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Most media outlets seem to operate under the principle that bad news is good news or alternatively, good news is not news. They may be right, in terms of profitability. But they are definitely wrong, in terms of the collective well-being of humanity. This blog is not dependent on readership or advertising revenues, so it can afford to print good news without fear of losing its readership. So here for a start is good news from the energy front.
All of the electricity used by two of the world’s largest corporations, Apple and Google, were from renewable sources by the end of 2017. This is a remarkable achievement, considering that each of these companies uses more electricity than many small nations, not least to power immense data centers scattered around the world. So now, if you have worries about the amount of personal data Facebook & Co. are collecting about you because of their opaque terms of usage, rest assured that they’re not polluting the planet in the bargain.
But seriously, there’s lots of impressive news in the energy area alone. Here’s a chart, courtesy of National Resources Development Center, showing how prices have come down for major clean energy technologies.
Since clean energy is one of the basic requirements for human development, there’s not much stopping world-wide implementation, is there? Capital for investment? It’s increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few–rich corporations and rich individuals. So are we ordinary mortals totally helpless? No, not at all. But we have to make smart choices as customers. We can enrich our lives, and the planet in the process, by getting off the mindless consumption lifestyle that the glossies would have us aspire to.
In one hour, the earth receives more solar energy than the world uses in one year. Now that’s good news and worth repeating, even if its not new. So why are companies producing more dirty diesel cars and building more fossil fuel power plants? Because switching technologies means moving out of comfortable niches of expertise that would otherwise become useless; it would mean new investments, experimenting with new technologies, and why should they take all these risks when customers are flocking to buy new models anyway? As engine size and horse power of new automotive offerings increase, so do their profits, and they see even less reason to invest in new technologies. It’s only we, the customers, who can break this vicious cycle.
English speaking news readers tend to digest information from an overwhelmingly anglocentric or eurocentric point of view. Hence I was not surprised recently to hear a friend accuse the Chinese of polluting the planet when actually, despite (or perhaps because of) a totalitarian regime, they are doing more to clean up the earth than any other nation. For example, the southern Chinese city of Shenzen alone runs a fleet of 16,000 (yes, thousand) electric buses; more than the rest of world combined. So while air quality in Beijing might be abysmal, this past winter, particulate pollution was 50% less than in the previous year. This from no less a source than the US Embassy in Beijing! One reason for the lower levels of pollution might be that China installed more than 53 GW of solar power in 2017.
The above facts don’t make me an apologist for an autocratic government where power is increasingly concentrated at the top. This is undoubtedly a very worrying tendency, one that is being seen in several other large countries like India, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States. In the US case, its robustly democratic political system has been hijacked by corporate lobbies. Nevertheless there is good news coming from each of these countries, and I will try to highlight these bright spots in future posts.
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Ever wanted to go on an ocean liner? Cruise ship advertisements idealise the high life to be had on the high seas. What they never say is how much ships pollute. The average ship runs on low grade oil, which can be likened to a sludge that emits more particulate matter than a million cars; more sulfur than seven million cars. And that’s just one cruise liner!
Several Scandinavian ferries now run on hybrid diesel-electric systems but, as in most advances in electric propulsion these days, China is taking the lead, as a cargo ship with a 2.4 MWh battery pack launches in Guangdong. Ironically, the ship will be used to transport dirty coal!
Car makers have a problem. They don’t admit it yet. Or maybe they do admit it to themselves, although not in public. Why should they, when enough people are buying bigger cars? Global car sales in 2017 were close to 90 million vehicles in all categories, including SUVs and light trucks. That’s roughly 1 car for every 77 people. Less than 1% of these were electric. How many more cars do we need? Car companies are powerful entities that are in the business of selling dreams; dreams of freedom, of the joy of the open road, dreams of independence. The irony is that as we buy into the dream, we destroy the very foundation on which our dreams are based.
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February 2018 will mark five years after my retirement from IIASA. These five years have been full of new experiences, travel and writing. My wife and I have also attempted during this time to modify our lifestyle to be as carbon neutral as possible. Measures include living without a car, using a bicycle for shopping and public transport for travel where possible. Trips by air are unavoidable in the lifestyle we’ve chosen, and we’ve attempted to offset this carbon by buying solar panels for a farm school in India and a solar farm in Austria, 8 KW in all. These panels will apparently offset around 8 tons annually, but there’s still more to be done.
I first heard about sea level rise in a talk by paleo-climatologist Herbert Flohn at IIASA sometime in the late 1970s. At that time, many of the information requests that the IIASA library received were about global effects of a nuclear winter in the aftermath of nuclear war. Research themes changed quickly; interest moving to carbon dioxide emissions from fossils fuels, global warming, acid rain and stratospheric ozone.
In the intervening years, the reality of human-induced global warming has been accepted by all but the most ideologically blinkered societies worldwide. Travelling through parts of rural India soon after retirement in 2013, I saw repeated instances of people taking actions to adapt to climate change; water harvesting to compensate for unprecedented droughts, reforestation efforts; introduction of organic farming methods and drought resistant crops. I’d like to think that much of the credit for these adaptation and mitigation actions goes to studies by IIASA and other research institutions worldwide; scientific studies whose results filtered down over decades through the media and drew attention to these problems early on. There’s no way to prove this, and some of the water harvesting systems I saw were really ancient structures brought back into use. See more about that here
Efforts in 2015 and 2016 to help establish a rural education and vocation center failed for a very positive reason. The five acres of land (2 hectares) that had been donated to us for school use by a well-wisher is worth approximately € 300,000 (€65,000 per acre at today’s prices). The donated property was fertile agricultural land and classified as such. The local administrative authorities refused permission to reclassify the plot for use as a school and insisted that the land remain in use for agriculture. This was a positive outcome, because one of our reasons for this choice of location of a school was to prevent displacement of the rural population by expensive housing projects that would only benefit urbanites.
However the effort was not wasted. Since then our local partners have decided to build an organic farm on the land and use the experience gained to encourage the farming practices of communities in neighbouring villages. One function of this farm would be to develop markets for organic produce. We discovered several small companies in the area that offer free midday meals to their workers. They were happy to find a local supply of good vegetables. One enterprising factory owner offered his workers three free meals a day, sourcing all the vegetables from his own backyard. The vegetables he showed us were grown in plastic tubs lined with mats made of nutrient-rich hemp fibers. In fact, the method is so successful that he gives away growing kits free to any of his workers who want one for their own families’ use.
An encounter in early 2017 with a conservationist who runs a hatchery for Olive Ridley turtles on the sea coast near Chennai city led me to Tiruvannamalai, a town 200 km to the south-west. Here is an organic farm school where text-book sustainable living is practiced in the most lively and joyous manner possible. There are around 100 children in the school, ranging in age from 8 to 18. The links below will give an idea of activities at the school.
In addition to organic farming, environmental conservation and education, the school also works with villagers in the surrounding countryside, reforesting the hill that dominates the temple town, planting around 15,000 trees a year. The school’s efforts inspired us (myself and a few friends in India) to help them become energy self-sufficient, adding 5 KW of solar panels to the three they already had. Together with battery backup, the school is now completely independent of the grid. (photo attached).
This activity led me to a thought. If IIASA’s work ultimately inspired these kinds of sustainability acts, what about IIASA’s own carbon footprint? IIASA’s alumni are scattered all over the world. What if we joined together, wherever we are, and worked to offset IIASA’s carbon emissions? Such actions would benefit our own communities, wherever we may happen to live. To kick-start this effort, I’ve decided to fund the planting of 1000 trees in 2018 through the farm school mentioned above. If each tree sequesters 25 kilos of carbon (as a rule of thumb, regardless of species), this would offset 25 tons of the Institute’s annual carbon emissions.
Should this be a formal organized effort? Readers’ suggestion welcomed here. All we would need is a virtual platform where one can document one’s own efforts and have a running tally. Ultimately the goal is to achieve carbon neutrality, not only for the Institute, but also for the communities in which each one of us lives. But, as for so many initiatives, IIASA could be a starting point.
On a personal note, the years since retirement have been very fulfilling. Thanks to my wife’s job, we were able to spend 2 idyllic years on an island paradise near Hong Kong. This provided background material for a work of fiction, Grace in the South China Sea. There are two sequels in the pipeline (The Trees of Ta Prohm, and Heartwood), to appear in 2018. Look for the earlier books and announcements on the Amazon author page here.
See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work.
A recent article in a Salzburg newspaper talked about the bleak future for winter sports in Austria. As snow becomes ever scarcer on the lower slopes of alpine regions, those communities that rely on income from winter tourism are looking around for alternatives to keep their economies going. Ski trails are increasingly carpeted with artificial snow that serves the purpose but cannot compete with the magic delight of snowflakes from heaven. A custom that has gained traction in recent years is snow farming. In effect, the practice is very simple. Snow is piled up during winter months in convenient natural depressions called snow depots and covered with a mix of wood chips and sawdust. The depot is then blanketed with a white covering that further insulates the reserve and preserves up to 80% of the snow through the summer months. The heat of evaporation from the moistened wood chips actually helps cool the bulk of the snow reserve. Austrian snow harvesting programs are for the benefit of the tourism business, but in the high altitudes of Himalayan Ladakh, engineers and environmentalists are creating artificial ice stupas and glaciers as a survival mechanism to provide water for village communities in the spring and summer months.
When religious leaders step outside their core business of spiritual leadership and meddle in secular affairs, then perhaps they should take their cue from the Tibetan monk in the video above. True religion should promote harmony, protect nature and improve livelihoods instead of preaching. As can be seen from the video above, reverence naturally follows.
Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance calls you one of three Black Swans in the world of energy and transportation this century; the other two being Fracking and Fukushima. You are often compared to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, the Iron Man, and shades of Einstein. You have advised Presidents. Heads of state visit your factories to see how they could improve the lives of their citizens. You stepped in without fanfare to donate money and provide power to a hospital in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. You issue audacious challenges to yourself and to others and sometimes miss deadlines, but ultimately deliver on your promises. Thousands, perhaps millions of people, speculate against you in the stock markets, hoping to make a quick profit from your failure. So far, they’ve been disappointed. But you put your money where your mouth is, so for every one of these speculative sharks, there are a thousand eager customers for your products and millions of well-wishers who hope you can help save the planet.
And yet you feel alone and unloved. You search for a soul mate and are willing to fly to the ends of the earth to find true love. You must know that love is like a butterfly. Be still and perhaps it will land on you. There are no guarantees, but the chances are infinitely greater if you cultivate stillness. And while you wait, exchange your loneliness for the wealth of solitude. As Hannah Arendt and Plato observed: Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business.
As the father of five children, know also that their childhood is a precious and finite resource that you could use to your benefit and theirs. Childhood ends all too soon, so help them in whatever way you can to make good choices. You seem to have done so for yourself. In the meantime, millions of people around the world wish you well, as I do.
Ah, Trump. Has pulled the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter out of the Paris Accord. Was promised. Was to be expected. The one campaign promise that this prevaricating president did keep. The Guardian newspaper has usefully provided an online carbon countdown clock to show the world how time is running out. I believe Trump’s action might provoke the rest of the world to come together to save our common future.
Click on the link above to see how much time we have left.
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.
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.
Studies about global warming talk about the need for developing countries to adapt to climate change. The good news is that in India a wide range of mitigation and adaptation measures are taking place. To use the phrase of Augustin, Vienna’s well-loved figure of historical myth, “the situation is serious but not hopeless.” At the end of this article are links to some examples that illustrate various initiatives that are already working. However, with 68% of the country’s population in villages, India needs many more such miracles. My wife and I recently joined a project, started by some local partners, to develop a sustainable school in a village in Tamil Nadu.
The village lies in a green, agricultural area about forty kilometers from the city of Chennai (pop. 8.23 million) in the Chingleput district of Tamil Nadu. Although surrounded by productive farmland, approach roads to this village are so poor as to be almost non-existent. The roads were badly damaged in the extensive flooding that followed the unusually heavy monsoon rains of September-October 2015. Parts of the city of Chennai and the surrounding countryside were inundated to depths of one to two meters.
The village itself, when one arrives, is relatively prosperous. There are many large wells that supply water for irrigation. The land seems fertile and a variety of crops is grown. Despite this, young people are moving in droves to the cities, lured by scenes of urban wealth and glamor on television. These people are merely following a trend happening in many countries around the world as small farm holdings sell out to larger entities and corporations that can practice industrial-scale farming with all its recognized negative consequences.
The idea of a rural sustainable school is really very simple. In addition to conventional education, the childrens’ learning will be focused on practical skills that are relevant in a rural environment; from organic farming, forestry, carpentry, medicinal uses of plants, setting up and servicing small-scale photovoltaics, forestry, wildlife management (the area is very rich in bird-life) etc. In addition, there are plans to use a locally patented system that incorporates waste plastic into long-lasting road surfaces. In all of these efforts, voluntary labor (shramdhan) will play the most important role. For without local participation, there will be no long-term program. With local participation, the community takes ownership of all the above areas, become experts in selected areas and run it themselves. This is the main reason that the partners are starting this school project on a self-financed basis. As soon as outside money enters the equation, a certain precious balance is lost and people will tend to sit back and wait for capital to provide answers that they would otherwise look for themselves.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LHe9I6QPu8 jal khet (Water Fields)
The school building itself will be constructed on-site with compressed stabilized earth blocks (CSEBs) that do not need firing or baking like conventional bricks. They just need compression following which the bricks are kept wet for a month and then sun-dried for three months. Electricity will initially be provided by 5 Kw of solar panels that are expected to cost around €4000 at current prices. More capacity and storage will be added as the price falls. For more information about the philosophy behind the project, see this article on my blog. “Development as an Attitude: learning to unlearn.”
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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