Sweet Solar Pump!

Talking about environmental problems can get a little gloomy, so here is a link to a lovely design project. It’s a solar charging pump and public seating space designed by Sol Design Lab and SXSW Inc. Sol Design Lab works to “create interactive and inspiring solutions for urban sustainability, public art, and design”. The music in the video is by the band Fool’s Gold (misattributed to their single release Surprise Hotel). I happen to have gone to one of their concerts a few years ago. They were a big group of fun, talented musicians, and it was like watching a traveling party. Nice match for the video…

Some may think that the name “Fool’s Gold” is also a great match for solar and other alternative energies. In fact, there are many people under the impression that these energies simply cost more than they are worth, and that they are ultimately unfeasible at present. I can’t speak to the latter at the moment because, aside from the complication that we subsidized almost all energy in some way (including fossil fuels), it brings up questions of how we distinguish and compare costs, and fundamentally how we judge and determine value. Since that is well beyond the scope of this short post, I’ll just speak to the feasibility. In 2009 Dr. Mark Delucchi, at the Institute of Transportation Studies in UC Davis, and Dr. Mark J Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, published an article in Scientific American outlining how we could rely completely on wind water and sun for our energy by 2030. The brief synopsis of the article explains:

• Supplies of wind and solar energy on accessible land dwarf the energy consumed by people around the globe.

• The authors’ plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, 90,000 solar plants, and numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations worldwide.

• The cost of generating and transmitting power would be less than the projected cost per kilowatt-hour for fossil-fuel and nuclear power.

• Shortages of a few specialty materials, along with lack of political will, loom as the greatest obstacles.

One of the biggest obstacle was a shortage of materials for things like car batteries. However they say that particular issue might be mitigated by recycling the material. This seems to focus on a straight transition to wind, water, and solar energy, without even factoring in the potential for major changes in efficiency and energy use (like increased use of small scale geothermal).

Speaking of materials, researchers are now exploring the use of fools gold, also known as pyrite, as a possible cheap and abundant semiconductor for use in photovoltaics.

Quick heads up: at 7:00 tonight there is an Occupy Boston book swap and potluck on Copley Square Plaza, and at 7:00 tomorrow there will be a meting on the future and direction of Occupy Boston at the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common. It’s your future and everyone is welcome!


Cape Wind, Bill Koch and Birds…

(who would win in a policy fight?)

A toast to William Koch!

Why? Have you ever heard the phrase “first world problem”? Leaving the somewhat outdated terminology aside, here’s an example: Your local organic coffee shop is all out of your favorite fancy frozen drink and (Dern it!) you’ll have to get the one without nutmeg.

Why do things like this happen to you?! Oh… Right. It’s because you are very very lucky.

Recently, I came across the multi-millionaire or even billionaire variant in an old Forbs article:

On a blustery, gray morning in August, William I. Koch, the billionaire energy mogul, gazes out a window in his Osterville, Mass., home down to the choppy waters of Nantucket Sound, just a few hundred yards past a barrier island of sand that protects the seven boats parked at his dock. “I go out and sail on the Sound; it’s so beautiful,” says the 1992 America’s Cup champ. “Why would you want to sail in a forest of windmills?

That, in essence, seems to be the most often if not best articulated concern about Cape Wind, the proposed wind farm off Nantucket Sound. In fact, it’s a frightening enough prospect for some that they are willing to spend millions of dollars organizing an opposition campaign. William Koch, personally, has spent several million over the years defending his skyline. When he recently decided to drop another cool couple million into Romney’s presidential campaign (apparently Romney is an old buddy), the lone act garnered national publicity for Cape Wind in the mainstream media.

The timing is spot-on because the final public hearing by the Department of Public Utilities is being held in Boston Tonight. (June 30th, 7:00pm, One South Station, 5th Floor. Any person can comment.)

It’s not the first time this has happened. A few years ago The Daily Show covered it and  last year the documentary Cape Spin debuted, both focusing on the flamboyant opulence that buoys this issue in the press.

However, there are serious questions to ask about the environmental and cultural impacts of these windmills. It is a multibillion dollar industrial project. Perhaps surprisingly, CapeWind.org (organized by proponents of the Cape Wind project), generally seem to have done a more thorough job investigating these concerns than The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound (the organization funded by Koch and other opponents). Let’s consider this from the perspective of the birds. Harm to birds seems to be the second most frequently voiced concern. Besides, we love them and, like millionaires and elections, they are in this summer.

The Audubon Society has come out in favor of Cape Wind, and they have even released their own report on the matter. It’s not because it won’t kill birds. It almost certainly will, but the data indicates that it won’t have a significant affect on populations. Climate change, however, is anticipated to both reduce populations and eliminate species. The Audubon Society describes it as “the greatest threat to birds and other species in human history”. They report that already almost 60% of North American birds have shifted northward, with many laying eggs earlier in the spring and changing their migratory behavior. Far from an easy solution, these shifts present the very real risk of putting the birds out of sync with the environments they have adapted to. Their chicks may hatch a couple weeks earlier but the insects they need may not yet be available. It was a tough decision, and If the farm is constructed, I imagine protecting local birds and bird populations will require continued monitoring.

Even in the very short term, it is naive to assume that the birds are in the clear without the project. 80% of Massachusetts energy comes from fossil fuels, divided in rough thirds between natural gas, petroleum and coal (at least in 2005). Gas wells are a product of fracking. There is no comprehensive monitoring of fracking’s suspected effect either on water or the birds that drink it, and regulations preventing air pollution have yet to go into effect. Petroleum is shipped into Massachusetts and every so often there are spills. In 2003, approximately 89,000 gallons of no. 6 oil was spilled in Buzzards Bay. As a result, the remains of 500 birds were collected. Coal, most notably mountaintop removal results in habitat destruction and pollution, both of which can harm bird populations.

Then, there is the energy generation. Brayton Point Power Station on the shores of Mount Hope Bay in Somerset, Massachusetts is the largest fossil fuel burning power plant in New England. According to the EPA, each day the plant: “withdraws nearly one billion gallons of water from the Bay and circulates it through the facility to condense the steam used to produce electricity. The water is then discharged back to the Bay at elevated temperatures of up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Operation… damages or kills many aquatic organisms…” .* At the moment, I can only speculate on how New England’s water fowl respond to dead fish and steam baths. This is just a smattering from a day’s search, looking at it from a birds perspective. As in most places, the current state of energy extraction, transportation and production in Massachusetts is a hot mess. The trouble is that listing the myriad of ways our current energy infrastructure harm humans and the environment can get repetitive and boring… and it’s bit of a downer.

 But William Koch and his Nantucket neighbors have come to the rescue. These people who know how to have fun and get people’s attention. Koch once treated his entire team to a trip to Hawaii after they brought home the national world cup… in yachting!

I didn’t even know people raced yachts!

When these folks discovered their starboard and maybe libertarian views were threatened by Cape Wind, they pulled off what few reality TV producers, let alone energy and policy analysts, could. By starting an nonprofit primarily dedicated to the preservation of their vacation view, by making individual donations that were worth more than what most of us make in a decade, and by unselfconsciously voicing the kinds of dilemmas most of us can only dream of, they have put on a show more amusing than “rich girls” or “the simple life” making the national energy conversation  really entertaining.

All art in today’s post is borrowed from Randal Munroe’s xkcd.com

While our national energy discussion may have needed some of that, one question remains (along with several other more important ones). Was that their goal? Because, if all Mr. Koch and his wealthy buddies actually want is to protect their Cape views, they could just go ahead and buy themselves, their neighbor’s and, heck, why not the rest of us, solar panels and cute little micro turbines. Sure, there would probably be a slight financial hit to Mr. Koch and others who own fossil fuel companies or have investments in them, but they can probably swallow it. We would get very affordable energy, and maybe even a planet spared the worst effects of our energy use to leave to the next generation. As for the view…  well, we could leave it for the Billionaires.


* They may have changed this in 2012. If you have time to look it up, please leave a comment.

Dan Rather on Freedom of the Press

We’ve been up for just under 20 days and passed 200 “all time views” yesterday apparently spanning 5 countries. In the process, it’s given some of us a chance to look more deeply into the complexities of the the issues we address, and hopefully do our own small part in deepening the conversation that is taking place around safety, justice and environmental issues. It’s been dishearteningly difficult to find critical information on these issues from mainstream news sources. So, in celebration of these first 200 views, and in honor of memorial weekend and the things we are supposedly risking people’s lives to protect, here are some excerpts from Dan Rather’s speech upon acceptance of the Burton Benjamin Memorial Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists on November 22nd 2011.

And, We’ve Gotten Used to It

“One of Bud Benjamin’s dreams was to expand the CBS Evening News to a full hour. And Bud wasn’t thinking of filling it with helicopter shots, celebrity gossip, and punditry. He imagined an entire hour brimming with investigative reporting, exposés and dispatches from around the world.

It was a different time in journalism.  A time when professional duty was patriotic and the freedom of the press motivated and inspired newsrooms. I know it is hard to believe–but it’s true–newsrooms were not supposed to turn a profit. Frankly, news was considered an acceptable loss leader on the balance sheet, a brand builder and most of all a public service.To keep our FCC license and the public trust, we had to use the public’s airwaves in the public interest some of the time.

Yes, that’s a whole lot of “public.”

But that’s the way it was. It’s the way it should be again. Today, how we look and how we “present” information has become far more important than how we gather it. It’s upside down and backwards. And the worst part is…we have gotten used to it.”

Giving a nod to the then nascent Occupy…

“But now, we see our fellow citizens taking to the streets. And, that my friends, is our cue to get back to work…. As the People of our nation begin rising up, they expect the business of news to be about inquiry and accountability. And, luckily for us, we can still do that…but, it will not often be within the confines of big corporate media.

As you know, we are living in an age when big money owns everything…including the news. That cash bought a lot of silence for a long time. Enough time for unchecked power to get this country tangled into messes all around the world. We all know that money talks. But, so do the people.”

Then drawing his own lines in the sand…

“We have been so afraid; so hell bent on destroying enemies…both real and imagined…both foreign and domestic…we have hurt ourselves, and we have diminished out freedom and damaged our democracy. You are probably asking yourself now what you should do. There are so many wrongs to make right, it is going to get messier before it gets better.

We have to begin asking the hard questions once again.

We have to demand and earn back the respect that gave us the right to ask them.

We must protect whistleblowers by using our megaphones to make their risky admissions even louder.

We must demand access to all those taking risks to challenge power.

We must refuse to simply read press releases and rely on official sources.

And we must begin to enforce our own professional code of ethics. Refuse to compromise. Going along to get along is getting us nowhere. Tonight, if I can convince you of anything, it is to buck the current system. Remember anew that you are a public servant and your business is protecting the public from harm. Even if those doing harm also pay your salary. To once again quote Ed Murrow:

there is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference…this weapon of television could be useful.

And wouldn’t it be great if our country could get used to that.

To read Rather’s full speech click here.

For those who aren’t familiar with the awards namesake, here is a 1986 quote from Burton Benjamin, producer and former vice president and director of CBS News:

The news directors of some larger local stations are saying: Just give us the money and we can do without the network news. Some of the dreams that many of us in the business used to have – such as an hour newscast – are dead. … The hour documentary is comatose, the instant special is rarely seen, except in times of great crisis. The new corporate owners of the networks have invoked a kind of austerity that has hit the news divisions especially hard.

It is important to remember that there was a time in the world of journalism when these people were the establishment figures, and that it was not all that long ago.

Looking at the Algonquin Pipeline

Spectra Energy’s Algonquin Gas Transmission Line (as it now stands)

Ever spent a couple days looking up hydraulic fracturing? It involves sifting through unpleasant, murky information that can ultimately leave you feeling a little sick to your stomach. Crucial information is simply not there, and if you trace the periphery around what is missing, and why it is missing, the outline draws a picture that is not quite right.

I’ll start with a story of my own. Several years ago, my mother caught my 3 year old brother lugging a big bright orange plastic jack-o-lantern full of water from our second floor bathroom to our third floor attic bedroom. Surprised, she asked him what he was doing. My brother, always fast on his feet, answered.

“Nothing. Um… Don’t come upstairs right now. OK Mom?”.

He quickly scampered up the steps, jack-o-lantern and all.

What did my mother do then? Every parent and every reader knows. Toddlers are not known for their well developed sense of consequence and responsibility. When a toddler says, “Don’t look over there”, a responsible adult has only one real choice.

Spectra Energy’s Algonquin Gas Transmission pipeline has already been built. It looks a a little like a spider vein running through New England, pumps methane to consumers ready for cheap energy, pumps their money to the Texas company that owns it, and relies on  the pumping of unknown chemical agents ultra deep into the earth. This is called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.

Proposed Algonquin Incremental Market Project

What are these agents? Where do they go?

At the moment, it is very difficult to say what happens. Colorado is the only state requiring companies that frack to divulge both the chemicals and concentrations used for injection, and the legislation was enacted only about a month ago. In 2005 Fracking was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). According to the EPA, this Act:

“is the main federal law that ensures the quality of Americans’ drinking water. Under SDWA, EPA sets standards for drinking water quality and oversees the states, localities, and water suppliers who implement those standards.”

It gives the EPA the authority to “control underground injection to protect underground drinking water sources”, and so is the legal basis for the EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program. Leaving the story of how this happened for another post, in 2005 the term “underground injection” was legally changed to exclude “the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities”. Congress actually changed the definition of “underground injection” legally so that the EPA lost its authority to monitor fracking. It was a very convoluted way of saying, “Don’t look over here. OK?”.

So, we don’t. To the best of my knowledge, when contaminated water near gas wells is analyzed by the EPA, they don’t do any analysis to determine weather those contaminants are a result of fracking. No analysis means no credible documentation.

At the moment, Spectra Energy is planning to expand the line and all operations associated, in order to provide us with more cheap gas. Massachusetts includes a prime slice of the target consumer demographic. Over 30% of our electricity comes from gas  imported and domestic, and in 2010 we used 430 billion cubic feet of it. Implicit in their plans is the assumption that we, the people of Massachusetts, are consumers first and citizens concerned about the health of our neighbors second. The same assumption is made when politicians, even those sympathetic to environmental concerns, say its development would “allow all Americans to benefit from the low-price, abundant, and secure supplies of natural gas now being produced in the United States”. Perhaps, to an old political hand with a heavy plate, this all seems necessary. Still, to a novice it seems like a new spin on the old cohen:

If a kid falls ill in the forest, and no one is there to investigate, does it really matter?

Does it? We lack documentation that fracking has harmed anyone, but have we actually looked? Also, what are our other options?

When my brother was running water to the attic for no discernible reason, Mom looked. That’s what good moms do. We were in the middle of making a swimming pool…  in a cardboard box.

For those of us who are fortunate, childhood is a time when we feel safe and protected, sometimes even from the consequences of our own actions. My brother and I found ourselves in serious trouble over the “swimming pool” but, really, we were prevented from causing structural damage to our childhood home. Adulthood is a time when we recognize that the world can be quite dangerous. It is when we take responsibility for protecting ourselves, our community, and quintessentially our most vulnerable members.

In the absence of nearly any regulation, fracking presents a difficult situation, and it is very easy to turn the other way. Still, being a responsible adult, a responsible citizen, means that you look, even and perhaps especially when critical information is missing. From that perspective, whether and how we respond to Spectra’s proposal for the Algonquin pipeline expansion is not simply a question of what we will do, but ultimately a question of who we are.

You won’t find the answer to that one online.

My Accomplice
(a few years after the “swimming pool” debacle)

Summer Approaches; Things Are Heating Up

Hello everyone, our meetings have been a bit sparse but our people have been busy. It seems like a good time to mention some work being done in the area by groups with similar aims (and sometimes membership).

350 MA is in the works! For those who don’t know 350.org  is a nonprofit organization working to lower the concentration of  CO2 in the atmosphere to the safe threshold of 350 part per million (ppm). We are currently at about 392 ppm. The science for this is well established, but a little complex. I’ll try to describe it later in the week, but in the meantime you can checkout climate researcher Dr. James Hanson’s site, Wikipedia if you prefer multiple authors, or 350.org. I know some of the very dedicated folks involved in getting this off the ground, (some of them are regulars at CASEJ meetings), so it will be exciting to see what comes out of this!

Protest against fossil fuel industry influence on politics (Jan. 2012)

Side note: Some us tried to pass a proposal at the Occupy Boston GA back in February, which included a call for immediate action to reduce green house gas to the safe threshold of 350 ppm. People wouldn’t pass it until we reworded it to “below” the safe threshold. They didn’t want to play the edge when it came to something so important.


Members of Students for a Just and Stable Future, an active, student led, volunteer network “leading the way toward bold solutions to the climate crisis”, are about to disperse for the summer. However, their work and campaigns continue. Last year they helped lobby for a Green Economy Caucus in Massachusetts. This year they have focused on a campaign to end fossil fuel subsidies in 2013. (Sign their petition here). Several of these inspiring and dedicated young people will be working on a various community and environmental projects throughout the summer (and yes, we’d love updates!).

Meanwhile, many people involved in Occupy Boston, and from occupations all over, have converged in Chicago to protest at this year’s NATO summit. Reports from both mainstream and citizen journalists are painting a tense scene, with tensions rising between police and journalists. Protests in Montrial also ballooned this weekend with over 300 people arrested. On May 18th the government of Quebec enacted controversial Bill 78, reported to, among other things, levy heavy fines people involved in demonstrations of 50 or more who do not submit and receive approval for demonstration routs and times in advance. This have been criticized by many as an infringement of the citizens right to assemble. Meanwhile, the protests are reported to have begun covering more diverse issues. Will restrictions on the demonstrations of our neighbors (not to mention the reactions to them) have any impact on our own? Only time will tell.

May 18: Vermont Bans Fracking; Green Party In French Cabinet

There are a couple of things to add to the last post. First, for anyone wondering, Gary estimates that if the Save Our Climate Act were enacted, individuals would receive approximately $172 the first year, $933 on the 5th and $1298 in year 10. Clearly, the reason to enact this bill is not to provide people with more cash, but gives an idea of what the offset would be for any price hikes. Second, the program is Civil Science on Occupy Boston Radio (Wed. 6pm).

Sorry for the scant posts, we are still getting organized and some of our most active bloggers were in transit (and we are actively looking for contributions!). For now I’ll leave readers with some breaking news…

Vermont has just become the first state to ban fracking. Vermont governor Peter Shumlin was quoted as saying the following as he signed the ban into law:

“Human beings survived for thousands and thousands of years without oil and without natural gas…We have never known humanity or life on this planet to survive without clean water.”

Next week, we’ll delve into the appointment of a Green party leader and clean water advocate as Minister of Territories, Equality and Housing in the French Cabinet, and our own complex relationship to fracking here in Massachusetts as the plans to expand Spectra Energy’s Algonquin pipeline continue.

How We Use Energy…

[Sorry for the delay, our “blog team” has been traveling and having a hard time getting to the internet.]

No doubt about it, solar power is hot. At least it is in Europe, where last year 21.9 gigawatts of photovoltaic paneling was installed, surpassing that of gas and wind plants connections combined.

While the threat of climate change is be alarming, raising awareness is can be fun

On this side of the pond, Obama is pressing congress to extend tax breaks for wind power projects* (now gaining bipartisan support), while on Wednesday memos were leaked that implicated John Droz and others in organizing to “cause subversion in message of [the wind] industry so that it effectively becomes so bad no one wants to admit they are for it”. Their strategy included efforts to create a movement that should “ appear as a ‘groundswell’ among grass roots.” John Droz is best known know for is involvement in the law suit targeting climate researcher Dr. Michael Mann.

On the same day, Dr. James Hanson, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, condemned the use of another new fuel source, this one emitting more greenhouse gas than conventional fuels. Tar Sands can be processed into a very crude oil, but it requires much more work  (it starts out as gritty bitumen rather than a liquid). Dr. Hanson explains in his New York Time’s op-ed:

“But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically. President Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, which Canada desires in part for export markets, but also to encourage economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground.”

We are not yet locked into the future Dr. Hanson is describing, however we could be if we don’t change the way we use energy soon (read: less than 5 years). The panning necessary will have to come before that, so timing is crucial. If all this leaves you wondering what options the average citizen has in trying to reduce national emissions, check out Wednesday night’s interview with Gary Rucinski on carbon fee and dividend.