Category Archives: Alternative Energy

Energy Consumption Update

Slightly more than half of the world’s population is under the age of 30. That means most of the people alive on this planet right now will live to see the end of oil. ETA: 42 years if consumed at current rates. I’m 34. If I’m lucky (or unlucky) enough to live to 75, I could spend the last years of my life in the midst of an apocalypse. Not a cheering thought, I know. But I’d be one of the lucky ones. Anyone younger than me will just have more devastating years to look forward to, unless we take serious steps to minimize our dependence on oil. The image below contains global figures.

Image from Oct 1, 2013, – for real-time info, go to http://www.worldometers.info/

The U.S. is one of the worst offenders, partly because of our size, and partly because of our policies and politics. The latter are inexcusable, but they are also changeable. Given the past decade of discussions, denials, progress, regress, posturing and palm-greasing, you’ll forgive me if I’m not overly optimistic.  Our sustained lack of ability, as a people, as a culture, to make real progress on this life-threatening issue is disturbing in the extreme.

Energy consumed in the US

So why do I care? Because nothing I do matters…nothing anyone does or ever has done matters, not Plato, not Shakespeare, not Madame Curie, not Stephen Hawking, not Bob Dylan, not Noam Chomsky, not Neil deGrasse Tyson, not Salman Rushdie, not you, if we don’t fix THIS problem.

If there was ever a time to act, it’s now. You may have to make some sacrifices, but they will be worthwhile.

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No Fracking Way

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Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking is fast becoming recognized as one of the most dangerous and damaging activities that mankind has ever engaged in, and is yet another example of the extremely unfortunate Randian spirit of this age. Did you know that fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, and state water-use regulations? It’s called the Halliburton Loophole. Consider that while perusing this list of chemicals used in the initial drilling and then the fracking processes.

Fracking is a triple threat. It severely damages air and water quality and leads to earthquakes and sinkholes, while marching us right off the Gangplank to a Warm Future. None of these issues are confined to the areas directly involved in fracking, either. They spread out through whole landscapes, as air and water do.

Air

Mead, CO

Both the preliminary drilling process and the process of hydraulic fracturing have serious effects on air quality that every US resident should be incredibly wary of, as fracking is allowed to continue in close proximity to people’s homes and on public lands. During the drilling phase, before the actual fracking even begins, non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are released into the air. These are subsets of what are known as volatile organic compound (VOCs) and they have serious effects on human health in tiny quantities with chronic exposure (parts per trillion, for which there is no federal safety standard) because they are endocrine disruptors. Most discussions about the dangers of fracking do not include this information because it isn’t part of the fracking process, but the drilling. NMHCs and PAHs are compounds that are released from the earth during drilling, which would never have made it into the air otherwise.

The endocrine system is basically the system of hormones that controls many aspects of physiology, including tissue function, growth and development, metabolism, mood regulation, sexual functions and reproductive processes. It influences nearly every cell and organ in our bodies, so things like NMHCs and PAHs can wreak havoc, including causing delayed development and lower IQ scores in prenatally exposed children at far lower concentrations than what are found around fracking sites. “Endocrine disruptors have become an integral part of our economy and modern lifestyle, while at the same time are insidiously depleting the pool of healthy and intelligent individuals on a global scale.” Read more here.

Waste water carrying the many hazardous chemicals used for fracking is pumped into open-air pits for evaporation, releasing many chemicals into the air, including more of the VOCs, leading to smog, acid rain, spreading air contamination, and resulting in unforeseen compounds of toxic chemicals.

Water

fracking_waterEach fracking job requires anywhere between 1 – 8 million gallons of water and some 40,000 gallons of chemicals. For the wells that currently exist throughout the US (about 500,000), if we assume the maximum amount of water and the largest number of times a well can typically be fracked (18) that leaves us with 72 trillion gallons of water that’s been polluted with 360 billion gallons of extremely toxic chemicals. Even if we took the minimum estimates, the numbers would be no less disturbing.

We need to be extremely concerned about where all this water is coming from, and where the chemical-laden “produced water,” as the industry calls it, is going. As mentioned, some of it is recovered and goes into various forms of pits and containers, but a lot of it isn’t recovered; as much as 50-70% of it stays in the ground. This information, combined with even the most rudimentary knowledge of where humans get drinking water from makes it absolutely inconceivable that companies involved in fracking continually deny responsibility for the contamination and toxification of nearby rivers, streams and residential wells.

The companies engaging in fracking say it’s not possible for the fracking process to create that contamination. Well, they must think we’re really stupid. Methane gas and toxic chemicals definitely leach out from this system and contaminate nearby groundwater. Studies have shown that levels of methane in nearby wells that are used for drinking water have methane concentration levels 17% higher than normal. There have been over 1000 documented cases of contaminated drinking water, as well as many people who have experienced respiratory, sensory and neurological damage from drinking this polluted water. There are even stories of children coming out of the shower with chemical burns in areas that have experienced more extreme levels of contamination. These people can light their tap water on fire. It’s horrifying.

Why is fracking exempt from the acts that have been specifically designed to protect us from things like fracking? (Hint: former vice president Dick Cheney had a lot to do with it.) It’s very literally destroying people’s lives, and we have to do something about it.

Earthquakes & Sinkholes

What happens when you forcefully inject millions of gallons of chemical soup miles into the ground? There are a couple of pieces to this puzzle – there’s how the water interacts with the layers of the earth that it’s injected into, and the fact that the known deposits of natural gas lay on the edges of tectonic plates.

Florida

Fracking stands for hydraulic fracturing. So what is being fractured? The ground beneath your feet. Natural gas is contained in layers of shale deep underground. High-pressure injection of water mixed with massive amounts of chemicals is used to break up the shale and release the natural gas. These layers are part of the foundation of solid ground, just like you have a foundation for your house that prevents the whole thing from shifting and sinking. These foundations also contain a distributed pressure, helping to hold up everything above. If you break up that foundation and release that pressure, as fracking does, you get sinkholes. Some of the most notable examples of these are in Louisiana and Ohio.

Fracking also disrupts the edges of tectonic plates, which is why there has been a 600% increase in minor earthquakes in and around fracking areas. For the moment, the damage is limited, but it’s entirely possible that we will do enough damage to the edges of the plates to eventually cause major earthquakes which will result in massive losses. We don’t yet have a strong understanding of how all these forces interplay. If we’re not careful, we could find out in the worst way possible.

Global Warming

There are plenty of natural gas advertisements stating that it’s a cleaner source of energy, that it respects the earth, that it’s safe and abides by “rigorous” safety standards. It’s all bogus, of course, but none of it’s as big a lie as the part about being a clean source of energy. Aside from being incredibly environmentally damaging in the ways discussed above, it’s making major contributions to global warming.

Let’s start with the transportation of water and chemicals. I made the point earlier that trillions of gallons of water and billions of gallons of chemicals are required for this process. They are transported to and fro by tanker trucks, helping the total to reach many millions of metric tons worth of carbon footprint. Even worse, massive amounts of methane, a more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, escapes during the fracking process. Methane traps much more heat than CO2, unless it’s burned. If it’s burned it turns into CO2, still a greenhouse gas, just slightly less bad. So, it’s burned off where it can be, slightly decreasing the risks, but it also often escapes directly into the atmosphere, not to mention drinking water.

There are so many good reasons to stop fracking, to work hard to increase the number of states and countries who are at least declaring a moratorium on fracking. If we allow corporations and governments to continue on this destructive path, we condemn the next generation – our own children – to an unlivable world.

Manufactured Climate Change Denial

protest-455717_1280There’s a really interesting phenomenon that’s been happening in the United States. In most countries, if you ask people about climate change – whether it’s happening and whether it’s a man-made problem, you get a resounding yes, to the tune of percentages in the 90’s. Japan and the U.K. are notable exceptions, with 78% and 65%, respectively. When American citizens were polled, we came in last at 58%. This information is from an online opinion poll, carried out from July 5 to August 6 of 2012 by the poll group Ipsos for the insurance firm Axa. Read more about it here.

This is truly outrageous if you consider the fact that the U.S. education system, though in sad decline, is world-renowned for good reason, and that most people can learn anything they want, whenever they want. You have only to get on the computer or go to the library and you can inform yourself by watching documentaries and sifting through articles, from both scientists and journalists, with a discerning eye. Of course, most people have no desire to do that, and allow themselves the luxury of believing that it doesn’t matter.

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Boycott list for Koch Industries
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If we approach it from another perspective, it becomes more comprehensible. Charles and David Koch, which I’ve just discovered is pronounced like ‘coke,’ two of the wealthiest people in the world, have essentially manufactured (and funded with over $67 million) the entire climate change ‘debate.’ Koch Industries is well-diversified and in involved in all sorts of things, from raising cattle in Montana to manufacturing spandex in China, but the vast majority of their wealth comes from petroleum.

They financially support a massive team of highly conservative special interest groups, think tanks and lobbyists, whose jobs are to oppose green energy, fight environmental regulations, ease limits on industrial pollution, and influence public opinion, for example by appearing on news programs as “experts” and questioning the legitimacy of science. You can see a profile of lobbying spending data for Koch Industries at the Center for Responsive Politics website opensecrets.org. They’ve been highly successful in their efforts, because the public has fallen for their lies, and the politicians have fallen for their money and influence.

false-98375_640By having managed to convince people to be extremely dismissive of scientific fact and to frame this issue as a ‘debate’ (which it clearly is not) we have enabled a massive section of society to basically say, “Well, the jury’s still out, and there’s really no sense in taking drastic action until we have a clear answer.” This is an extremely dangerous viewpoint and the adage applies here – All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. ~ Edmund Burke. Make no mistake, this can most definitely be called an evil, because it’s a construction of powers-that-be aiming to look after their own short-term financial interests, and nothing else. It’s not based on good science and it’s not founded on principles that include protecting the welfare of society in general and preserving the life-supporting qualities of the environment.

While the majority of society sits back and waits rather than taking action, the real scientists who look at climate change are seeing a growing list of reasons to be very concerned, and are now starting to realize that even the more radical estimates of the changes that we’re going to be experiencing may have been too conservative, in part because greenhouse gas emissions have risen precipitously, which wasn’t expected.

The earth won’t blow up or anything, but complex life is actually quite fragile, and it’s easy to suppose that most of it will not survive drastic changes. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that we’re already well into the beginning of this process, and as fossil fuel extraction and consumption increases (which it is doing), and as we continue to manufacture and spread more and more chemicals which appear in our earth, water, air, food supply and our own bodies, as well as those of many different species of animals, the effects will also increase, becoming more rapid and more drastic. You need only point to the many massive die-offs that we’ve seen in recent years, including fish, dolphins, bees, coral reefs, and certain birds, among others.

It’s notable that there’s far more recognition of the basic truths of this issue in poorer countries. As floods and droughts, etc increase, these are the people who have been effected first and harshest. They have a higher stake in being a part of the solution, while the inventors and perpetuators of the myths of the climate change ‘debate’ are exactly those that stand to lose the least, and have the higher stake in being part of the problem because they have enough money to do whatever is necessary to protect themselves. Most of us don’t have any options in that regard.

We need to work harder to educate everyone about the truth. As long as half our population is being lulled into complacency, meaningful changes can’t takes place, and they desperately need to. Spread this information any way you possibly can, and help fight against the Koch brothers’ multi-million dollar machinations. They’re spending so much of that money on one thing – disseminating information. In this case, we CAN fight fire with fire, without spending much at all outside of time.

A Call to Action

industry-611668_640With what we’ve known for quite a long time now about the causes and effects of climate change, it’s almost inconceivable that we’re still, as a species, plowing ahead with our ill-advised plan to suck up all possible fossil fuels and burn them. The extraction processes and the pollution resulting from use are all extremely damaging to our environment and bode ill for future survival. We’re beginning to realize that even the more drastic estimates of global warming and its effect on all species, including us, have been frighteningly conservative in the face of our current reality.

Do you know what fossil fuels are made of? Organic matter that’s been laying in the earth for millions of years. Through a process involving time, compression, and heat, the organic matter turns into coal, oil, and natural gas. Unless you want to personally help comprise the next generation of fossil fuels, I recommend reading on.

Living sustainably effects every part of our lifestyles, and I typically focus on the small things that are part of our daily routines, because they can really add up if enough people make a conscious effort, make better choices, and spread the knowledge and initiative around. And because the smaller choices are more manageable.

The problem is – they aren’t enough. The two biggest issues facing us today in terms of our very survival are agriculture and fossil fuels. These two industries have shown no desire to benefit humanity, only their own profit margins. It’s a vastly different thing to say ‘stop eating GMOs’ and ‘stop using your car’ but it’s really no good doing one and not the other. So, right now, let’s think about the difficult choices instead of the easy ones.

There’s so much outrage about the what the fossil fuel industry is doing to the planet, as there should be. Just imagine if the massive amounts of money spent on lobbying went instead to research and development, design and implementation of alternative energies. We’d be sitting pretty. And the companies would benefit by diversifying and moving into the future with the rest of us. But that’s not happening. Instead, they’re creating a situation in which it’s entirely possible that many of us will not move into the future at all. It’s so disgustingly myopic, it’s not likely to change, and there are few ways that you and I can hope to make a difference.

We all use fossil fuels. We’re all complicit. With current technologies and the way things work, it’s impossible to avoid without completely uprooting your life, but each one of us must begin to fight to make the changes we can in order to attain the smallest degree of complicity possible. This is a moral imperative. It should be an easy choice for anyone who has or plans to have children, or nieces and nephews, or in any way cares about future generations. The truth is, the suggestions I’m about to make are not only going to help to transfer power away from the fossil fuel industry, helping future generations, they’re also physically and mentally healthier for you in the present. These are just a few; there are plenty more things you can do.

Invest in solar panels on your home – They’re not that expensive to install and they pay you back while reducing or eliminating your reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power. You might also be able to benefit from a feed-in tariff. If you generate enough electricity to feed back into the power grid, you get paid for it. You can also get federal tax credits, and some state governments offer rebates as well.

Use your bicycle for more than entertainment – In several countries, we grow up with this idea that bicycles are for entertainment. They’re fun, or they’re for kids who can’t drive to go visit nearby friends. You know what? They ARE fun! So why not use your bicycle to get to work, or go to the store, or the library, or out to dinner? As an American, taking my bicycle for a 30-minute journey sounded like a bit much, until I started doing it. Now I love it and there’s no way I’d rather travel, even for much longer trips. Americans spend tons of money pimping our rides, so why not spend a little on pimping our bicycles to make them both comfortable and functional? It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a lift kit.

How about a motorcycle or a moped? – Another good option for longer trips when a bicycle isn’t feasible. They’re not very expensive, especially mopeds, and they get you where you need to go while paying you back for your investment by using waaaaay less gasoline.

Move – Seriously. I know it’s difficult and time-consuming, but it’s also fun! And you can choose to move to a community that allows you to live more sustainably. It’s a big thing, but people do move all the time. It’s not inconceivable.

Buy local – Just about everything you buy from your local supermarket has traveled long distances, using lots of fossil fuels for production, storage, and transportation. Industrial agriculture is THE biggest user of fossil fuels and producer of greenhouse gases. Small local farms tend to use much more sustainable practices, to stay away from GMOs, and they require little use of fossil fuels for production, storage and transportation.

Gardening – Grow food at home, help start or engage in community gardens. This is physically, emotionally, economically, and socially healthy and sustainable, and results in a grand-scale reduction of the need to use fossil fuels.

Don’t vote party lines – Vote for what’s best for your children and the future. Always. Educate yourself about bills and propositions and politicians, and the effects they’ll have, keeping in mind that they are all often purposefully misleading. Dig deep. It’s necessary.

Engage in activism – Get out there! We need you to help make a difference and to inspire others to do the same. This kind of bottom – up change will only work if we reach a tipping point.

As the saying goes, “If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.” ~ Leroy Eldridge Cleaver

An Unsustainable Food Supply

Fur trappers and traders who came to North America in the 1600s and 1700s had to eat what they could forage and catch. Rabbits were plentiful in many regions at that time, and so they formed the bulk of some trappers’ diets. Those trappers who relied too heavily on rabbit meat often died of malnutrition. Rabbit meat takes more calories to procure than you get back from eating it. That balance is unsustainable, and yet it is exactly how the U.S. food system works.

A little bit of math

It takes approximately 10 calories worth of fossil fuels to produce and transport 1 calorie of food. That means, for a family of four with a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet, 930 gallons of gas per year will be required to produce and transport their food, not including that family driving to and from the grocery store. Since the average household in the U.S. consumes somewhere around 1,000 gallons of gas per year, the way we manage our food supply nearly doubles the already ridiculous amount of fuel each person is responsible for consuming. That kind of imbalance on a personal level will eventually kill you, and what we’re seeing on a national level is no different.

Approximately 15% of the energy supply in the United States goes into crop production, livestock production, food processing, and packaging. A Cornell University professor of ecology and agricultural science did the math for what that means for the big picture: if all of humanity were to go about food production the way the U.S. does, we would exhaust all known fossil fuel reserves in seven years. Wow, that’s wasteful!

Agricultural practices contribute greatly to global warming. Because of the complexity of the problem and the multitude of factors, it’s difficult to arrive at an accurate number, but it’s thought that approximately 33% of contributions to climate change are a direct result of the food supply system. Some of the factors are farm machinery, petroleum-based chemicals used in synthetic fertilizers, the manufacturing processes for agro-chemicals and fertilizers, the processing of major crops like corn and soy into a vast array of derived products, and the distribution over long distances of everything, including the final output. Animal agriculture itself accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions (18%) than all transportation in the globe (14%). (Others argue that the figure of 18% allows a large number of unallocated emissions that are really due to animal agriculture, bringing the figure up to 51% – read more here.)

Let’s take school lunches as an example, if only because a) they need to change anyway as they’re incredibly unhealthy for our children, and b) I can quote directly from an article by Tom Starrs, VP and COO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation:

“According to 2005 USDA National School Lunch Program participation figures, 29.6 million American school children were served nearly five billion meals at school last year. Typically these meals are highly processed, filled with conditioners, preservatives, dyes, salts, artificial flavors, and sweeteners. Usually they’re individually portioned and packaged, and travel thousands of miles to the school cafeteria.

School meals are commonly delivered frozen, wrapped and sealed in energy-consumptive packaging, and in need of some interval in a warming oven to thaw before being served to students. Studies of packaging and plate waste in school cafeterias indicate that, every day, as much as half, by weight, of these hasty, unappetizing, low-nutrient, highly processed and packaged meals is tossed by students — unopened, un”appreciated”, untasted, unrecycled and uncomposted. The energy needed to collect and transport the waste generated by school lunch must also be added to the net energy embedded in the meal.”

This is no different from food in the grocery store, which travels hundreds if not thousands of miles to get there, and is wastefully packaged to boot.

It’s the Monsanto monster again

A huge amount of agriculture and food supply mismanagement can be traced back to Monsanto & friends. The federal government has been convinced by lobbyists and money to subsidize over-production of monoculture crops such as corn and soy. They are genetically modified crops, grown in petroleum-based synthetic fertilizer, drenched in herbicides and insecticides, then either fed to cattle who can’t digest them or highly processed before going into your own food. Monsanto & friends get extremely-well paid, while you and I foot the bill, twice – once in our tax dollars funding their subsidies and once for increasingly expensive health care to treat our inevitable diet-related illnesses.

Farmers growing fruits and vegetables that are fit for human consumption don’t receive subsidies. It’s really an upside-down system. We should be able to offer farmers subsidies to protect them from a year of drought, blight, etc., but not for purposeful overproduction of nutritionally useless and environmentally damaging crops that serve no purpose but to line the pockets of those in charge of unethical corporations.

Tipping point

With a rising global population, increases in droughts and flooding, and a beautiful planet that can’t take much more of what we’re throwing at her, we absolutely have to make our system more sustainable and energy-efficient if we’re going to survive. None of us can implement that change alone, but we can each make choices in our daily lives that will contribute, and we can urge others to do the same. If enough of us care and get involved, we can and will reach a tipping point where the system will have to change. It’s a top-down problem that we need to try to solve from the bottom-up. We all have to get involved. Buy local as much as possible. Go to farmer’s markets. Grow your own vegetables at home. Start to think about the net energy that goes into your food and the waste that results. Start or get involved in a local community garden, farm-to-school program, or food forest project. Above all, teach your children!

Bees & Butterflies & Alternative Energy

We have to stop using massive amounts of insecticides & herbicides. Obviously. But it may take some time to get there, so what can each of us do in the meantime to help our little buddies who are suffering mass extinctions?

Win – win

There’s a company in the UK getting it right. Unlike fossil fuel extraction methods, solar power doesn’t destroy the immediate environment in which production happens. So we’re already a step ahead, but that’s not enough for the folks at Solarcentury, who have decided to do what they can to support biodiversity in their country.

They are about to begin planting indigenous flora throughout their solar parks that bees and butterflies love, and that promote native biodiversity in general. They envision their solar parks as wildlife sanctuaries, and it’s not just for bugs; it’s estimated that 97% of wildflower meadows in the UK have been lost since the 1940s. They’ve found an ingenious way to make human interference in a natural landscape beneficial. The CEO of the company pointed out that solar parks actually provide a wider array of wet, dry, shaded and sunny areas than completely open fields, making it a perfect place to promote biodiversity. Win – win.

How bee-friendly is your land?

You could easily follow their example at home and make your land a refuge for bees and butterflies, who are fighting to survive and could use all the help we can give them. Frankly, it also has the potential to be more beautiful than a grass lawn. It may not be the right thing for everyone to do. Of course, you can also have gardens, but they do require more care. One of the nice things about attracting bees, butterflies and other pollinators, though, is that they do help you out with that.

There are more benefits, too. Many of the plants that attract bees and butterflies also attract hummingbirds. Many are also edible, including herbs like fennel and basil. You just have to make sure you let them go to flower, but you were going to do that anyway so that you can save the seeds, right?

See how synergistic it can all be? When you begin to recognize it, it seems so inane of us to have commercialized this process to the point of destruction. Nature takes care of all this with relatively little intervention on our part and here we are wasting valuable energy and resources (non-renewable ones) engineering plants that lack the nutritional value of natural plants, while creating robotic bees (yes, it appears Monsanto IS involved in that project) just in case that’s the only way they can survive. Well guess what? We’re next.

What to plant

Here are a few resources to learn more about the plants that pollinators love, and other potential uses for some of them, as well as a helpful hint for people with allergies, and more.

21 best plants for pollinators

No-fail plants to attract hummingbirds, butterflies & bees

Bee balm: for butterflies & bees

10 things you can do to help save the bees

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