses also promote long-term carbon sequestration in deeper soil profile unlike row crops.
I've been watching the development of biofuels for years now, and there always seems to end up being a problem with each candidate.  Hopefully we can find a solution sooner than later that is both effective and safe for helping wean us from our oil addiction.

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New Book Touts "Shocking" Reasons to Eat Organic

A new book describes the many environmental, health and safety benefits of organic foods.  As reported on The Early Show:
Matt Bean, a senior editor of the magazine, spelled out many of those benefits on "The Early Show" Tuesday.
Although organic food is more expensive than conventional food, Bean says making organics a part of your diet can have a big impact on your health and that of your family.

From the book, Bean says, "We discovered ... some pretty shocking and convincing arguments" for going that route.

Health Benefits of Organic Foods:

More Nutrients: Studies show that organic foods may have increased levels of nutrients like antioxidants than conventionally grown foods

Fertility Health: Pesticides found in conventionally grown foods have been shown to reduce fertility

Immune System Protection: The chemicals in non-organic foods may also harm your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to illness and some forms of cancer

Hormones and weight gain: New research has shown that some agricultural chemicals could actually be making you fat by interfering with your hormone levels.

Unknown effects of GMOs: Many people are concerned about genetically modified foods, especially since many of them have never been tested on humans. Organic foods are never genetically modified.
Given findings like this out there, there's also an element of 'peace of mind' that comes with eating organic -- especially when grown in our own garden (I'm proud of the food I grow, and it tastes great!) and purchased at local farmers' markets (supporting our local organic growers and green economy).

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