Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review of Stern

Avoiding the many jobs I have to do, I gave myself the fleeting pleasure of reading the news and blogs over my early morning coffee. The Guardian had a compelling interview with Nicholas Stern, the former UK government climate economist. Here's the full article, and here's an extract:

"Recklessness is the only word. I mean, we have to recognise the scale of the risk. If we go on at anything like business as usual, we'll be at concentration levels by the end of this century which will give us around a 50-50 chance of being above five degrees centigrade relative to, say, the 19th century. We humans are only 100,000 years old. We haven't seen that for 30 to 50 million years. We haven't seen three degrees centigrade for three million years. The idea that humans can easily adapt to conditions like these ..." He lets the proposition tail away, too foolish even for words.

"What will we do? We'll move. People will move. Why? Because much of southern Europe will be desert. Other places will become underwater. Others will be hit by such severe storms with such frequency that they become almost uninhabitable. So hundreds of millions of people will move. You're already seeing people moving in Darfur, where droughts devastated the grazing land of pastoralist people, and they moved, and come into conflict with people in the places they're moving to. We're seeing that already on just a 0.8 degree rise. We're the first generation that has the power to destroy the planet. You're re-writing the planet. So you can only describe as reckless ignoring risks like that."

At the heart of Stern's work is a simple calculation. If the science on climate change is right, the transition costs incurred by switching to a low-carbon economy will - however daunting - be a fraction of what we will save by averting disaster. If the science is wrong, and we incur those costs unnecessarily, they would be "very far from disastrous", and we would still benefit, "because we will have a world that is more energy efficient, with new and cleaner technologies, and is more biodiverse as a result of protecting the forests". The logic of the argument is compelling, but is there any part of Stern that believes the science could be wrong?

"It's very, very remote," he says slowly. Less than one in 100? He looks surprised. "Oh, much, much less." The puzzle must therefore be why anyone would still doubt it. Nigel Lawson, for example, dismissed his review as "fraudulent", and published a book last year disputing the entire scientific premise of climate change.

"As an undergraduate, I did maths and physics. That doesn't make me a scientist," Stern responds, with exaggerated patience. "So I try to read and understand and talk to scientists. I'm staggered by how many people who are lawyers, or politicians ..." Or former chancellors? "For example," he agrees drily. "Taxi drivers. People behind bars. People cutting hair. They all seem to be knowledgeable and expert on the science.

"In public policy we have to understand a little bit about nuclear physics, and biochemistry, and genetics. So what do you do if you want to understand about genetics? You talk to a geneticist. You don't turn to taxi drivers or politicians. Both respectable professions, but you don't go to them for the science of climate change, you go to scientists. And what do you hear? That this is basically simple physics. It's not as if it's something strange or mysterious that people can't explain to you. It's not something outside the experimental. The greenhouse effect is something you can observe experimentally - and most people have observed the greenhouse effect themselves, in greenhouses. Yes?"

Does Stern feel angry with sceptics - or, as he calls them, irrational optimists? "Well, they're marginal now," he says with rather withering indifference. When he finds himself sitting next to one at a dinner party, does he even bother to argue? "I still believe in rational argument and communication. It's our duty to try. But it is an area in which people can be deliberately destructive," he says disdainfully. "There's a kind of yah boo argument: 'Don't believe it, don't believe it, don't believe it.' Or using language that's slightly more colourful, like that Paul Whitehouse character who said bollocks to everything. That's the kind of thing. It's yah boo stuff."

Stern suspects their perversity is ultimately down to political prejudice. He has no patience with those on the right who assume climate change is just a Trojan horse - an excuse for the left to interfere in the market. "This is about trying to help markets work. This isn't anti-market, this is about making markets work well. My position is pro-markets and pro-growth - not anti-growth. Indeed, it's ignoring the problem that will kill off the growth. High carbon growth kills itself. First on very high hydrocarbon prices, but second and, of course, much more fundamentally, on the very hostile physical environment it would create."

But he has even less time for those on the left who think climate change is "an elitist hobby horse"; a distraction from poverty in the developing world. "We will not overcome world poverty unless we manage climate change successfully. I've spent my life as a development economist, and it's crystal clear that we succeed or fail on winning the battle against world poverty and managing climate change together. If we fail on one, we fail on the other."

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bench tests, destructive testing, and design failures

We had a fun-filled hour or two in the shop the other day bench testing the new wind turbine for the Eco-Cottage. This is a small, four bedroom, student dorm equipped with a stand-alone solar/wind system to charge batteries.

The system, intended as a demonstrator, is essentially what you would build if you had a small homestead, cottage, or camp, and were able to use some other form of power than electricity for cooking, refrigeration, and water pumping. These three needs constitute by far the largest drawers of electricity in most houses, and so if you, for example, cook and refrigerate with propane, and install a gravity fed water system that pressurizes with one pump and pumps with another 'trickle pump" to a header tank, then you can reduce the needed KWH by about two thirds. This doesn't save much energy or climate emissions, as you are still cooking and refrigerating with a fossil fuel, but it does save a lot of money in setting up an off-grid home, because solar photovoltaic panels remain very expensive, despite major recent improvements in production efficiency.

A household scale solar PV system capable of cooking, providing refrigeration, pumping water with a regular jet or submersible pump, and the rest of regular household electrical needs of about 600-700 KHW/month, will cost you over $30,000 in the state of Maine. We have one of these larger systems too, also intended as a demonstrator, in the shape of the Unity House. Indeed, the Unity House is so well-insulated and designed, the solar electrical system also heats the home when the passive solar heating system does not, on cold, cloudy days in winter. The house has a connection to the grid, which it uses as a kind of virtual storage battery, but over the course of the year it draws no net power from that grid. The power it borrows in winter, it gives back in summer.

Both houses, and both types of system, the $3,000 minimal battery-powered system, and the $30,000 grid-tied system, would be yet more effective with wind turbines also attached. The nature of household scale wind in Maine is that it tends to be available when solar power is not, on cold stormy days in winter, and so you can downsize a solar array considerably if you have a wind power system too. The economics of this are such that if you have a windy site, you might save $5,000 or $10,000 of photovoltaic resource by fitting $1,000 or $2,000 of small wind turbine.

So we built our own small turbine for the Eco-Cottage, which we ran off-and-on due to various mechanical failures, for about five years. It finally blew itself apart in a gale a few months ago, and I've been trying to find the time to replace it.

To replace the home-built device, we purchased a Southwest Windpower Air X, one of several small wind turbines on the market, although likely the most popular American-made brand. This device is regulated in high winds, up to 120 mph, by a combination of blade flutter and variable generator resistance. It can aslo be remotely shut down by throwing a "stop switch." None of these protections were built in to our homemade device.

The Air X has some standard bench tests detailed by the manufacturer, and recommended before installation. (It's a big pain to fly a wind turbine on a tall, difficult to raise tower, only to find it doesn't want to work!)

I used the bench test opportunity for a lesson on aerodynamics and electricity for some of our first and second year students. I also got a little help from our senior residents of the Eco-Cottage, who have had the same lessons from time to time with the older home-built turbine.

The remnants of the older turbine were also available for inspection, and from these we were able to determine forensically how it died. The blades and hub, which were purchased as a kit from an wind engineering parts store, showed damage, but this was secondary. The primary cause was the failure of the connection between the hub and the generator. This had loosened, and the mild steel hub had worn itself a bigger hole, also wearing out the connecting nut and slightly damaging the generator shaft, and eventually falling off, damaging the blades.

The usual correction for such a problem would be some kind of keyed or slotted connection between the hub and the generator shaft, and indeed the purpose-built Air X has a kind of locking system like this built into the hub. But the home built turbine used a special permanent magnet rotor fitted to the stator from a car alternator (actually a circa 1969 AC Delco model). Car alternators typically do not use keyed shafts.

So the Achilles heel of our Envirothon model turbine is in these off-the-shelf engineering parts, and some more positive connection between the shaft and hub is required for long life. A spot weld, some epoxy glue, split washers, or a machined slot and Woodruff key, any of these or a combination would likely suffice. None would do much to help the cut-in speed of the turbine though, which we found by direct measurement some years ago to be 15 mph, far too high for our site. This home-built device really only produces significant power above 20 mph, at which point it can make quite a bit. But 20 mph winds only occur around 3 per cent of the time on this particular site, on top of this particular tower.

While the generator itself, which we also tested, was undamaged. It seems that the permanent magnet alternators created by modifying this particular car alternator are quite rugged, and might be used in many helpful developing world applications.

I believe the Harris mini-hydroelectric turbine uses a similar concept.

But not for wind turbines. Not without some kind of expensive reduction gear, and probably much larger blades to overcome the increased resistance that would result. An engineering dead end.

However, using the standard anemometry models, the Power Law and the Weibull distribution, to produce this <3% estimate is also a good lesson. So is the forensic work to determine how the old experimental model failed.

I'd like to have better facilities and bigger, better equipment for these students to work with in this fashion, and am working on a scheme to get access to an industrial scale turbine in the locality. We already have pretty good demonstrators for most renewable technologies, scattered between the Unity Campus and the MOFGA campus, where my colleagues CJ, Verne, and John Mac allow us regular access with students and visitors. We have in total two wind installations, four solar PV, one solar air, and one passive solar house between us, all up and running and working well. The Unity House, at 5KW capacity, with all its design lessons built-in, may be one of the 5 or 10 largest PV installations in the state, and certainly is the best combined technology demonstrator in the state. Not to mention various local sites for household retrofit and weatherization. We can also look at the Beaver Ridge turbines from afar, and learn some very interesting lessons from the planning issues and local concerns they raised.

In the meantime we continue our efforts to grow the program. We're looking for bright, dedicated, engaged students interested in solving environmental problems by working with energy, energy policy, engineering, technology, economics, analysis, and management. Our current group of first years include some of the best students Unity College has ever attracted.

The last picture above is me hamming it up for the camera at the Admissions Open House this last Saturday. I displayed the Air X.

Funnily enough, I always spend more time answering questions from parents than from students.

Not that surprising. Parents read the news. 18 year-olds generally don't.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Community Wind Assessment

Most regular readers will know I run a Community Wind Assessment program, which uses donated equipment and training (thanks to NRG Systems, Coastal Enterprises Inc. and Efficiency Maine for the support and encouragement) and students' time to help find answers to science questions about wind for Maine communities.

The primary service we provide is the loan of anemometer equipment, which we erect and maintain, to measure the wind resource at a given site. We also offer help with wind resource analysis using computer models, and with economic analysis of specific turbine installations.

Generally speaking, I try to include students in this work on a regular basis as a co-curricular activity. Students that sign up during pre-registration for the Wind Assessment seminar next fall will get curricular credit. The seminar will include a lot of site visits and field work.

Currently we are planning anemometry field seasons for sites in southern and midcoast Maine. We are writing a final report for the Mount View High School site, for which we have two years of data. (This was our first site.)

We are also providing preliminary advice and site assessments to two other communities who may proceed to the anemometry stage this year.

If you belong to a Maine community, are an individual or group, a selector or a planning board or local environmental group, you can explore or access this service by contacting me at mwomersley@unity.edu

Allow at least 48 hours for me to get back to you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Times article: Wilderness, nature vs. energy

Photo: my dream home turbine awaits TLC in a North Dakota lot.

Here's an NYT piece with an overview of a major debate taking place all around the country in lots of places where exploration for sites for wind and solar energy farms are controversial with local and regional environmentalists.

This is more or less what we have in Waldo County as the anti-wind power lobby in Jackson and Dixmont gathers steam.

Of course, were we to study the energy needs nationally, and then consider mapping areas based on suitability, with overlays for wildlife and other conservation considerations we might get further faster, but I don't think for a moment that would solve the problem. Ken Salazar, it seems, has proposed just such a process for Interior Department lands.

Good luck with that.

Even when the perfectly rational energy map gave birth to the perfectly rational energy policy, we would have a perfectly irrational scramble as those areas with most money and support got protection, while those with least did not. In Maine, that will likely mean that the debate over wind plants in interior Waldo is nothing compared to the debate that will come when the real opposition gets going, from second-homers down on the coast.

One solution, the one that makes sense to me, is a process whereby localities dip our toes with small scale local projects, however inefficient they may be in comparison with mega-farms, and use the siting work and the eventual turbines themselves to educate ourselves and build awareness of the benefits and downsides of wind. If, at the end of some of that kind of work, the majorities in towns were against wind, then we would at least be experienced in the reasons why.

My guess is, given the chance to vote at a Town Meeting or special Town Meeting that was properly announced, and not at some weird time when the larger number of folks mildly in favor of wind would not be overwhelmed by small numbers of folks dead set against it, the majority of Mainers would vote in favor of properly sited wind turbines right now. But given time and smaller projects, and community owned ones, to get used to the ideas and equipment, we'd be much more educated consumers, less susceptible to misleading propaganda from the national anti-wind blogosphere, or the industrial companies.

Heaven forbid that debate in America NOT be dominated by polarized extremes producing manipulation and misinformation. That would be un-American, wouldn't it?

In the meantime, I have two small turbines to put up, a replacement one at college where there's been a tiny one since students and I made it and put it up several years ago. It's broken, and so we bought a new one that we have to put up. I'd like to take the broken parts of the old one and recycle them into a small turbine for my home back-up power system. However, it looks like I'd better hurry, since if the anti-wind group in Jackson has it's way, I may not be able to put this little turbine up without an elaborate permit process.

In fact the way the proposed Jackson wind ordinance is written seems designed to preclude me doing the sort of experimental/education work I do, where we put up and take down turbines fairly regularly, at home. In particular, I would be required to provide sound data to the codes enforcement officer for all turbines I might wish to put up.

Which means the next time I make a home-built turbine, if I want to put it up in Jackson, not Unity, I may have to spend more hours producing an engineer's acoustical report than I do making the turbine.

All this for a project whose design was used for the Maine Envirothon by several high schools.

(To get a PowerPoint how-to slide show made for the Envirothon, go here: http://www.unity.edu/facultypages/womersley/windturbine.ppt)

Good grief, Charlie Brown.

I guess that privately owned, re-powered Vestas V-15 I was going to get and fix up myself (after I finished all the farm retrofit and insulation, and paid off the credit cards, and bought a new car for Aimee, and did the rest of the honey-do) is out of the question.

Which just makes me sad.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Help for first generation college kids, and others

Many years ago, now, I wrote a argument proposing a fairly elaborate National Service Corps for the US. The essay was published in Philosophy and Public Policy, and then republished in a decadal "best of" anthology from the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. The paper was a response to a previous argument from Bill Galston, an important Democratic party think tank researcher, and Robert K. Fullinwider, an IPPP scholar.

I obviously can't claim that this new program stems from my paper. Several other authors have had the same idea over the years.

But I am glad to see this bill. It will make life much better for students from lower income families who have a good work ethic, but few resources to get through college.

The most important resource is rarely cash.

One thing that volunteering does for you, especially if your parents and grandparents never went to college and don't have much interest in your career or ability to give advice, all of which is often true for first-time college families, is that it exposes you to new situations where you will meet new, more worldly mentors at that crucial time early in your career, people who can help you norm your reasoning about college and about careers to realistic notions. You can get experience, advice, direction, and recommendations.

At age 18 or 19, good advice is better than gold.

Kids from wealthy families take all this help for granted. Kids from first generation college families often have no clue. This is because the parents often have no clue.

My own parents still don't understand what I do for a living, nor are they even really aware that I even have a doctorate. They have no facility to understand, really, what it's all about. They've never been able to give me any helpful or realistic advice. Honestly, I don't think they really care, either. They do care about me, but not about may career. It's just another job to them. I don't blame them for this, neither do I particularly mind. They both failed the UK's former "II-plus exam," a hideous education policy that trash-canned millions of kids at the very early age of eleven and reinforced the terrible UK social class structure. Accordingly they both dropped out of school at age 15, able to read and write and figure a little, but not much else. The consequence for me was, no-one was around to help me figure out how to get on in the world. I had to invent it all for myself. I was never particularly tractable, so this was a messy decade or two for me.

But that means I am extremely concerned about helping my own students who lack these resources.

When I can get them to listen. Students of course, don't always appreciate what you give them!

The money is helpful too.

Published: March 18, 2009
WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday to approve the largest expansion of government-sponsored service programs since President John F. Kennedy first called for the creation of a national community service corps in 1963.

The legislation, which passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 321 to 105, would more than triple the number of service positions by expanding AmeriCorps and creating volunteer programs focused on education, health care, clean energy and veterans. The total number of positions would grow to 250,000 from 75,000 now in AmeriCorps.

The Senate is expected to adopt a nearly identical bill early next week.

The action by the House came three weeks and a day after President Obama in his first speech to a joint session of Congress called for “a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations,” and lawmakers said they were answering his challenge.

The broad expansion of AmeriCorps, at a cost of nearly $6 billion over the next five years, would establish Mr. Obama as the boldest proponent of service programs since Kennedy exhorted Americans to “ask what you can do for your country.”

Mr. Obama, in a statement, praised the House vote. “At this moment of economic crisis, when so many people are in need of help and so much needs to be done, this could not be more urgent,” he said, adding, “It is up to every one of us to do his or her small part to make the world a better place.”

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, said, “This has been a great day.”

Critics, however, expressed concern about the cost of the measure, and some said the money could be better spent, perhaps on raises for members of the military. A single Democrat joined 104 Republicans in opposing the bill; 251 Democrats and 70 Republicans voted for it.

In addition to expanding the number of positions, the bill would raise the education stipend for volunteers to $5,350 — the same amount as a Pell Grant.

The legislation is a top priority of the first lady, Michelle Obama, who has said public service will be a main focus of hers in the White House. She founded the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program, after leaving her law career.

Representative George Miller, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said Mrs. Obama had pulled him aside at a White House dinner to introduce herself and express her keen interest in the bill moving quickly.

At a lunch with Mr. Obama the next day, Mr. Miller recounted the conversation, aides said, prompting a jovial warning from the president. “Speaking from long-term experience,” he said, “it sounds to me like you better get that bill out of committee.”

Kennedy’s service program, which began after his death, was called Vista, Volunteers in Service to America. The House bill is the GIVE Act, for Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education. The Senate legislation has a simpler name: the Serve America Act.

Mr. Obama’s budget provides $1.2 billion for the expansion of programs in the next fiscal year.

The House bill seeks to encourage middle school and high school students to engage in volunteer activities, allowing them to earn a $500 education credit to be used for college costs. It also establishes “youth engagement zones,” a new service-learning program intended to establish partnerships between community organizations and schools in high-poverty neighborhoods.

The bill seeks to establish Sept. 11 as a national day of service though it would not be a formal holiday.

Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland and a major proponent of the legislation, invoked the nation’s long history of service programs, saying, “This is not about programs; this is about value.”

I'm not sure of the animal's rights aspects of this "extreme sheep-herding" video, but now it's done, you should at least check it out. It's amazing what they were able to do.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Important new modeling report from MIT IGSM

Probabilistic Forecast for 21st Century Climate Based on Uncertainties in Emissions (without Policy) and Climate Parameters

by Sokolov, A.P., P.H. Stone, C.E. Forest, R.G. Prinn, M.C. Sarofim, M. Webster, S. Paltsev, C.A. Schlosser, D. Kicklighter, S. Dutkiewicz, J. Reilly, C. Wang, B. Felzer, H.D. Jacoby (January)
Joint Program Report Series, 44 pages, 2009

The MIT Integrated Global System Model is used to make probabilistic projections of climate change from 1861 to 2100. Since the model's first projections were published in 2003 substantial improvements have been made to the model and improved estimates of the probability distributions of uncertain input parameters have become available. The new projections are considerably warmer than the 2003 projections, e.g., the median surface warming in 2091 to 2100 is 5.1°C compared to 2.4°C in the earlier study. Many changes contribute to the stronger warming; among the more important ones are taking into account the cooling in the second half of the 20th century due to volcanic eruptions for input parameter estimation and a more sophisticated method for projecting GDP growth which eliminated many low emission scenarios. However, if recently published data, suggesting stronger 20th century ocean warming, are used to determine the input climate parameters, the median projected warning at the end of the 21st century is only 4.1°C. Nevertheless all our simulations have a very small probability of warming less than 2.4°C, the lower bound of the IPCC AR4 projected likely range for the A1FI scenario, which has forcing very similar to our median projection. The probability distribution for the surface warming produced by our analysis is more symmetric than the distribution assumed by the IPCC due to a different feedback between the climate and the carbon cycle, resulting from a different treatment of the carbon-nitrogen interaction in the terrestrial ecosystem.

Link to full document (1114 kB PDF)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Online resources for green building and green retrofit

Andy Revkin, the NYT's climate change blogger, is asking today for readers to submit online resources for home energy retrofits and green building.

This is what I sent in:

For any readers who are thinking of building new, and who don't believe net-zero carbon is possible in a cold climate, our recent Unity House/Open 2 project, a partnership between Bensonwood timber framing and MIT's Open Prototype initiative, is almost done with it's first winter (in mid-Maine where we still have two feet of snow). This should be a pretty good proof-of-concept for new green building systems in the north.

The idea was to build an relatively affordable modular home that uses passive solar design combined with solar PV and hot water, as well as an innovative two-stage air-to-air heat pump from the Hallowell company of Maine.

The home is now built and in-use, and we'll soon have a full year of power bills, and will be able to see whether it nets out electricity production annually as designed. But I was giving some architects a tour the other day when it was about 15 F and a bitter NE wind. The heat pump wasn't running at all (meaning all the heat was coming from sunshine) and the meter was running backwards at about 4.5KWH. As we gave the tour, the interior temperature warmed two degrees as the sun came higher in the sky, and this was with curtains two-thirds shut on the passive solar windows. We are confident that the home will net out over the course of the year.

This building is now reported all over the Internet. Just google "Unity House," or go to the MIT Open 2 website at http://www.openprototype.com/projects/open2/open2index.html

Under the Open Prototype system, the plans are available online for other builders to use.

Other readers will be interested in retrofits that move towards good energy savings and net-zero carbon footprints. My own experience is that for a more traditional dwelling (a Maine Farmhouse), you can get very good results with a program of retrofits taking advantage of the IRS home energy income tax credits, and using the Lawrence Berkeley Lab's Home Energy Saver (HES) to help work out the priority of finances without having to pay for a professional energy audit.

We got our farmhouse's fossil energy use down about 80% using this system. It's a little complicated to use, but a great free resource. It can even help you decide if you need a serious energy audit -- if you start using it and "time-out" because you don't understand it, then you should get a professional. But if you're average at math, and have had a couple of math classes, or been a tradesman, you can probably do 80-90% of what the professional does for free using this software.

The Home Energy Saver is at http://hes.lbl.gov/

The program allows you to save your data (online) and keep coming back year after year (even if you switch computers), to search for new savings or update with new energy prices. So for instance, when propane was cheaper, it wasn't nearly as high a priority for us to switch out our propane hot water system, or add to it, with a new solar thermal system. The HES showed we were better off putting that money into insulation. Since then our consumption on hot water has gone up since we're home more this winter, while the price of bottled propane went up with oil and stayed up for some unknown reason when oil came down. Now it would be more worth the money to add a modest $2,000-$3,000 evacuated tube system, instead of adding insulation.

When I present results like these the irrationality of climate denialism comes right to the front.

If we can get results like this with only a little additional expense, it isn't reasonable to think we even need to go on using fossil fuels for housing heat and power at all, whether we are worried about climate change or not!

Ace of clubs

Monbiot's "pack of cards" list of climate deniers is a hoot. Read it here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sir Nick lashes out

Nicholas Stern, former UK chief economist and lead author of the Stern Report, gave a keynote at the Copenhagen conference. He lacerated politicians for failure to act on scientists' warnings.

Another fine quote came from The Tyndale Center's Kevin Anderson, who said "...scientists have lost patience with our carefully constructed messages being lost in the political noise. And we are now prepared to stand up and say enough is enough."

It will be up to the politicians attending the December conference now.

I'm not sure I live in the same world as the politicians who are behind the reported difficulties in crafting this year's climate bill, or those working on watering down what is possible for the US to sign up to in December. I certainly have no basis of shared knowledge on which to have any serious inquiring discussion with the folks behind the recent denialist conference in New York, the the hundreds of industry lobyists reportedly trying to water down the climate bill.

We live in different worlds.

I've said it before, and I will say it again: if we really want to find out what several degrees of AAT increase can do to global food security, environmental security, and international security, well, this is the way to go about it. I'm prepared, as prepared as I can be, but I've been a military man, an emergency service worker in military or civilian rescue teams, and a self-reliant homesteader for much of my life. I know I can do my part.

I just don't want to have to, again because of experience. I've been part of the response to the kinds of incidents we will get.

Do these people really believe that this many hundreds of thousands of serious, sober, diligent scientists, with all of the inclination scientists have to avoid politicians and public noteriety, would somehow manage to delude ourselves into some mass "AGW conspiracy." You'd have to be somehow beyond normal reality, in some form of delusion, religious, political, ideological, to believe that. Because the scientists are deadly serious, even terrified, of what is going to happen.

Coming out of the other side of the coming decades of climate destabilization, what will we do with the denialists and the feckless politicians? Will we go easy on them? ExxonMobil is already in court, answering for its support of Heartland and Greening Earth and other denialist shops. Will that kind of litigation peter out? I don't think so, especially if the Inupiat case goes in favor of the village. More to come. Much more.

This from the Guardian report on Copenhagen:

"In the conference centre that will also host the December UN negotiations, experts at this week's meeting presented a string of new studies that suggested global warming could strike harder and sooner than expected.

They said carbon emissions have risen more in recent years than anyone thought possible, and the world's natural carbon stores could be losing the ability to soak up human pollution.

The conference also heard that:

· A 4C rise could turn swaths of southern Europe to desert.

· Sea levels will rise twice as fast as official estimates predict.

· Modest warming could unleash a carbon "time bomb" from Arctic soils.

· A failure to cut emissions could render half of the world uninhabitable.

· Rising temperatures could kill off 85% of the Amazon rainforest.

Several experts at the conference warned that temperatures are likely to soar beyond the 2C target set by European politicians, though they are reluctant to say so publicly. "The 2C target is gone and 3C is difficult. I think we're heading for 4C at least," one said.

Oxford University yesterday announced that it would hold a conference in September to discuss the implications of a rise of 4C or more"

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Soren Hermansen and Maine

I did go to see Soren Hermansen from Samso, Denmark, at the University of Maine yesterday as I said I would.

It's a pity that this tour came during our spring break and the University's, because students could use to hear this guy. But never mind.

He's a funny and positive speaker, and engaged the crowd with anecdotes and witticisms.

The upshot was, this island is one big community wind power scheme. With a community combined heat and power scheme thrown in. They use onshore wind to produce enough electricity for their own consumption, then use offshore turbines to make enough to zero out the carbon they make running transportation. They have district heat systems pumping hot water to a large number of households, using biomass from farm residues, mostly straw of which they have a lot. The wind turbines and power stations are built using a combination of small private local investors, investors from the mainland, banks, and the Danish government. The government contribution seems to be $10 million out of $75 million -- not out of the question here given the current stimulus package and tax breaks. The whole scheme appears quite popular, at least from his reports. I questioned him on this. He mentioned that there are anti-wind activists in Denmark too, but that the community was behind this scheme. He gave advice as to how to put the negative impacts of turbines into perspective.

We could definitely take advantage of all of the same systems and ideas here in Maine.

The main priority would be to get communities working together on these kinds of schemes. This is why the current community wind schemes we are involved with here at Unity College, the Peaks Island and Mount View High School schemes are so important, as well as the Fox Islands Electrical Cooperative's wind power scheme, and the Cranberry Islands Sustainability group we met with last year. These nascent programs are paving the way towards community-based energy in the state of Maine, proving it can be done.

In the most recent case, the Towns of Dixmont and Jackson where anti-wind activists are winding up to oppose a commercial installation, were we instead to use the Samso model, Unity College could measure the wind for the Town of Jackson using our equipment and provide them with a report detailing the production capabilities of a grid-scale turbine installation on the land that the Town owns but that the commercial firm wants to lease for turbines. This report is then used for planning and finance finance. The Town could put up the turbine, either as part of the proposed commercial scheme, or independently. The Town could then harvest the power and profits, and put it all to good use.

District heat from combined heat and power plants using wood biomass would not work well in widely scattered communities like Dixmont or Jackson, but it would work well in towns like Unity or Brooks.

Some of our anti-wind activists would have to change their minds first, though, or what is more likely, lose some votes in town meetings, before this kind of vision might come about. I don't think Mainers are generally against wind power, so I don't think anti-wind can ultimately prevail politically, although they can win a battle here and there. When they lose the war, I'd hate to see the playing field ceded entirely to commercial firms by default, though, too, wind turbines plastered everywhere, and Waldo County become an energy colony for the rest of New England.

Community-ownership is the reasonable middle ground in all of this.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Yale starts center for climate change and energy studies


We were there first, with our Center for Global Change and Sustainability!

Actually, I imagine all serious universities will soon see the connection between these two formerly disparate areas of study and link departments.

Energy and energy policy used to be the province of engineering departments and policy schools. While climate change was in geosciences.

What's missing?

Only ecological economics.

As it stands, most of these departments will come into the world with either conventional economics, a dead duck, or with environmental economics, which can't cope with a global ecological issue because it can only deal with one pollutant at a time: "getting the price right." Only ecological economics has an theory and explanation of what to do when a systemic problem threatens the entire planet. Our global change problems will continue to compound until we find a way to scale down human impacts, and population, across the board.

The Yalies are smart enough. (Some of my mentors actually went there.) I expect they will eventually find a decent ecological economist for this new department soon enough. And they'll probably give him a conventional economist and a Stern-ian environmental economist to argue with.

Who said ideas and theory were not important?

Increase in predicted increase of sea level

Bad news for Belfast. At the Copenhagen conference, scientists have upped the projections for sea level rise.

Actually, the most affected regions in Maine will be coastal wetlands. For the first meter or so, many towns will be able to build protective bulwarks, and adapt to occasional storm surge floods.

In general, the news report says, scientists think most of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report details, like the sea level rise predictions, are up for revision already. The reasons are mostly to do with new data, such as the recently detected warming in east Antarctica, or the increased summer melt in the west of the continent.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

University venue for Samso energy educator

Image from Centre for Alternative Technology, Wales: Community-owned wind turbine

I've been following the Danish progress with wind power, biomass, energy efficiency and generally reducing climate emissions with some interest now for several years. The island of Samso is particularly interesting since it now produces more energy than it uses.

Imagine -- a net-metered island!

I expect to go to this talk tomorrow (below). I wonder if any of the growing number of anti-wind power activists in Maine will show up. I noticed on my drive today that a local farm, where I know some locals involved in the opposition to the proposed wind farm in Jackson/Dixmont live. has put up a new sign, "Against the Wind Farm." Symbolic, but a real sign of the growing upset.

I don't expect tomorrow's speaker, Mr Hermansen, would understand where all the upset was coming from, and why it was coming from environmentalists. It would be one of those cultural disconnects.

I can't help but ask, why do the Danes accept wind power so much more easily than some Mainers? This is a pretty good social science question. I wouldn't mind doing a study. I've done social science studies on similar issues before.


The most determined opposition comes from those who are most affected -- who live closest to turbines and hear noise or get shadow flicker.

Other, somewhat different opposition comes from folks who may live further away but don't like the way turbines look.

Some opposition comes from folks who interpret wind power companies as "industrial wind." Is this a variant of anti-capitalist sentiment? Possibly mixed up with localist environmentalism?

Some opposition comes from conservatives who don't think much of renewable energy or climate policy.

Finally, I think ordinary Danes, like most Europeans, have a better grasp on climate change, and support measures to reduce emissions. Most Americans don't. Although most Americans don't know very much about why scientists are so worried, either.

I'm not trying to slander these folks. It seems to me they have a right to oppose the turbines. I am trying to understand.

One answer would be some level of community involvement, or community ownership. Another would be to reduce the scale and scope of wind farms and to increase the setbacks. The ultimate answer is offshore development. It seems to me, for instance, that the Jackson/Dixmont project, with up to thirty turbines, is too big. A smaller number of turbines, set as far as possible away from houses, would be better. If the town or towns were to put up one or a couple of turbines on the land they own, that would be better too.

(Source: Bangor Daily News)
trackingORONO - Soren Hermansen, who was named a Time magazine Hero of the Environment last year for his efforts to gain energy independence for the island of Samso in Denmark, will speak at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, at the University of Maine.

Hermansen's talk, one of six he will make in Maine, will be held at the Wells Conference Center. The talk is free and open to the public.

Hermansen, a native of Samso, directs the Samso Energy Academy, which serves as a site for alternative energy research and trials, and functions as a conference center for meetings about renewable energy, energy savings and new technologies.

He will share what has been learned at Samso and what it could mean for other communities and explain how Denmark has achieved energy independence through the development of wind and solar power and biofuels.

The talk is sponsored by UMaine's Advanced Engineered Wood Composite Center and the Maine Sea Grant College Program. Hermansen also was scheduled to speak at Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges, College of the Atlantic, and will deliver the keynote address March 12 at a daylong forum at the University of Maine at Augusta.

(c) 2009 Bangor Daily News. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Veranda Solar: new company breaks PV mold

Company photo from Veranda Solar webpage.

I had often wondered who would be the outfit to repackage solar photovoltaic systems away from the "expert installation" model.

This new start-up outfit from California
, consisting of a couple of Stanford students and their hires, has figured out how. Their panels, designed with aesthetics in mind, will ship for about $600 with inverter, which can then be plugged into an outlet to deliver the power to the grid. They hope to sell through Home Depot.

A nice marketing idea. Not necessarily the most efficient use of semiconductor material, though. The Nanosolar model, of minimizing the inputs with print-film technology, and selling only to grid scale power stations, properly sited, with distributed power benefits factored in at some locations, is far better.

Not that this will deter the customers, though. These guys stand to make a packet if they can bring their product to market in the box stores, especially if they can get UL-laboratory rating or similar.

They must have a pretty spiffy inverter, able to match the phase through a wall-socket connection. That seems to be the big innovation here, not the fancy shaped panels.
I mentioned before that I often disagree with Britain's climate columnist, George Monbiot, because I find him often overstated and alarmist.

But he's also often right.

This is his latest, in reference to my previous post:

"So here's what we gain from the biofuels trade:

1. Global environmental destruction
2. Higher greenhouse gas emissions
3. Mass starvation
4. The loss of hundreds of millions of dollars
5. The prospect of a new trade war.

Is there anyone out there who still thinks they are a good idea?"

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A rose by any other name

The administration is pondering raising the ethanol targets. This is possibly regrettable and retrograde, in terms of climate and Keynesian effects. It depends on how aggressive they are at encouraging ethanol production from cellulosic inputs, rather than from corn and other plant sugars.

If they do not aggressively drive the use of cellulose, there will likely be an increase in food costs in this and in developing countries, as farm prices rise again.

That is likely a retrograde measure, as far as a demand side stimulus is concerned.

So, as there is arguably little climate benefit, and probably a climate negative from ethanol without cellulosic inputs, this is a kind of hidden protectionism and/or price guarantee for the midwest farmers and distillers.

I'm not opposed to protectionism. In fact, if we had a serious manufacturing base left, I'd be in favor of it. But Margeret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, followed by all their predecessors bar none, including Clinton and Blair, followed the policy of allowing manufacturing to migrate overseas, while concentrating on financial services. Even Gordon Brown cannot grasp the nettle of reversing this policy, which is why he came over recently to plead with the Obamites and Congress for continued free trade.

Now we reap that Thatcherite wind, as the vaunted financial service industry becomes, charitably, a total shambles. While ethanol is arguable at best as demand side measure.

When one of very few candidates for a Keynesian stimulus is an industry that will use food to make fuel at a net climate and financial loss, driving farm prices up, forcing poor folk elsewhere to go hungry and at the margin starve, we have a problem, Houston.

Is ethanol the best we can do in the short term? I don't think so. How about wind turbines? Nano-solar panels? Heat pumps? Transmission lines? Insulation?

Even humble insulation would do more good, with less side effects, than ethanol as it is currently construed.

I hated Margeret Thatcher's policies, and opposed them with every shred of conscience I had, to the point where I refused to work for her government any longer and made them fire me.

Was I right? I'm a much more circumspect being these days, not so prone to outbursts of activism and to giving out ultimata, but I believe I was correct to oppose what she did.

The thing about having factories of your own and making things is, it makes Keynesian policies easier to implement. You can find ways to stimulate aggregate demand by providing income to individuals and to firms and government agencies fulfilling "shovel ready" contracts and initiating public works projects. People are hired, and they get paid. The people with the paychecks then have to buy stuff to live. Other people are hired to make stuff for them to buy. The economy gets jump-started. Eventually even owners of capital benefit because they have firms in which to invest that make stuff that people buy.

(Supply-siders would just give the money to the owners of capital. Or tax them less, which is the same thing. Increasingly owners of capital are folk like you and me, with 403 and 401 K's. But we small investors wouldn't get the money. That would be a waste. It wouldn't do any good to give me a Keynesian stimulus since I would just use it to pay down debt or to save. Instead, supply-siders are forced to give money to firms and households that are likely to loan it out at interest as industrial capital, part of the money supply, which would hopefully then go into increasing production efforts. This means that for the most part they have to give money to firms and people that don't really need it.)

It's been said that it doesn't matter so very much what people make or buy in a demand-side policy, as long as they make or buy something that requires employment.

But it does matter if there is little or no multiplier, or if the first round of the multiplying circle takes right off to China, who gets to make the stuff that we buy, particularly if they can, as is likely, do this with little or no help from our financial services sector. That money needs instead to circulate in our economy for as long as it can.

The Obamites seem to know this. I know Larry Summers knows this. And so they choose to encourage ethanol.

But ethanol will mean higher prices for food here and elsewhere, and is unlikely to help much in climate until the inputs become cellulosic.

We can do better than this.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Unicycle basketball

Nothing much to do with sustainability. But funny. What will students think of next?

England, Holland, and Iran?

What do the US, England, Holland, and Iran all have in common?

Apart from the fact that I have family in the first three, they are places where there are people who have visited this site in the last hour! I just discovered that BraveNet, the site stats service for this blog, has a geographic counter device.

Interesting. The way that the Internet, even after nearly 20 years, continues to change our lives, and minds, never fails to amaze. Why do people from these other countries want to read about the sustainability activities at a tiny environmental college in Maine?

I guess the visitor from southern England might be from a farm blog I read each day, but it could be an entirely new visitor. It might be cousin Steve or his wife from Holland, but not necessarily. And Iran. I don't know anyone in Iran.

Possibly an ayatollah is considering going green? I have to say, I think you should go democratic first. My advice to Iran. You're welcome.

Hopefully everyone who visited found something interesting to read. It makes me want to sit down and write something fun. But today is the last day of class before spring break, and I am tried and need to recharge. I don't plan to do anything very strenuous, either academically or otherwise.

But, undoubtedly, I will get back to it. The students will be gone for a while, but we have interesting things going on. The architects are coming today to show us preliminary ideas for a new building, supposedly a net-zero carbon-footprint academic building. We have lambs on the way at the Womerlippi farm. And the UC student blogs are all talking about spring.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Interview with a graduate researcher

Lots of professional people all around the country are interested in Unity College's sustainability curriculum, the required third year Environmental Sustainability class, and the Sustainability Design and Technology degree program. This has led to our participation in several national curriculum studies, and invitations to present at various conferences and meetings, particularly for our President, Mitch T. but also for some of us faculty.

This interview from a Canadian graduate researcher was just the latest. Enjoy:

Attempting to provide a base environmental education in the undergraduate
level can have its difficulties and be very complex.

Q: When did Unity begin to emphasise environmental education?

A; Probably around 1972 or 1973. The college was founded as a primarily local enterprise (although from the outset it attracted students from the cities), and had few facilities, so it concentrated on what it could do for the local economy, using local expertise, and spending much time outside to make up for the lack of facilities, which led to an emphasis on the rural environment. Eventually the college became more of a regional centre for conservation and conservation management, and this led to early consideration of some sustainability efforts, for instance, an early ESCO study in the late 1970s, and our acquisition of the Jimmy Carter solar panels in 1993.

Q: Where does the impetus for environmental educational endeavour originate? (bottom- up, top-down, by faculty, administration or students?)

A: The most recent wave of environmental thinking at Unity College was led, or at least inspired in large part, by students who wanted the college to "walk it's talk." The college had lots of programming that emphasized the environment, but inefficient, poorly designed buildings, and conventional packaged food service food from far away, when certain types of local food are cheap and abundant. A certain small set of the (academically better) students complained, even holding a few minor rallies and "direct actions," as, for instance, when a short -sighted administrative decision to have Sodexho Marriot take over the food services was in the offing. I call this event in the college's history, with tongue in cheek, "the Sodexho Riot." Really it was a small rally of about 120 students on the lawn. But 120 students is a lot of students at Unity and the administration soon recanted.

A movement among liberal arts faculty to emphasize sustainability in teaching was parallel in chronology, but had a very different trajectory. It was reinforced morally and politically by the movements among students. It led to the institution of a required course in "human ecology" in 2000, and to my hiring in 2000 as the first professor of human ecology.

Q: What were the main challenges to providing such education? (Financial costs. Faculty or administrative resistance. Student involvement.)

A: The main challenge was and remains the proportionally large number of students in two overlapping groups: 1) those students not politically interested in sustainability, climate change and related issues, or opposed to them, primarily because they are from conservative rural backgrounds and on a career trajectory in uniformed conservation service or some other professional degree field that they feel unrelated to climate change (despite strenuous efforts to teach them connections between conservation and climate change), and 2) those students who just cannot or will not do the work to understand the scientific and mathematical complications of climate change and mitigation.

Both groups have been decreasing in size and impact as the college transforms itself from a regional environmental college to a prominent national one.

Cost, particularly of better, greener facilities, remains the great bottleneck. Not so much for classes. We made a large commitment to teaching sustainability long ago, and have only reinforced it with recent hires and curriculum changes.

Q: What would you describe as being the key components to implementing the programs and making it effective?

A: Persistence and attitude! Not taking no for an answer! Specifically, the willingness of the key instructors to confront, in a direct but relatively friendly way, both the conservative attitudes and the general sloth referred above, with solid, relatively conventional but persistent, traditional, science teaching methods to bring students up to a decent standard of environmental knowledge.

This paid off in a nice way recently when students attending the Clinton Global Initiative conference in Austin TX suddenly realized that they were the best trained, most knowledgeable students there, including several graduate students. They generally hate having to learn so much fact and detail, but in the way of much hard-won knowledge, were surprised to discover it was in fact important and useful. Go figure.

Q: How has the emphasis on environmental education, in your opinion, changed
academic structure or curriculum (Interdepartmental coordination, experiential learning or higher emphasis of environmental material in lectures or class syllabus)

A: We are moving towards more coordination, with the recent creation of a new department, the Center for Global Change and Sustainability, with several expert faculty and staff support. The curriculum was changed considerably and formally. It now has required courses. These are consistently and frequently taught. We also now have degree programs in these areas, and a growing stable of specialized courses. These changes can be detected by reading the catalogs over time.

We always emphasized experiential learning. Unfortunately, with the high class size (25) in the required courses, and a M-W-F, 50 minute or T-Th, 1 hour, 15 minute schedule, it's hard to do too many field trips. A attempt to add a laboratory was shelved for lack of space and time. We may take this back up soon.

Our material has been primarily environmental since the mid 1970s. This is a mostly a change in emphasis, reflecting the increasing importance of global change.

Q: What has been student response to the compulsory environmental courses? Is there any indication of increasing eco-literacy or student initiated sustainability projects or discussions?

A: Many students still complain. Funnily enough, even the students who by their actions outside of class (attending rallies, protesting) show they are interested in climate change, may still complain when they have to learn it formally and in detail. But, as mentioned above, we must be doing something right because our students know more than others encountered at national events.

As to independent indications or verification, the answer is yes, of course. We are professionals. We use requirements, primarily examination requirements, and outcomes assessment. Very straightforward and verifiable. No student is permitted to graduate Unity College without demonstrating a competency in climate change, energy, energy efficiency, and general concepts of sustainability. If they fail the third year required course course they must retake it and pass it. Students demonstrate on examination that they meet the requirements for the course, which include an overall eco-literacy style goal of understanding general sustainability questions. The examinations and other products are later used in assessment to determine whether or not the course was successful in meeting its goals and attaining outcomes. We have not yet subjected this assessment to verification and oversight by a larger group of faculty, but with the new center, I hope to do this soon as part of a curriculum revision.

Outcomes assessment is a conventional best practice encouraged by our accreditation body, and the US federal government, through the Spelling Commission report. Not all colleges do it (although many say they do), but we do a routine semester-by-semester assessment in this course.

Monday, March 2, 2009

NYT climate talks article

The New York Times is carrying a significant lead article on the upcoming talks in December.

There are numerous secondary articles.


Andy Revkin's Blog with links to others.