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As temperatures rise around the world (think summer, think global warming!), lip-smacking ads of frosted glasses of beer, cola or other carbonated drinks appear on billboards and media screens. Plying Indian roads on a motorbike in the approaching summer of 2017 has shown one refreshing (pardon the pun) trend in the soft drinks world. Roadside stalls increasingly tend to offer locally sourced products (fresh tender coconut, palm fruit, sugar cane juice, watermelon, lassi, buttermilk and various local juices) rather than the ubiquitous glass or plastic bottled offerings of multinationals. All this without the benefit of national ad campaigns. Environmentalists at work, common sense, or simple economics?
As Harry Belafonte famously sang, it’s good for your daughter too.
I bought a motorcycle for extensive local travel in an Indian city. A few friends and most of my middle class extended family were aghast when they heard. This is a form of suicide, they said. Look at the state of traffic on the roads. You need to protect yourself in a car.
Here are my answers to the criticism. First, there’s enough pollution already, and I’d rather travel at 55 km/liter with a 100cc motorbike rather than around 20km/l with a small car. Of course, the best alternative would be an electric vehicle powered by renewable energy, or else public transport, but neither of these options is currently practicable for my purposes.
Second, as the image above shows, progress is much faster with two wheels on congested roads. And third? I was reminded of the third reason this week when I had the painful news of a dear friend killed in a freak traffic accident in a European city, one of the safest cities in the world. I grieve at the loss. My take from the deep sadness I feel is this: seize the day, live as carefully and as well as you can, but follow your heart and do as you think you should do.
The recent accession of climate change deniers to positions of power (no names here!) is very depressing news for those millions of people around the world who don’t totally distrust all media, mistrust all scientific research, or contradict factual evidence. Nevertheless there are many examples of happenings around the world that might not make international headlines because they are not (yet) economically significant. Economically significant or not, these actions are ecologically significant in a global context. These are actions that need to be emulated a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold, a million-fold, in the decade to come. A climate scientist friend told me years ago that the world would not act on the climate issue until it became a globally self-evident crisis. And then, he said, people would come together out of the woodwork at the last minute, to do what is needed to save our planet from irreversible changes; for example, in the interplay between circulation of deep ocean waters and the quantity of atmospheric carbon dioxide absorbed by them.
What follows is a short, incomplete list of the various ways people are coming out of the woodwork.
The 2017 Women’s marches around the world could be a powerful harbinger of things to come. According to Wikipedia: The 2017 Women’s Marches were a series of political rallies that took place in cities around the world since January 21, 2017, with the goal of promoting women’s rights, immigration reform, and health care reform; to counter Islamophobia, rape culture, and LGBTQ abuse; and to address racial inequities (e.g., Black Lives Matter), workers’ issues, and environmental issues. There is a sea change here. The Women’s March took place in cities on every continent. It was a spontaneous coming together on a multitude of human rights issues, much bigger causes than merely protesting against He Who Will Not be Named, he who was merely the catalyst that brought the marchers together. Like blades of grass that probe and emerge through the hardest concrete, these marches are the peaceful means to crack the brittle edifice of patriarchal structures the world over.
Three examples from India, where I happen to be at the moment, underline the environmental component of this sea change:
The small town of Meenangadi in Kerala has pledged to become the first carbon-neutral panchayat (rurally governed community) in India. And they expect to do it by 2020. Here’s an explanation of why they are doing this and what steps are being taken to achieve this goal.
In nearby Cochin (or Kochi, as it has been named by the local administration), the International Airport, call sign COK, is the world’s first completely solar powered airport. BBC News, October 2015.
At Kamuthi, near the town of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the world’s largest solar power plant built on a single site was completed in 8 months, covering an area of 10 sq. km., with a capacity of 648 MW. Al Jazeera, November 2016. Meanwhile in China, this is topped by the Longyangxia Dam Solar Park with a peak output of 840 MW from solar panels clustered at two adjacent sites near the reservoir.
Other blades of grass sprout everywhere. In Vienna, after the election victory of You-Know-Who on 9 November, hundreds of volunteers went out on to the streets to campaign for the green party candidate in Austria’s presidential election. These volunteers were campaigning against scare-mongering and fear-of-the-other tactics that are habitually practiced by right wing demagogues, unfortunately with some success in the recent past. In many countries around the world, people fed up (pun intended) of industrial agriculture are turning to food production in their back yards, on window sills, on terraces. This awareness of the source of our nutrition makes people appreciate its literally life-giving qualities, bringing back the sanctity of producing our own food. The process brings people together in simple ways and promotes communal harmony. Mayors of cities around the world are networking together to circumvent the inaction of their politicians and lawmakers. I see green fields around the world where millions of tender blades of grass crack the concrete of established practice. I see this in the near future, if the millions who have marched will it so. It’s time now to march, plant, demonstrate, protest, cooperate, sow, reap, make your voice heard, switch off your TV, get off your couch, harvest potatoes, get active.
Wake up, Donald et al.! According to the Guardian of 6 January 2017,
China now owned:
- Five of the world’s six largest solar-module manufacturing firms
- The largest wind-turbine manufacturer
- The world’s largest lithium ion manufacturer
- The world’s largest electricity utility
“At the moment China is leaving everyone behind and has a real first-mover and scale advantage, which will be exacerbated if countries such as the US, UK and Australia continue to apply the brakes to clean energy,” he said.
“The US is already slipping well behind China in the race to secure a larger share of the booming clean energy market. With the incoming administration talking up coal and gas, prospective domestic policy changes don’t bode well,” Buckley said.
The sugar cubes floated in my thickly creamed coffee before slowly dropping out of sight. This was a sequel to views of Klimt at the Upper Belvedere in Vienna, itself a sequel to a memorable week exploring inner landscapes of the soul.
There were two of them. They led happy lives, replete with feline fulfilment. They loved to purr and cuddle in bed with their humans in the night. They ate well. Always had food and drink served to them. They never went hungry. They seemed at peace with themselves and their world. There were vestiges of wildness in them still to remind you that, despite centuries of domestication, they were their own creatures, creatures of the wild; individuals. And yet, there was an edge missing. You could see it in their eyes. It was a mixture of sadness and resignation. I came to recognize this glance in the cats and my heart went out for what I had done to them. Years later, I saw a video of a woman who could communicate with animals including big cats, the world’s apex predators, and interpret them in anthropomorphic terms. This video changed my thinking about domestic pets. Having been sensitized by this new thinking, I began to see all the subtle forms of exclusion that are practised in societies around the world.
Most ancient cultures respected the natural world, seeing humans as an intrinsic part of it. At sometime in our collective past, we began to call ourselves civilized and parted ways intellectually with nature. This paid off for a few centuries, roughly until the end of the twentieth century. René Descartes famously declared humans to be the thinking species in the sixteenth century. We think, therefore we are (…superior to all other forms of life?). Science and technology have tamed the earth, have subdued nature to such an extent that, like in the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons, we are in danger of cutting off the branch on which we perch. Of course we don’t think of ourselves as prejudiced, but every time we turn away from a conversation with an unfamiliar “other” we practise a form of discrimination just the same. I noticed with a shock of recognition, the ‘sadness of cats’ on the faces of people in the news; in the gaze of a young woman going through the shipwreck of her marriage; in the face of a man devastated by war and conflict; in the catatonic resignation of a child dragged from the rubble of a bombed home. Where does all this violence begin?
It begins with the way we treat all sentient beings, not just our own kind. Gandhi allegedly said, more than a half century ago, the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Anthropologist Michael Thompson, in his 1979 book Rubbish Theory, explores the rise and fall in value of objects, depending on scarcity or abundance. He uses bakelite ashtrays as an example in the book. This early synthetic product of the 1930s was sold cheap, and now have become collectors items. Following from Rubbish Theory we should infer that, since animals in the wild have become a scarce commodity, we should value them highly. Conversely, with world population close to seven and a half billion, human life is cheap. Perhaps this is what we are seeing in international politics these days. But here is the paradox of human existence. If we subscribe solely to economic logic, we deny our humanity and diminish ourselves, sowing the seeds for our own ultimate destruction.
Rulers, kings and presidents come and go, but the earth will survive. However, humankind will not survive, if we continue to pursue only economic growth and ignore the unmistakeable signals that the planet continually sends us. Many of our leaders ignore it. It’s time to change those leaders. And here is another paradox of politics. We can change these leaders only if we change ourselves first.
Salar de Uyuni in Southwest Bolivia contains an estimated 43 % of the world’s easily recoverable lithium. Together with neighbors Chile and Argentina, the three countries contain 70% of the planet’s reserves. As most people are aware by now, the renewables revolution is gathering momentum, and the world needs lithium, lots of it. The people who follow these trends estimate that Tesla’s Gigafactory alone, when it comes into production, will double world demand for lithium, whose prices have shot up just in the last two months of 2015 (from US$ 6500 to 13,000 a ton in November/December). American, Japanese, Chinese and South Korean companies are already mining around 170,000 tons of lithium worldwide. The Argentinian salares, or salt flats, comprise thousands of square miles in the provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta. The Salinas Grandes in the latter province is estimated to be the third largest in the world. But the grand-daddy of them all is the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia that stretches over 10,000 sq.km. To paraphrase Exupéry, Salar de Uyuni is made up of salt, salt salt, and more salt, to a depth of one meter or more. In addition to common salt (sodium chloride), the salars contain other useful chlorides; potassium, magnesium and lithium chloride. The estimated 9 millions tons of lithium contained in this salar, conveniently concentrated by natural evaporation, should be enough to power a global energy revolution or two, but at what cost? Bolivia has suspended mining operations after the local residents opposed it, and Chile is granting no new concessions. These are understandable steps, in the light of what economists call ‘the resource curse.‘ In a nutshell, the resource curse or the resource paradox is that often countries with non-renewable natural resources (like minerals and oil) tend to have lower economic growth and less democracy than countries with fewer natural assets.
Understanding the resource curse does not help the international battery industry or alleviate the world’s need for non-polluting sources of energy, however. The increasing price of lithium is driving research into methods of obtaining it from the most abundant source on the planet, the oceans. Industrial ecologist Robert Ayres confidently predicted to me more than a decade ago that we would get all the lithium we need from the ocean. “There’s billions of tons there,” he said. True, there is an estimated 230 billion tons of lithium in seawater, but at a concentration of 0.14 to 0.25 parts per million, I did not believe it possible to extract it in meaningful quantities at reasonable cost. Changed my tune this week.
Many companies worldwide have been experimenting with various reverse osmosis technologies (the same technology that’s most often used to desalinate seawater) to produce brine concentrates dense enough to make lithium extraction economical. Now there are reports of several companies in a dozen countries that envisage producing lithium from brine concentrates at prices ranging from $1,500 to 5,000 per ton. Here’s an article about one of them.
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The political decision to power ahead with Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is the energy equivalent of appointing a tone deaf musical director to the London Symphony Orchestra. How much more evidence do Cameron and Co. need? A short litany of anti-Hinckley arguments should suffice.
In a case of economics speaking truth to power, the OECD’s 2010 World Energy Outlook quietly increased the average lifetime of a nuclear power plant to 45-55 years, up 5 years from its 2008 edition.
Even today, in the first half of the twenty-first century, thousands of villages in Africa and Asia (mainly in India) remain off-grid and have no access to electricity. Ever since a three-month stay in Kenya and Tanzania in 1985, I have dreamt of bringing solar lighting to the smallest villages on these two continents. In Kenya I was astounded to see that, as early as 1985, a few rural families had bought individual solar panels connected to used car batteries to power a single light bulb and the occasional television set. They did this because they had no hope of access to grid electricity in their lifetimes. It’s even more astounding to think that in affluent countries today, the majority of people who drive $ 20,000 cars consider solar power unaffordable without government subsidies. No wonder the world is hotting up! Such economic calculations show how skewed our thinking is.
Of course it was obvious that this journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Less obvious was what this first step should be. Mhairi made the first step on a recent (November 2015) visit to a village on the outskirts of a tiger sanctuary in Rajasthan. She made contact with the owner of a handicrafts shop on the edge of the Ranthambore national forest and tiger reserve who helps village craftswomen earn a living by marketing the beautiful tiger paintings, patchwork quilts with mirror designs and appliqué fabrics they make. Dharamveer was thrilled to hear about the idea of installing solar lighting for the nearby villages. He immediately took us to visit three of the 10 surrounding villages. These villagers have limited or no access to electricity. Even the few homes connected to the grid have power only 2 or 3 days a week, so they end up spending 2 to 3 hundred rupees a month on electricity bills or on kerosene for inadequate lighting with lamps. The proposal to pre-finance solar lamps for each household in the village was met with much enthusiasm. They were quite willing to pay 200 to 300 rupees a month for reliable solar lighting. And they were delighted to hear that, at a price of just 499 rupees (US $ 7 at current exchange rates), the lamps would belong to them within three months. Apart from the environmental costs of burning kerosene, the biggest drawbacks are cost and inadequate light for children studying or doing homework.
The idea we propose is quite simple. We plan to finance around one hundred of these solar lamps initially, to be distributed to a number of households in the ten target villages. Presumably they will be paid for in 3 months from the money the villagers save from their kerosene and electricity bills. We will request voluntary contributions for another 2 months and use the extra money to expand the circle of recipients till all households in the villages are covered. After which one can think of more elaborate systems, for example, like the model shown here that costs 7000 rupees or US $ 100 at today’s exchange rates. Greenlight is a for-profit company started in the US by three engineers, two American and one Indian. Their products have received good reviews in the international press.
We have decided on Greenlight’s Sun King model range, based only on our own internet research and news reports. Readers of this blog are invited to give feedback or share their own experiences with different models. I can envisage offering a range of different systems based on cost and reliability. I look forward to hearing from you.
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Four recent reports on new breakthroughs in renewable energy generation and storage technology reinforce the promise that was once made for nuclear power: abundant energy for all, including the poorest in society, even though it may never be “too cheap to meter.”
High Performance Flow Batteries The promise of renewable energy technologies will be fully realized when battery storage becomes reliable enough and cheap enough to even out intermittent flows. Today the problem is partly solved by feeding energy from rooftop panels into the grid and then receiving compensation from the energy utility for the power supplied either in cash or in the form of reduced electricity bills. Looking at a typical electricity bill in Euroland (my own) I see the following charges. The unit price (per KWh) is between 6.5 and 7.3 Eurocents, but after grid charges, network costs and taxes are added, I pay 26 cents per KWh. Ironically, bulk consumers (factories, office blocks and large companies) pay lower rates, around 8 to 15 cents per KWh, depending on level of consumption. Now the whole picture is changed with the advent of low cost storage systems that make home batteries affordable and economical. Imagine home systems that can deliver electricity for all your needs at no cost for twenty to thirty years, once installed, barring the onetime cost of the system. Coming soon, to an affordable home near you.
Silicon cones inspired by the architecture of the human eye. The retina of the human eye contains photoreceptors in the form of rods and cones. Rods in the retina are the most sensitive to light, while cones enhance colour sensitivity. Modelling photovoltaic cells based on the makeup of the retina, researchers have been able to enhance the sensitivity of solar cells to different colours in the sunlight that falls on each cell and thereby increase electricity output by “milking the spectrum” closer to its theoretical maximum. Increasing efficiency of the average rooftop PV cells from the current 18-20 to 30% would make such systems cheaper by far than grid electricity mostly anywhere in the world, even in temperate countries. Coming soon, to a rooftop near you.
Modular biobattery plant that turns biowaste into energy. Biogas plants are old hat. They have undeniable benefits, turning plant, animal and human waste into energy (methane) while leaving behind a rich sludge that is excellent fertiliser. However, good designs are not common and they are sometimes cumbersome to feed and maintain. Now comes an efficient German design that promises to be modular and economically viable even at a small scale. In another development, the University of West England at Bristol has developed a toilet that turns human urine into electricity on the fly (pardon the pun) and the prototype is currently undergoing testing, appropriately enough, near the student union bar. Coming soon, to a poo-place or a pee-place near you.
New electrolyte for lithium ion batteries. Lithium ion batteries using various electrolytes have already become the workhorse of the current crop of electric cars and for medium-sized storage requirements. New electrolyte chemistry discovered at PNNL Labs shows that reductions of upto ten times in size, cost and density are feasible and various electrolyte/electrode combinations are being further tested for production feasibility. Coming soon, to a battery storage terminal near you.
So what should you do, as a concerned global citizen, until you can lay your hands on one of these devices (or all of them) for your own use? Tread lightly on the earth, don’t buy bottled water, reduce energy use, walk when you can instead of driving your car (your arteries will love you for it), buy local produce, eat less meat (your grateful arteries again), think twice before flying off to that conference (think teleconferencing), buy an electric car if you need a new one, and remember that every liter or gallon of petrol you fill into your old one not only fuels your car but potentially also the conflicts in the Middle East and/or lines the deep pockets of Big Oil which definitely does not want your energy independence.
Scroll backwards in time to the early 1970s. US President Richard Nixon appointed the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to produce a study of recommendations on “The Nation’s Energy Future” based on advice from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Requesting the AEC for energy prognoses is akin to asking a tiger for dietary recommendations; there will surely be no vegetables on the menu! Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, chair of the AEC, predicted in her summation of the report that “solar would always remain like the flea on the behind of an elephant.” In the early 1980s I knew another eminent researcher, Dr. Thomas Henry Lee, a Vice President for research under Jack Welch at General Electric, who often stated that nuclear power would produce “energy that is too cheap to meter,” essentially free.
The AEC study, when it was published, proposed a $10 billion budget for research and development with half going to nuclear and fusion, while the rest would be spent on coal and oil. A mere $36 million was to be allocated to photovoltaics (PV). Dr. Barry Commoner, an early initiator of the environmental movement, was intrigued that the NSF had recommended such a paltry amount for solar. In the 1950s he had successfully lobbied for citizen access to the classified results of atmospheric nuclear tests and was able to prove that such tests led to radioactive buildup in humans. This led to the introduction of the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963.
Dr. Commoner’s own slogan (the first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else) prompted him to question the AEC’s paltry allocation for solar PV, especially since he knew some of the members of the NSF panel who advised on the recommendations. He discovered the NSF panel’s findings were printed in a report called “Subpanel IX: Solar and other energy sources.” This report was nowhere to be found among the AEC’s documents until a single faded photocopy was unexpectedly discovered in the reading room of the AEC’s own library. The NSF’s experts had foreseen in 1971 a great future for solar electricity, predicting PV would supply more than 7% of the US electrical generation capacity by the year 2000 and the expenditure for realising the solar option would be 16 times less than the nuclear choice.
Clearly, the prediction of 7% solar electric generation has not yet happened, but current efficiency improvements in photovoltaics and battery storage technologies point the way to an energy future far beyond what the NSF predicted in 1971. Fifty years from now, it is nuclear power that is likely to be the flea on the behind of a solar elephant.