Sunday, August 31, 2008
On consequence of being an ex-RAF mountain rescue troop, with an additional 21 years in civilian SAR, is that I've already seen a lifetime's dose of dead, hurt, injured and distressed people.
Up close and personal.
It's different when you're the one who has to respond. One the one hand, emergencies become routine, something you prepare for as a regular job. I try to impress upon my beginning land navigation students in our Conservation Law Enforcement degree that as paid public servants sworn to uphold the constitution, protect the public, and otherwise be on the front line in many different kind of emergency, preparation is key. Personal preparation in terms of skills, knowledge and disposition. Preparation of work teams through training and familiarity exercises. Preparation of equipment. And last but by no means least, preparation of plans.
On the other hand, when you see something bad coming down the pipe, even if it's not in your "patch" of territory, you do involuntarily cringe. At least I always do. Because for all the training and all the prep and even all the excitement of finally getting to experience the "full Monty" of an honest to goodness call-out, it's never a good thing.
If this hurricane strengthens across the Gulf of Mexico, as it is very likely to do, and if it hits dead-on to one of the Gulf Coast cities involved in the debacle of 2005 (for which it only has to point north, pretty much), then the emergency services in that area will be in for a tough time again. And my heart goes out to them.
But it's not like it was just the Gulfies who had to sweat it out. Several Unity College students were there last time, at various stages, as Coastguard, Navy, and Army National Guard ratings. One or two of our firefighters were called in, even from the North East. The brother of one of our closest collaborators captained the Navy vessel that was used as a floating helipad for days and weeks. And we sent a team of jolly house-gutters down there to clean up and help begin rebuilding.
At some point, you have to begin, respectfully, to question the wisdom of rebuilding some of these areas. This is not the kind of thing you like to say out loud, because no-one wants to be told that your house, life, possessions, are all located in a place that nature intends to make untenable. And no poular politician is going to get elected on a platform of "lets evacuate -- permanently."
But one of the consequences of living in a scientific society is we have knowledge, albeit not perfect, of what may happen in the future. You have to understand probability to correctly apply this knowledge, and you need to be capable of dealing with concepts like "statistical significance" or "probability value."
Or not. Possibly you just need common sense and a proclivity to not get bamboozled by political propaganda disseminated by ridiculous radio talk shows and the politicians they support.
In a nutshell, several recent scientific studies have pointed to a strong likelihood that recent global warming trends have affected the frequency distribution of large tropical cyclones. It's very likely, upwards of 90%, that the frequency of large destructive typhoons and hurricanes has increased due to the presence of warmer waters for longer seasons in the tropics. While some scientists have investigated trends that pointed to a lowering of frequency, most, a large majority, are expecting an increase.
And in general, the results seem to bear this out. Here's a graphic from the Pew Trust showing the data from NOAA quite clearly:
So we have to begin to ask, why did we rebuild all those houses? Why did we encourage the repopulation of that city?
Luckily the effort was more than half-hearted. Many folks stayed away for good after Katrina. And the city took the EMS lessons to heart, it seems. The organization for the current evacuation, while still seemingly chaotic in some TV depictions, is actually an order of magnitude better and smarter.
I'm at least partly to blame, in a very small way. When the college organized that expedition to go down and do clean-up and house-gutting the following spring, I held my tongue too. The students were just so enthusiastic, the leaders so gung-ho, the community activists just so, well, active. I bit my tongue too. In retrospect, 20-20 hindsight, it might have been time better spent to join one of the Habitat for Humanity projects creating new housing on higher ground to the north. And I could have pressed the case. But I didn't. Too chicken.
It's so hard to tell people that they have to give up their homes. Even a humble home is something a lot of people have to work very hard for. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. Believe me, I know. I would have a hard time facing up to it too.
So. Here we are again. Our collective failure to face facts has gotten us here. When are we going to find the courage to admit that climate change is a reality, that it is very serious, and that we need to act to slow emissions?
We also need to organize on whole new level for weather emergencies. We need to begin to adapt agriculture and housing to the new conditions we are already experiencing in most regions. Some of our cities will have to be abandoned, bit by bit. Their populations will need to be welcomed in other regions, and given assistance to resettle.
And we need to stop paying attention to climate deniers on the radio, the TV, and the Internet. At this point, by deflecting our attention from reality, while receiving payment for doing so from oil and coal companies and right wing idealogues, their behavior is soliciting a form of civic murder.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Here's a series of photos of our Environmental Citizen "Building a Barn" class work day activity Friday. This is a second semester sophomore class in which students are building a barn to assist our new Agriculture, Food, and Sustainability degree program, while also learning organizational, leadership, and job skills.
There's a whole other blog for this project, at www.buildaucbarn.blogspot.com
From time to time I will post links from this page, which has more readership, to that page, so the Barn-Builders can get a little more attention (which they already deserve).
I hadn't intended to have students doing such advanced work so quickly in the class, but since we will be delayed somewhat in breaking ground by waiting for the DEP permit, and since MOFGA Facilities Manager Verne LeCount was asking for help, it made sense for our first big workday to be helping Verne and his crew finish off their barn.
That was good because it meant that the students who signed up for this got to work right away on a real building, and a real job site with all its hazards and need for safety consciousness.
The new MOFGA barn is a pole building, in which the foundation is cedar poles set in the ground. MOFGA, in a specialty I haven't seen anywhere else, scarfs the cedar into 6 by 6 hemlock posts, attaches 10 or 12-inch hemlock beams about ten or twelve feet on center, and eight inch hemlock rafters. Our job was to help fit the purlins to the rafters in time for the metal roof, in time for the Fair in three week's time, and once done with that, to build the stalls.
Everyone worked hard, including the old man, who got more than his fair share of what my good wife calls "Mick-yoga," stretching and sweating in strange contorted positions on the roof.
Several students went aloft, and also learned to wield a nail-gun. I had not intended to teach the use of air tools, since they are inherently dangerous, but the job of fitting purlins is more dangerous with a hammer and nails, for which you must use two hands, than it is with a nail gun, which only needs one, leaving you a hand free to help keep your balance.
All went very well. We had a great crew and good team work, and knocked out Verne's purlins in double-quick time, with no safety incidents.
Friday, August 29, 2008
Hey students, welcome back!
Since May, a lot of energy has gone into the College's garden and I wanted to highlight some of the new developments so that we're all on the same page and so that you can get involved, if you're excited about it.
- Our food is being used by Food Service on a daily basis!
Potatoes, cherry tomatoes, basil, garlic, onions, garlic, winter squash, lettuce, and other crops are being artfully incoporated into dining hall dishes. We have delivered approximately $1500 of produce to Food Service to date.
- The garden is still producing!
We are planning to harvest 1400 lbs. of winter squash, 600 lbs. of potatoes, and 300 lbs. of onions (and more other crops) for food Service before the growing season closes.
- The garden is feeding the hungry!
Through a collaboration with the Regional Volunteer Food Pantry, the garden has provided approximately $350 worth of produce to needy folks in the area.
- Community members are getting involved!
This summer the College hosted its first formal Commuity Garden program which served 9 community members and helped bring new people and energy into the College garden.
- You can get involved, too!
We'd be grateful to have extra hands for harvesting, weeding, and other garden tasks. If you're interested in learning more about the gardens, on-campus food production, or want to get involved contact Sara: firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't be shy.
Let's dig potatoes together!
Thursday, August 28, 2008
After I get up in the wee hours, I like to I do a few minutes of chores (let out our dogs, clean the floors because of the Piddlesome One, put away last night's dishes), make some strong coffee, and generally by 3.30 or 4.30 am I have my feet up, the laptop running, and am doing some real academic work.
What is "real academic work?"
Well, I have three or four general areas with which I would like to remain more or less conversant. Conversant to me means "can discuss issues with experts." So I may not wish to perform actual primary research in any of these areas, but when I go to conferences and meet and talk with people who do this research, I want to be able to comprehend and integrate what I hear into my own teaching and thinking.
The areas I want to keep up with are:
*climate change and climate change mitigation
*energy, energy efficiency, renewable energy, and enhanced conventional energy (clean coal, clean nukes, CCS, etc). Include efficient agriculture in this.
*the geopolitics and economics of all of the above
This makes for a fair amount of reading, and increasingly I find myself using faster-paced web resources than the traditional scientific literature. The old way to do this reading was to subscribe to journals and to write away for reprints. These days the sheer volume of authoritative information available on the Internet has to my mind eclipsed the traditional journal. I hardly ever need a paper copy of anything. A good book is still a comfort. But for serious study, it's all at my fingertips right here in my home. the pace is faster, and often scientists report results informally via blogs and personal web pages for colleagues to peruse before peer review.
Most scientists have grasped this change, I think, and begun to adapt their work habits. It sure is pleasant to be able to follow a new thread of thought by studying several documents of different provenance at once, and make your own mind up.
Or leave it open.
My latest read is an update from Jim Hansen, the NASA climatologist. I like to read Jim's stuff because it integrates all three of my areas so well. His latest is partially a report on a trip to Europe and Japan to consult with the governmental leaders. Lobby them would be more accurate. It also contains details of his latest thinking on carbon mitigation wedges. All great and fascinating stuff.
Read Jim's piece by downloading it from his webpage here.
Sunday, August 24, 2008
This is, I think, in substitute for the lack of any real time to research and write. Unity College is what Pirsig called a "teaching college" and it has all the problems of Pirsig's teaching college. (Zen, etc, Bantam edition, P 129. But before any parents reading pull their froshkids out, this is how we keep the tuition so low!).
Still, I intend to apply for a sabbatical this year to write a fairly technical book about geopolitics and macroeconomics in light of climate change and oil depletion. I'll get my chance.
In the meantime, for any of you interested in macroeconomics (a key sustainability topic), here's a recent column by Monbiot of the Guardian, and my response:
Climate change is not anarchy's football
In seeking to put politics ahead of action, Ewa Jasiewicz is engaging in magical thinking of the most desperate kind
If you want a glimpse of how the movement against climate change could crumble faster than a summer snowflake, read Ewa Jasiewicz's article, published yesterday on Comment is free. It is a fine example of the identity politics that plagued direct action movements during the 1990s, and from which the new generation of activists has so far been mercifully free.
Jasiewicz rightly celebrates the leaderless, autonomous model of organising that has made this movement so effective. The two climate camps I have attended – this year and last – were among the most inspiring events I've ever witnessed. I am awed by the people who organised them, who managed to create, under extraordinary pressure, safe, functioning, delightful spaces in which we could debate the issues and plan the actions which thrust Heathrow and Kingsnorth into the public eye. Climate camp is a tribute to the anarchist politics that Jasiewicz supports.
But in seeking to extrapolate from this experience to a wider social plan, she makes two grave errors. The first is to confuse ends and means. She claims to want to stop global warming, but she makes that task 100 times harder by rejecting all state and corporate solutions. It seems to me that what she really wants to do is to create an anarchist utopia, and to use climate change as an excuse to engineer it.
Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim. Everyone in this movement knows that there is very little time: the window of opportunity in which we can prevent two degrees of warming is closing fast. We have to use all the resources we can lay hands on, and these must include both governments and corporations. Or perhaps she intends to build the installations required to turn the energy economy around – wind farms, wave machines, solar thermal plants in the Sahara, new grid connections and public transport systems – herself?
Her article is a terrifying example of the ability some people have to put politics first and facts second when confronting the greatest challenge humanity now faces. The facts are as follows. Runaway climate change is bearing down on us fast. We require a massive political and economic response to prevent it. Governments and corporations, whether we like it or not, currently control both money and power. Unless we manage to mobilise them, we stand a snowball's chance in climate hell of stopping the collapse of the biosphere. Jasiewicz would ignore all these inconvenient truths because they conflict with her politics.
"Changing our sources of energy without changing our sources of economic and political power", she asserts, "will not make a difference. Neither coal nor nuclear are the 'solution', we need a revolution." So before we are allowed to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we must first overthrow all governments and corporations and replace them with autonomous communities of happy campers. All this must take place within a couple of months, as there is so little time in which we could prevent two degrees of warming. This is magical thinking of the most desperate kind. If I were an executive of E.ON or Exxon, I would be delighted by this political posturing, as it provides a marvellous distraction from our real aims.
To support her argument, Jasiewicz misrepresents what I said at climate camp. She claims that I "confessed not knowing where to turn next to solve the issues of how to generate the changes necessary to shift our sources of energy, production and consumption". I confessed nothing of the kind. In my book Heat, I spell out what is required to bring about a 90% cut in emissions by 2030. Instead I confessed that I don't know how to solve the problem of capitalism without resorting to totalitarianism.
The issue is that capitalism involves lending money at interest. If you lend at 5%, then one of two things must happen. Either the money supply must increase by 5%, or the velocity of circulation must increase by 5%. In either case, if this growth is not met by a concomitant increase in the supply of goods and services, it becomes inflationary and the system collapses. But a perpetual increase in the supply of goods and services will eventually destroy the biosphere. So how do we stall this process? Even when usurers were put to death and condemned to perpetual damnation, the practice couldn't be stamped out. Only the communist states managed it, through the extreme use of the state control Jasiewicz professes to hate. I don't yet have an answer to this conundrum. Does she?
Yes, let us fight both corporate power and the undemocratic tendencies of the state. Yes, let us try to crack the problem of capitalism and then fight for a different system. But let us not confuse this task with the immediate need to stop two degrees of warming, or allow it to interfere with the carbon cuts that have to begin now.
Jasiewicz's second grave error is to imagine that society could be turned into a giant climate camp. Anarchism is a great means of organising a self-elected community of like-minded people. It is a disastrous means of organising a planet. Most anarchists envisage their system as the means by which the oppressed can free themselves from persecution. But if everyone is to be free from the coercive power of the state, this must apply to the oppressors as well as the oppressed. The richest and most powerful communities on earth – be they geographical communities or communities of interest – will be as unrestrained by external forces as the poorest and weakest. As a friend of mine put it, "when the anarchist utopia arrives, the first thing that will happen is that every Daily Mail reader in the country will pick up a gun and go and kill the nearest hippy".
This is why, though both sides furiously deny it, the outcome of both market fundamentalism and anarchism, if applied universally, is identical. The anarchists' associate with the oppressed, the market fundamentalists with the oppressors. But by eliminating the state, both remove such restraints as prevent the strong from crushing the weak. Ours is not a choice between government and no government. It is a choice between government and the mafia.
Over the past year I have been working with groups of climate protesters who have changed my view of what could be achieved. Most of them are under 30, and they bring to this issue a clear-headedness and pragmatism that I have never encountered in direct action movements before. They are prepared to take extraordinary risks to try to defend the biosphere from the corporations, governments and social trends which threaten to make it uninhabitable. They do so for one reason only: that they love the world and fear for its future. It would be a tragedy if, through the efforts of people like Jasiewicz, they were to be diverted from this urgent task into the identity politics that have wrecked so many movements.
And my response:
George, your handy summary of the dynamic inherent in the macroeconomic circular flow system is accurate but truncated. (Although probably helpful to explaining your objections to a lay audience.) A fuller understanding may lead to the missing answers you seek.
(But don't expect green radicals to give up on their various utopias/dystopias anytime soon, or even properly listen. It was while I was a radical, years ago, that I realized that I didn't live in a coercive state, because no-one had actually tried to coerce me out of direct action. An EF! organizer in the early 1990s, I was expecting to be surveiled, arrested, tossed in jail. None of this actually happened. That and a wise mentor and a few economics classes were enough to get me back into the system trying to fix it instead of being outside the system yelling at it.)
Back to theory:
Yes, ceteris paribus, any increase in interest (or, to use the technical term, rent) due to capital requires a concomitant increase in either the money supply or the value of goods and services. (From Marshall and Keynes, et al.) But that doesn't mean there can't be both privately held capital, and interest or rent, in a steady state economy. (From Daly). In ecological economic theory, there is sustainable product from capital, but ecological economists see capital as threefold: human, natural, and man-made capital. Generally a combination is required to produce goods, but trees and crops grow, and so there is sustainable product. There is no reason to suppose that capital rents based on natural accumulation, ie, the product of sustainable farming, fishing, sustainable industry, are not also sustainable.
Sustainability does not therefore require the abolition of private ownership.
Example and reductio: My small farm, managed sustainably, does produce value intrinsically and annually, without running down any of its kinds of capital, except perhaps the human capital embodied in its proprietor, who is not getting any younger.
Arguments that one whole kind of capital, or two, or all three, must totally be publicly (or anarchically) held and the rents publicly (or anarchically) distributed are thus specious, also easily subject to reductio ad absurdum, and by definition, totalitarian.
So, for example, the totalitarian Marxist argument that all capital belonged to the workers through the worker's state fell down when it tried to abstract the kulaks into that state. Peasant farmers with proprietorship turned out to be more productive than collectives, and it wasn't until perestroika that the USSR began to overcome massive periodic food system failures by re-empowering private farms.
Some green radicals, as you say, naively seem to want to insist that all of both man-made capital and natural capital somehow too belong by right to the collective. This notion, enacted by some new and totalitarian green law, would produce much the same effect as collectivization did in the Soviet Union. I think in most cases, Green radicals are young, and have studied too much ecology and not enough economics, and if they thought it through, they'd change their minds.
The opposite example is also instructive. Right-totalitarians here in the US argue that private property is the only rightful system. They would privatize National Parks, rivers, the air, anything that could be, they say, should be owned. Their minds are not easily changed. Luckily, Americans are not that extreme in their current infatuation with conservative politics to enact their program.
Instead, we should recognize that we can healthily allow simultaneous, multiple and overlapping systems of ownership, including some publicly held, some commons or cooperative systems, some private, and some combinations, and that there can be sustainable capital rents from these endowments, distributed also by a healthy variety of means. In other words, open pluralistic societies with corporations, partnerships, proprietary businesses and farms, coops, commons, public property, and charities.
What is the real sustainability problem is not the rent due to capital, but the growth of man-made capital at the expense of natural and human capital. We are exploiting natural capital at unsustainable rates to produce man-made capital, and the product of our natural capital endowment is beginning to decrease as a result. The way to stop this is to either reduce population, or to tax and/or outlaw unsustainable exploitation, or, preferably, do both.
The trick will be to do it in time, before the different kind of anarchy that results from unsustainable practices, particularly from climate change, spreads much further. Climate change, in combination with other ecological degradation, has already reducing carrying capacity in many African and South Asian countries, creating anarchic dystopias where the state has little power (Somalia), or the state is oppressive (Sudan).
A good start would be for all of us to commit to one-child families
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Having a blog is a great relief because I can say what I think and there's a permanent record. I don't know if google blogger knows the difference they have made to my life, but I'm grateful. I keep all my email for much the same reason.
Let's try to start a little catch phrase right now, and we'll see if I ever get credit for it.
Here it is. Are you ready. I'm sure this is very exciting. History being made. Heck, I'll even put it in bold.
The "energy crisis" isn't really a crisis. It's a scarcity of energy knowledge.
The oracle has spoken. And it's written down. Copyright August twenty whatever 2008. You can use it, but you can't steal it. I mean you can try, but I can always prove, I said it first!
But I'm serious about what I mean here. If I can reduce the fossil energy consumption of an old Maine farmhouse by 90% in three years for about $25 grand in my copious spare time, if Unity College, even with administrators constantly dragging their heels for the first five years (admit it!), can reduce it's fossil energy use and climate emissions by a third in 7 years for virtually no money, if Aimee and I can build a Bale House for less than $25 grand that uses only a few pick-up trucks of firewood and a little propane a year, there's no energy crisis. There's just a lot of people that don't know what to do about reducing fossil energy use.
So here's a bunch of famous people saying something I've been saying for years, essentially, that buildings use most of our energy, so we need to fix all our buildings and build only green ones. That when we've made a start on that we need to work on transport. And, when we finally get around to saving the planet, it will be contractors and tradesmen and auto and process engineers, and even the odd architect, who do most of the work. (Not famous people.)
Enjoy. By the way, all the incoming and transfer students in Sustainable Design and Technology, take note. I think you'll enjoy just a little career and job security in your lives.
And another point: I honestly believe this took so long to catch on because all these elite folks just didn't want to have to deal with the fact that to really, properly save the planet you had to:
a) know something real about topics as mundane and as blue-collar as, say building insulation or window technology
b) really study up on hard quantitative analysis. (You can't spin your way out of this one.)
c) be willing to explore boiler rooms and crawl spaces. (You can tell a lot about people from the guts of their houses.)
d) have to know some economics and apply the results of analysis rigorously. (No more soft-minded greenwash -- more and more folks can see right through that stuff every year.)
e) be willing to understand that Right Action is always constrained by ecology, physics, politics, economics, and common sense, and act accordingly. (When the numbers don't crunch, the numbers don't crunch, and there's not a thing you can do about it except to admit it and find a work-around or a better idea to begin from.)
f) be willing to practice what you preach
Not very fashionable or user friendly, is it. But it's all true. Oracular wisdom, not even twenty-five cents a bushel. Best buy on the market.
From the e-news bulletin:
Energy Independence is Within Reach
Mazria Unveils Blueprint at Historic Energy Summit
This week, at a historic gathering of industry leaders, scientists, policy experts and elected officials, Edward Mazria laid out a path for US energy independence.
The roster of speakers at the first annual National Clean Energy Summit, hosted by US Senator Harry Reid, the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the University of Nevada Las Vegas, read as a Who’s Who of individuals at the forefront of solving our energy and climate crises. Alongside Mazria, the lineup included Senator Reid, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, oilman T. Boone Pickens and President Clinton, who, in his keynote address, stressed the importance of the Building Sector in addressing climate change.
In his talk, Mazria unveiled the 2030 Blueprint, a three-pronged solution that uses building energy efficiency, homeowner choices and renewable energy to completely replace conventional coal by the year 2025 and to free up natural-gas-generated electricity for mass transit and plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles by 2030. To implement the 2030 Blueprint, Mazria calls for 1) upgrading the National Building Energy Conservation Code Standard to meet the 2030 Challenge targets, 2) investing $21.6 billion a year for five years in building energy efficiency and 3) passing federal legislation requiring an aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard of at least 30% for electricity generation.
Friday, August 22, 2008
This illustrative photograph caught my eye in today's paper. There are 14 more equally stunning photographs.
From The Guardian:
Environmental photographer of the year and quality of life winner:
"Happy in her own world," Abhijit Nandi, India.
‘The woman in my picture is returning home from the paddy field after a long day at work. She never thought a village woman could be the subject of a photograph, so when I told her I'd like to take a picture of her, she just laughed’Photograph: Abhijit Nandi"
Thursday, August 21, 2008
I have to say, I think we did a really good job of anticipating trends and required skills when we designed this major. Several of us were at a community meeting last night to talk about the energy crisis, and it was obvious to all of us that students who want to learn these skills will be in big demand even here in little Unity, Maine, and probably before they graduate, to do energy auditing, weatherization, and other related community assistance work.
“Elevator speech” (a two minute synopsis to use as first introduction)
“This degree program prepares students to be energy and/or climate mitigation professionals. These are job growth fields. All the new programs that you hear about in government, industry and the non-profit world where energy, sustainability, and climate change are being addressed simultaneously, are being set up and run by professionals with these general qualifications.”
Alternately, or as a follow –up:
“There are already thousands of new jobs and an immense unmet demand for qualified people, but there will be thousands more after the 2008 election. Both candidates have pledged climate action. This field is already booming, but there’s ten, twenty, a hundred times more work to do. Fixing energy problems properly will also help stem climate change.”
Three follow-up points:
1) This is the practical way to “save the planet” and possibly the only way. The energy “crisis” is not really a crisis but a scarcity of energy knowledge, and we must also stabilize the climate. There’s no alternative, other than to do this work.
2) The basic knowledge to master is energy theory, ie, physics, applied to buildings, transportation, and industrial and agricultural production. Ecology, especially human ecology is very important. Economics is key, especially cost benefit and payback analysis. Then working professionals need to know energy efficiency and renewable energy systems pretty well. Knowledge of specific detailed systems and specific applications is not that key, because systems are always changing with innovation and new science. Instead, you need to be able to “bootstrap” yourself into analysis of any new equipment or situation. And a given “situation” may in fact be more of a people problem or an accounting problem than an energy problem. These graduates are not just energy engineers, but business, government and non-profit organizers who are also applied energy and policy scientists. You’ll need to wear business clothes to work some of the time. But a lot of the time, you can be in the field doing real hands –on stuff.
3) You will need to crunch numbers, use a computer, and know how to use, and even build, technical and science equipment. You should not be afraid of grease, dirt or muck, and you should like weather. You also have to be willing to deal with business, money and accounting. You have to be idealistic but also pragmatic. If you are an absolutist and can’t compromise, this field is not for you. This is a working-within-the-system field, not a stand-outside-the-system-and-yell-at-it field.
Points of contact:
The lead professor is Dr. Mick Womersley, an environmental policy PhD who also studied economics, ecology, and aeronautical engineering (wind turbines and wind assessment!). You can read Mick’s blog at www.ucsustainability.blogspot.com to find out about current happenings, and email him questions about any of this at email@example.com. Other important faculty include Dr. Kevin Spigel, firstname.lastname@example.org, an earth scientist who has research interests in climate change, Dr. Erika Latty, email@example.com, is a botanist also with interests in plant responses to climate change and has worked in climate accounting, Dr. Nancy Ross, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an environmental and food policy expert who works with the closely-linked Agriculture, Food and Sustainability degree program. Service Learning Coordinator Jennifer Olin, email@example.com, has an MS in sustainable development. Doug Fox, a landscape horticulturalist with interest in sustainability and organic gardening, is the convenor of the Unity College Center for Sustainability and Global Change where the program is housed.
Monday, August 11, 2008
A word on that:
Every year I am astounded by the high quality of enterprise and intellectual capacity of many of our entering students. But there's always the odd murmur from a handful "there's nothing to do around here."
My basic feeling is, that if you come to Unity, Maine, in fall, with everything going on at the college, with the Common Ground Fair, with harvest time in full swing, and with all these projects available to you (and these are just the sustainability projects), then you're a bit of a bit of dead wood and you probably should consider going to school at some nice massive 50,000 student university somewhere where no-one expects you to participate and you can just stay in your dorm room and play video games all day.
1) Building a barn. This is my big project for the fall. A class of second years will take the lead, but there will be opportunities for others to participate.
2) Harvest. Sara has been in charge of the garden all summer. Our head academician (look it up!), Amy Knisley will take on the harvest and putting it up. I believe it's a class of first years that is involved, but talk to Amy.
3) Livestock: The college's sheep herd will need to be tended this fall on rotational grazings away from the barn site and all that building work, and away from Mikey the ram until a suitable breeding time (late October) that would allow for late spring lambs, after the weather has eased. They're currently at MOFGA, but they have to be brought back in time for the fair. There's also a need for hay, some of which needs to be gotten in before the barn will be ready to receive it because the grass will stop growing in October and the barn will not be finished until November. The college administration, specifically Rob, is in charge of the sheep, but there's a presumption that the lead animal caretakers are the FFA Club, with the WCE students as back-up. Join the club (at Club Night) if you're interested.
4) Windpower: There are three ongoing windpower projects:
First, the Ecocottage wind machine needs to be either repaired or replaced. Historically this small wind turbine, which was first built in a class in 2003, has had its ups and downs as the gales blew or not. Right now it is in need of big help. The Ecocottage residents will likely take the lead on this one. Either a new turbine, or a big repair job with lots of new parts, is called for.
Second, the Kinney Tower NRG Systems anemometer and wind computer needs to be taken down and re-established on a different site in Troy. This will require the fabrication of a new guyed tower, and a good deal of correspondence and visits with the landowner at the new site, which is Fiddlehead Farm, one of the nicest sustainable farms in the area and the life's work of Professor Jack Wilson of UMO. Jack is paying for the new equipment because he wants the wind data to find out if he can install a medium scale turbine. This fabrication and installation may become a project in Physics I.
Third, and finally, the big NRG Sytems Tower at Mount View High School will complete its year of data gathering in December, and will need to be dismantled. It is unlikely we will reassemble it this winter as we do not have another community service wind assessment site firmly identified. One possibility remains the Cranberry Islands. If you know of another, let me know.
5) Biogas digester. This is a little pot-boiler experiment I started this summer with any eye to having a demonstrator completed in time for the fair. I'd be happy to hand it over to a suitably interested student who needed a Chemistry I or Physics I or even Biology project (since it indisputably calls for knowledge of all three).
6) The Common Ground Fair itself. Don't forget this one. Melora Norman, head librarian, is in charge of the UC Sustainability display. Rob and I will be coordinating with Melora on building the display and staffing it. Lots of volunteers are always needed to staff our booth, for which you get free entrance to the fair (and time to wander around). (I always gave the booth volunteers lunch money too! We'll see if Melora does too, hint hint.) And you can always volunteer for MOFGA. Or even just pay to get in and have a nice day wandering about the best sustainability fair in the north east.
7) C.R.A.P. Crew. Our friendly local student-led recycling team, a work-study job for those who need one. See Keith Giles for details. Expect a big push for Recyclemania this year. And kudos to Keith and the Maintenance folks for the great new recycling stations, which should help students faculty and staff do a better job of sorting.
8) Keep ME Warm! The Maine state winterization program, an aid program for low income householders in Maine to reduce their energy bills. There's a big push coming down the pipe from the Governor's Office and Maine Housing, possibly some pay in it for students. I have no idea how I can get a UC Keep ME Warm Team going and at the same time run the barn-building class, but I'll have to try. Going to a meeting on the 20th of this month. Watch the blog for news.
9) Grease Car Clubhouse. As the college's grease car owners will tell you, we don't actually have a proper club. But we do have a clubhouse, and a growing number of grease cars, although I think about three graduated (the owners, not the cars). Talk to the guys driving the old Eurocars that smell like french fries for details of how to be part of the coolest driving system around.
That's all I have for now, although I'm sure I will think of something I forgot, or someone will remind me of something I forgot.
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Here's a series of shots of today's farm project: cleaning out the Womerlippi barn with the small 12 HP Kubota tractor.
It's a small barn, so you need a small tractor. I'm a big guy, so I look pretty silly on a tiny Nipponese tractor. But it works well.
This is a custom-designed system, and the barn, the tractor, the pig sty and the garden all work together in linear fashion, a compost assembly line. We will build a similar system into the new college barn.
The material being "cleaned out" is actually being prepared for reuse, not disposal, to be prized as next year's main agricultural input to the garden and potato patch.
This is deep bedding for the sheep from last winter. We use a modification on a European farm system called "Swedish deep bedding," that I learned about in ecology class field trips as a schoolkid, in which fresh bedding is added each week to cover last week's accumulation of manure. This doesn't smell bad like a regular barn does, and it helps concentrate the soil nutrients and capture fertility that is otherwise lost. The sheep do their deep bedding thing for about 5-6 months of late fall, winter and spring, after which the pigs and chickens get to go at it, enriching the material and breaking up strands. The pigs have been working it over now for about four months, and so we started to clean it out a few weeks ago, but it's getting very concentrated and ripe and even just a little smelly for the very first time, and is attracting flies, so it's time to move it all out!
Deep bedding is a great system for a small farm/garden combination, especially if you use a secondary processor like our pigs. You'd think that pigs would be upset to have to live in and sleep on used sheep bedding, but they love it, and dig and root in it for all kinds of unmentionable piggy treats, which keeps them happy pigs. They really enjoy the day we push out a fresh pile of bedding into the yard, and Ophelia, the livelier pig, goes skipping around in it like a piglet. The pictured pig is Hamlet, though, not a great one for the exercise.
The Kubota tractor can move around in the 20 by 30 foot barn, especially if it has no rototiller or other rear attachment on, and so it does most of the heavy work. Cleaning out the edges and corners is hard work. Still, about two hours of combined tractor-ing and shovelling was all that was needed to get 3/4 of the material out into the outdoor sty, where it will compost rapidly in what remains of summer. Next spring we'll till the finished compost into the garden using the bucket loader and the custom Kubota tiller that came with the tractor. There'll be too much so we will put some in the herb garden too, and possibly gives some away to the neighbors. That seems to me to be a lot less work than cleaning it out weekly, and a superior compost product is the result. The Kubota uses a small amount of diesel -- less than half a gallon -- to do this job.
Although I am a little tired from my exertions. Nicely so. That green gym workout again.
Friday, August 8, 2008
I expect it will stop raining in maine sometime between now and when the snow flies. Hopefully in time for that huge forest of tomatoes we planted to ripen.
From the Grauniad:
Environment: Intense rainfall due to global warming could raise flood risk
Climate scientists have issued a fresh warning over the future risk of flooding after research showed heavy rainstorms are likely to become even more intense than predicted.
Rainfall is expected to increase with global warming because the atmosphere can hold more water as it heats up, but the extent to which rainfall patterns will change in the future has been unclear.
Writing in the US journal Science, researchers warn regions that are already vulnerable to flooding will be hit hardest by rainstorms in the future, and that previous predictions may have underestimated how intense these rainstorms will be.
Researchers from Reading and Miami Universities used satellite data from 1987 to 2004 to see how natural changes in surface and air temperatures caused by El Niño weather events influenced rainfall over the tropics. They found a clear link, with countries experiencing far more rainfall as temperatures rose.
"When we first looked, we saw that the warm periods were associated with the periods of heaviest rainfall, but when we looked more carefully, we found the models underestimated what the satellite data showed by a factor of two to three," said Richard Allan, who led the study.
If other researchers are able to confirm the findings, it suggests areas already prone to flooding may experience far more problems as global temperatures rise.
Yesterday one of the government's chief science advisers, Robert Watson, said the UK must prepare for a 4C rise in average temperatures, despite Europe's declared goal of no more than a 2C rise.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Here's the UK Guardian's latest missive about the climate crisis, written in response to a Cabinet presentation by scientist Robert Watson, who tells us that government should plan to be prepared for the contingency of a global Average Annual Temperature increase of 4 degrees celsius. It's their strongest worded statement yet. While I agree with almost every word, and am pleased they wrote it, there are two more things that could still be said:
1) Nothing this strongly worded has yet emerged from the mainstream US editorial boards. In general, the US public understanding of climate change seems to be three-four years behind the British one.
2) Even Dr. Watson doesn't know how to get climate emissions down to within the safety zone of a two degree rise! (This is in the original article here, not the editorial.) That's nuts! I know how to do it, as does almost anyone who is familiar with new building designs, renewable energy technology, energy conservation, and vehicular mechanics. Basically, there's a 70-90% efficiency gain on building heat energy to be made by properly retrofitting all older buildings and building only zero carbon new ones, a 20% gain to be made on electricity production by fully developing wind power, at least a 50% gain to be made by replacing our vehicle fleet with all-electric, hybrid, and small efficient diesel vehicles over the next ten years, and on, and on....
All it will take is political will to encourage the renewable energy and energy efficiency markets, and discourage the polluters, just a little, maybe a ten-twenty percent tax subsidy on the one hand, and a tax increase on the other. High fossil energy costs will do the rest of the work.
I've decided that there is a class of folks who don't know have a clue how to reduce climate emissions -- even though they may want to, and be very green-minded -- because they've never had to do anything practical in their whole lives, like fitting insulation, or wiring a solar panel. It just seems so hard, and so complicated, they never get around to doing it! And so, instead of getting the job done, they sit around and talk about how hard it is but how we all have to do it.
Load of hot air.
If I've done it in my own home, and if Unity College can do it on campus, you can do it in your home and business. And you can do it right now.
Planning for the worst
- The Guardian,
- Thursday August 7 2008
Just like blades, phrases can be blunted by overuse. Talk of avoiding "catastrophic climate change" is so familiar, the words no longer instantly stir up apocalyptic images. But in the light of remarks from Defra's chief scientific adviser, it is worth recalling what would be involved. As the Guardian reports today, Professor Bob Watson says Britain must prepare for an increase in temperatures of 4C - a rise deep in catastrophe territory. Even at 3C between a fifth and a half of all species would face extinction. At 4C some human populations could be heading the same way. Swaths of Africa and the Mediterranean would be parched of water and see food production decimated. Over the decades, melting polar ice sheets would increase sea levels to the point where whole island nations - not to mention parts of Britain - would be smothered. The release of CO2 could spiral beyond human control if the heat stopped natural forest fires from burning themselves out. In the darkest scenario, civilisation would be on the slipway to oblivion.
Mercifully, that is far from certain - but with warming in excess of 2C very little is. Is Prof Watson encouraging fatalistic acceptance of it? Emphatically not. His responsibilities include advising not just on climate policy, but also flood defences. And the only responsible way to plan coastal barriers is on the basis of an honest appraisal of what the future could bring - however depressing that may be. In line with the Stern report and the IPCC, Prof Watson believes all governments should seek to contain global warming to 2C. He merely acknowledges that the chance that this target will not be met is too real to be ignored.
That is putting it mildly. Even if global emissions could be stabilised at current levels, a rise in excess of 2C would be a substantial possibility. Indeed it might become a probability if China and India follow the west and clean up their industry to tackle acid rain. (The sulphurous gases which cause that problem also offset global warming by reflecting sunlight.) Instead of stabilising, however, emissions continue to rise, and the political obstacles on turning the tide remain formidable. The passing of George W Bush next year will remove only one of several. The US is now so far above Kyoto baselines, that even when a more constructive president takes over - as either candidate would prove - they may demand a deal that takes account of this catastrophic starting point. But other countries who have been working to cut emissions might resist this as a reward for failure. There will be other sticking points, too. China is now the world's biggest emitter, so no meaningful deal can exclude it. But there is scope for argument about whether galloping emissions from the workshop of the world are the responsibility of the Chinese producers or the western consumers they serve. A recent report by the Stockholm Environment Institute has underlined this point.
The Stern report established that - from the point of view of the global economy - prevention is cheaper than cure. For individual countries, however, who consider the calculus in isolation, the balance will often be reversed. After all, even with a sizable economy such as Britain, whatever sacrifices are made to cut emissions the direct effect on the global emissions - and thus the climate - will be marginal, and self-interest starts to dictate a strategy of mitigating catastrophe instead.Prof Watson acknowledges this miserable - yet hard - logic by suggesting preparations be set in train for a rise of up to 4C. But he rightly argues that rich countries can still recast the logic through coordinated action. A joint agreement to find a way of making carbon capture work, and to fund it, would be a first step. Every country could argue that the vast funds involved are unaffordable. Each, however, is
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
This is the kick-off for our barn-building project. Students in a second-year general education course will build a small animal barn to shelter our college sheep herd, and provide housing for pigs, chickens, cattle or indeed any other small scale sustainable livestock project the college might like to pursue in the future.
The barn will also help make sense of our composting system, which has always had problems, mostly due ton the high volume of waste. By feeding pre-consumer kitchen and garden waste to appropriate animals like pigs in a controlled barn-based system, we can reduce the volume of waste, and its attraction to undesirable critters. Barns also help collect and concentrate animal manure and bedding for use in gardens and on fields. It's a lot easier in general to make good compost if you have a barn.
I wanted to be well-organized for the beginning of class, because nothing can be quite so disheartening for students than a project class that uses up three or four of the first few weeks in organizing, making plans, and in mundane tasks like getting materials to the site. So hopefully, if I do my work well, everything will be in place when class starts. Students will have to study safety precautions and regulations for a little less than a week, but then, on the first Friday of term, they will actually get right down to practical work.
First job was to take the existing animal shelter, a pole barn, and prepare it for use as tool storage and as a temporary workshop where we can still get things done if it rains. I almost forgot to take a photo of this first job, but remembered a few minutes into my work, and here's the shot (above).
As you can see, although sturdy, this run-in shelter doesn't do it's job well. It's enclosed on three sides only, so the snow blows in unless you use ugly old tarps like the ones on there right now. It's hard to clean out, because you can't drive right through with a loader. And it's built on clay soil, which is by far the worst feature. Clay acts as a seal for water so it doesn't drain, and so you get wet conditions, which damages the animals' hoofs and makes them prone to hoof rot. Our sheep had bad hoof rot this year, which didn't clear up until they'd been on the dry sandyn soil at MOFGA for a week or so. And I almost lost my shoe today to the boggy spot right in front of the black tarp.
None of this is the fault of the FFA students, who built this shelter with the help of the club advisors. Back then, before the college had the Agriculture Food and Sustainability degree program, all they had to work with was a tiny bit of club money. The students wanted a college farm, and this is how it started. They had the guts to get it going, but with so few resources, this was the best they could do.
Well, as a job site workshop, it'll do just fine. The animals have been removed (to MOFGA -- see the Sustainability Activities page for details), except for our Hampshire ram "Mikey", who's king of the back pen for now, and the fence and gates in the home pen have been taken down and removed, leaving a wide open space where the new barn will go.
Today we took down the tarps on the old shelter, removed some of the feeding equipment to make room for shelves and a workbench, and wired the building for shop lights and electrical outlets. Tomorrow we'll keep working on benches, and make a locking toolroom.
Any Environmental Citizen students already in the area for fall semester who'd like to help are welcome to come down to the site. I'll be working regularly this week and next. I'll generally be on site at 8am or 8.30 (depending on whether this is a day the sheep need moved (at MOFGA) or not, and on any other UC commitments).
Monday, August 4, 2008
Aimee would be first to tell me that since I am one, I shouldn't make another.
But this one is for other forms of gas than hot professorial air. For the biogas genny project, to be specific. All it is, is a couple layers of black polyethelene sealed with glue and clamped with wood strips.
Right now it's undergoing a very scientific pressure test. Pump it up with the air compressor, leave for 24 hours, see if it deflates. Note the handy dandy vice-grip air valve system on the inlet-outlet tube.
The main problems in vehicular biogas seem to be cleaning up the gas and compression to a denser fuel for efficient transfer. But, as the gas once sufficiently clean is equivalent to compressed natural gas, already widely used as a vehicle fuel for city fleets because it's clean-burning, relatively cheap, and reduces maintenance costs, there's not as much fuel supply risk to buying a gas-powered fleet as you might think. It's easy to see how a mixture of regular natural gas and biogas can be used to recycle organic waste efficiently and reduce city air pollution.
Thanks very much for your interest in our little project!
From Mr. Baldwin:
Good video here:
Lille video attached....
MD, CNG Services Ltd
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Here's a series of the new sheep "tractor" working as intended. First you see the graze, lush ungrazed on the left, the current pasture on the right. Then sheep are lured into the tractor with a little oats. The fence is moved, the sheep let go, and there they are, grazing happily on new pasture, only a tiny bit of the old pasture being left inside the pen.
And Mr. Haggis sitting in the truck, services no longer required. But don't feel bad for him. We were called back to MOFGA later because a sheep had got out, and he managed to let them all get out. Probably to prolong his fun.
(As we might say in Yorkshire, it's a poor shepherd as blames 'is sheepdog!)
I proved to myself that it will run on one form of gas fuel by putting a propane torch in the carb entrance and slowly cutting off the gasoline -- do not try this at home! With a little manipulation of air and propane, I could keep it running. This step, apart from being dangerous for beginners, is completely unnecessary. We already know gasoline engines can be converted to run on methane. But it gave me some ideas for how to build a methane-injection manifold to replace the carb, reminded me that I would need a throttle valve/choke to control air supply, and taught me that the engine speed governor would have to be disabled.
Then the cutting and fitting of a Lexan top to the plastic barrel which will become our digester vessel. Lexan because this is a science project and so it's nice to see the inside, even if it is just a mess of pig's poo. I used a machine bandsaw for this, an expensive tool, but if you don't have one, you could use a coping saw or hacksaw blade. Warning -- Lexan doesn't tolerate anything except the finest toothed-blades. And be sure to wear eye protection for all cutting operations.
This assembly will have to be sealed up completely with a silicon gasket for anaerobic decomposition to begin. I also fitted the gas pipe, using a brass pipe fitting which, give a hole just slightly smaller than itself, was willing to cut it's own tread in the Lexan. All sealed up with plumber's TFE paste, which, like Lexan and the plastic tub itself, resists the corrosive properties of biogas. A vice grip placed on the outlet tube should serve as a gas valve for now.
Today I'll fill it two-thirds full with manure-and-bedding from our pigsty, add water, fit the gasket, clamp the hose shut and wait for decomposition to begin. According to all the bulletins I've read, the first few days and weeks digesters give off only CO2, before settling into methane production, so once filled and sealed, we'll set it aside in a warm, sunny, outside spot and bleed off any gas that forms every few days. Since one objective is to have everything ready for the Common Ground Fair, the timing of the switch from CO2 to methane production should be good.
I'll be looking around in the next few days trying to spy material for an engine-and-alternator carrying frame, which will have to be heavy steel, but could be railroad ties or similar improvised materials. I will need pulleys and belts. Also the two differentially sized oil drums that are used to make a "gasometer" for storing methane and removing carbon dioxide. One fits upside down inside the other, which is filled with water. A pipe from the digester feeds gas into the assembly, which floats on water, but is contained by the drum. Excess CO2 dissolves in the water to form a mild carbolic acid.
This material scrounging project might require a trip to Jackson, Maine's famous Bog Road junkyard. Always a fun excursion. You never quite know what you'll find.
What does this experiment prove? Not much, since this is a replication of hundreds of similar science projects around the world, since the Chinese and others have used biogas for on-farm electricity generation for years now, and since even in the west the commercial technology and engineering of methane recovery is now well known and becoming widespread. But it is still fairly arcane to most folk, and so making a project like this, particularly if it works well, is well-constructed and lasts, will help to educate Unity students to the value of biogas systems and their basic configuration.
Biogas generation is also one answer to a farm-and-climate change problem, the recovery of methane from livestock operations. Livestock farming is too valuable a source of protein for humans and fertilizer for agriculture to phase out, and regular readers will know I advocate and practice the small-scale, rotational grazing, low intensity livestock operations that reduces climate emissions. But I still have a pigsty and two pigs, very useful for compost processing, but also producers of methane, albeit in much smaller amounts than feedlot cattle. Delicate readers unfamiliar with the porcine race will be delighted to know that pigs experience flatulence quite similar in sound to that of humans. One of my porksters let a good one rip just the other day while I was in the barn, and it sounded quite similar to some British servicemen I knew when I was in the mob, a good old-fashioned Land Rover-emptying cannonade...
Potty humour aside, one fine day, most farms will either have on-site methane recapture built-in to farm compost-and-fertilizer systems, or, if they lack the necessary economy of scale, may be part of some local methane recovery cooperative, and ship their manure small distances to a plant of suitable scale.
Methane is too valuable a fuel and too dangerous a climate agent for us to just release it to the atmosphere the way we do now.
Saturday, August 2, 2008
This is my biogas generator project stage one, the motor retrofit. This is a 9hp pull-start Craftsman, probably made by Tecumseh, since it looks just like the one on our Womerlippi rototiller, and once I even switched out the carbs while I waited for a rebuild kit to come in the mail, and the tiller worked fine. Anyway, this motor now has a dicky carb which probably only needs a clean-and-rebuild, but attached as it is to a rusty shredder blade (its original purpose), it's no good to man nor beast. Gotta get the durn shredder blade off.
Back in the day, when small equipment was mostly pully-driven and pullies were secured with hex bolts or woodruff keys, they came off easily.
But far too many entrepreneurial farmers just switched around and reused engines when the equipment they drove died, and so the companies switched to direct drive, used taper shafts, and put the drive ends on hot so they shrink to the shafts. They can be very difficult to get off. In this case, I picked up new pully-puller in Bangor, and tried that with some heat from the gas torch. But that didn't do the job; the soft steel shredder blade was bent easily by the puller without coming so much as a millimeter off the shaft. So I started cutting through the blade with the stick welder until I ran out of rod. Manana.
While in Bangor I also picked up the bits needed to build the biogas reactor. Watch this space to see more.
Friday, August 1, 2008
This is a cool article, and I'm fascinated by the possibilities here. But this and the current system for making hydrogen using electrolysis have the same basic drawback, which is hydrogen storage. I expect we'll decide to use low pressure storage because it will be safer and cheaper, but essentially everyone's house will need a huge tank to store hydrogen, not to mention and expensive fuel cell or a hydrogen-powered CHP generator. But it could be made of plastic if it the system used low pressure.
BTW, my latest tinkering project will be a methane generator using biogas from our pig's poop. Check in here for pictures of the build.
Cheap way to 'split water' could lead to abundant clean fuel
- Alok Jha, green technology correspondent
- Thursday July 31 2008
Scientists have found an inexpensive way to produce hydrogen from water, a discovery that could lead to a plentiful source of environmentally friendly fuel to power homes and cars.
The technique, which mimics the way photosynthesis works in plants, also provides a highly efficient way to store energy, potentially paving the way to making solar power more economically viable.
Hydrogen is a clean, energy-rich fuel that many experts believe could become important as nations attempt to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The gas can be produced by splitting water but current techniques are expensive, use harsh chemicals and need carefully controlled environments in which to operate.
Daniel Nocera, a chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has developed a catalyst made from cobalt and phosphorus that can split water at room temperature, a technique he describes in the journal Science. "I'm using cheap, Earth-abundant materials that you can mass-manufacture. As long as you can charge the surface, you can create the catalyst and it doesn't get any cheaper than that."
He said the discovery could have major implications for the uptake of solar photovoltaic technology. One of the reasons, he said, why solar panels have not penetrated the consumer market properly is that no one has found a way to store energy in a way that, when the Sun is not shining, people still have electricity. "You can't think about an energy economy or a global energy system only when the sun is out."
Batteries could do the job but they cannot store anywhere near as much energy per unit mass as chemical fuels. Nocera's technique would allow the storage of excess energy from sunlight during the daytime. "You could imagine, during the day you have a photovoltaic cell, you take some of that electricity and use it in your house, then take the other part of that electricity for my catalyst, feed the catalyst water and you get hydrogen and oxygen."
At night, the hydrogen and oxygen could be recombined in a fuel cell to produce an electrical current to power a home or recharge an electric car. "So I've made your house a gas station and a power station. It's all enabled because we can use light plus water to make a chemical fuel, which is hydrogen and oxygen."
Converting an Olympic swimming pool of water into hydrogen and oxygen per second would create 43 terawatts of power. "In the next 50 years, the world needs 16 terawatts. By the end of the century, we'll need around 30," said Nocera. "There's a heck of lot of energy stored in chemical bonds."
For a home, Nocera said that it would be enough to split a few litres of water per day into hydrogen and oxygen. The water would be reformed when the gases were put through the fuel cell.
There is much work to be done in converting Nocera's idea into a commercial product. At the moment, his catalyst can only accept small amounts of electrical current at once, meaning that it would be an inefficient way to quickly store large amounts of energy. But Nocera is certain that engineers will iron out the issues and produce commercial-scale products within a decade.
James Barber, a leading researcher in artificial photosynthesis at Imperial College London, said Nocera's work was a "giant leap" toward generating clean, carbon-free energy. "This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind. The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem."