Friday, June 26, 2009

LD 1075 becomes state law: Pilot feed-in tariff, other helpful measures

We were invited to the Governor's office at the State House for a bill-signing ceremony. Here is Maine Governor Baldacci signing our new pilot feed-in tariff program into law. This program, if successful, will make a big difference.

In the room were representatives of three community wind projects that we had helped, and during the speechifying several others were mentioned. Our little program is starting to make a difference.

In other news, I was asked to make up materials to guide Maine Rural Partners outreach people through the basic steps in counseling prospective farm-based wind turbine owners. It's just as easy to write in Google Blogger as Microsoft Word, and your material is immediately available for others to read, so I started composing what is in effect a basic manual for community wind planning in a new blog. You can access it here:

This bill includes a number of provisions designed to encourage the development of community-based energy facilities and to achieve a goal of having 5% of electricity consumed by retail customers produced by community-based energy facilities by 2017.

1. It requires the State to give preference to community-based energy facilities in purchasing electricity for state-owned buildings and facilities.
2. It increases the value of renewable energy credits for electricity generated by community-based energy facilities to 150% of the amount of the electricity.
3. It requires standard-offer service providers to purchase a minimum amount of electricity from community-based energy facilities.
4. It requires the Executive Department, State Planning Office to develop a model legal
organizational structure for community-based energy facilities.
5. It requires the Public Utilities Commission and the Executive Department, Governor's Office of Energy Independence and Security to develop and administer a system to track the development of community-based energy facilities.
6. It requires those state agencies that have energy-related responsibilities to develop a plan to consolidate and integrate state-level energy policy and program functions and responsibilities within a single state entity.
7. It authorizes funding from the Energy and Carbon Savings Trust Fund to be used for the development of community-based energy facilities.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mining the mountains of spin

Andy Revkin published a blog piece about Jim Hansen's latest escapade. he asked for comments on whether or not getting arrested at a protest was "professional" for a scientist. Mine is below, but click on the link and read the article first.

Hansen of NASA Arrested in Coal Country

James Hansen of NASA gets arrested in effort to stop coal mining.

Hansen is making clear the level of his commitment, and I for one appreciate the clarity. And he's right. Mountaintop removal mining is an impressive dead end.

Clarity is often elusive in a world dominated by media types (on both sides) and postmodern "spokespersons" trained to believe they can spin any event to their advantage and that it doesn't really matter what people are made to believe because there's no such thing as a fact. I expect that Hansen's message will quickly and easily become garbled for some "consumers" of what passes for news in today's world.

Let's make it perfectly clear, at least in this one media outlet, because the scientific logic of Hansen's stand is impeccable.

Jim (with colleagues, post-docs, students) in 2008 published a paper in which he calculated with some precision ( that the remaining carbon dioxide equivalent climate agent in the 1,200 or so billion barrels of economically extractable oil, and a few hundred billion barrels of other kinds of economically extractable petroleum products, is possibly insufficient, by itself, absent coal-burning, to keep adding enough CO2e to the atmosphere to exceed the 350 ppm atmospheric threshold he feels we should not exceed for very much longer.

It helps that the likelihood that we can increase our rate of burning oil, or the final amount we burn by a big number is low, simply because we're running out of the stuff and it's becoming harder and harder to extract. The price is increasing in the long run (fluctuating wildly in the short) and simple supply-demand theory says this will have a strict conservation effect. Everyone will then have to insulate their existing homes, buy better cars, use renewable energy, etc, etc, whether they are Republican or Democrat, green or bright pink, all because of one thing, the oil price.

Even Limbaugh will want a hybrid. A really really big one, for his corrupt, rotten-to-the-core corpulence.

So, logically, if you're as terrified about the potential destabilization of climate change as you should be, as Jim is, all we have to do is stop burning coal. That's the Hansonian climate to-do list. One big item. There are a few items in the small print, such as managing the methane from farms, or calculating the CO2e value of forests natural or planted.

Oil will take care of itself.

From the point of view of the average Joe or Jill that hasn't read Hansen et al, 2008, Jim's latest stand does all seem a bit confusing, and possibly ungrateful.

After all, we're getting what we wanted, right? A President who cares? A climate bill? A real energy policy? A green makeover for Detroit? Didn't the greens win?

Didn't they?

Arguably, Hansen is a better scientist for following the evidence where it leads, Hatch Act and other supposed professional and behavioral niceties notwithstanding, even when it may seem so contrary and tendentious. I don't agree with him completely on the solution (since we need coal for steel and we need steel for wind turbines and hybrids, we need to learn how to properly sequester the carbon from coal), but I appreciate his strength of character and damn the torpedoes commitment.

One of these days we postmoderns will spin ourselves into such a tizzy with our refusal to face facts that we'll get in a real pickle, with climate, oil, China, Iran (all related, by the way), and when we do, we'll need some women and men of real character. Hansen's on my A-list.

As the general said, when the going gets tough they send for the sonsabitches.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Vehicular voltages

Interesting article:

Denmark to power electric cars by wind in vehicle-to-grid experiment

The project will use electric car batteries to store excess energy and feed electricity back into the grid when the weather is calm

And here's a Guardian gallery of electric vehicles now available in the EU.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Back to the future: Gnawing on a rock, part 2

Flashback to June 20th, 1979.

Then-President Jimmy Carter held the first and only press conference on the White House roof to dedicate an array of solar hot water panels. The array was intended as a good example to the American people of renewable energy design and leadership. At that time, flat plate solar thermal collectors were state-of-the-art. Today they pale in comparison to the efficiency of evacuated tube systems, but are still a very accessible technology -- the easiest type of solar panel for kids to make for science fairs, or for you to make in your own back yard.

They were however, a short-lasting example. Taken down during the Reagan era, possibly for political reasons, possibly just to fix a roof, they were not replaced until 2003 when the National Park Service put up both solar PV and solar thermal arrays on a White House building.

Tomorrow (June 20th) is the 3oth anniversary of the dedication of the original panels. Who knew? My friend and videographer Roman Keller, who with Christina Hamauer made a beautiful and very poignant movie about the Jimmy Carter energy legacy that you can read about here here, just called to tell me this.

At the time the "Jimmy Carter Solar Panels" were a great example, and many people loved the gesture Carter made towards a more sensible energy policy. Ask any American that is politically green-ish and also over 50 years old about the Jimmy Carter solar panels, and you'll likely hear some fond memories and not a little remaining pique about the unproven myth that "Ronald Reagan took them down."

(You also read endless editorials to Obama about how he should put them back up. The lazy authors, of course, haven't done their research and so don't know that there is that very good 2003 demonstration solar array already on the White House, placed there, ironically, during the George Bush administration. As an applied scientist who loves facts I find this very frustrating, and another example of what I see as the failure of professional standards among journalists. Although I don't know, and would like to know, if Bush had any part in the decision to replace them.)

Unity College inherited the system from the GSA surplus program in 1993 and installed them on our cafeteria roof. They ran well for a few years until the heat exchanger rotted out. They remain disused on the roof for now, but we kept a few in storage and have been fixing them up a little and giving them out to museums and renewable energy displays in dribs and drabs as opportunity allows.

This is ironic because Jimmy Carter clearly said in his dedication speech that one day the panels would either be a "museum piece" or part of a new energy future. Hear that part of the speech in this clip from Roman and Christina's movie below:

President Carter, of all living past presidents, is perhaps most likely to admit to his mistakes. This one is admittedly small. In the case of these panels, they became both a museum piece and a pointer to our energy future.

Jimmy Carter also once said that trying to get Americans to kick the oil habit was like "gnawing on a rock." I tend to agree. I should know. I've been working on it for long enough.

But things are moving.

Right now I'm still stiff and sore from Wednesday's big day placing the wind turbine test tower on the roof of that old USAF building at Charleston. The number of requests we've been getting for similar wind studies, as communities and state agencies speed up their implementation of renewable energy deployment in response to the stimulus package and other new incentives from the Obama administration, is just phenomenal. I'm busier than the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger with all these requests.

Today, luckily, it's raining, and a rest day, so I plan to stay home and putter and nap and catch up on my thoughts.

And so it happened that when Roman called from Zurich to tell me about the anniversary, I was pleased, and it made me thoughtful. He wanted to know if the US was finally moving on renewables.

I was able to say yes.

And that, my friends, is the real Jimmy Carter legacy, because an awful lot of us in this renewable energy industry owe our inspiration, ideas, and much of our technology to the Carter era energy programs, especially those at the Department of Energy, whose data and ideas I use almost daily.

All Obama has done so far is fully fund the energy programs that Carter began and Reagan cut.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

National security operations

Yesterday was a very busy day, and the culmination of several weeks of careful preparation, as students/college employees Dale Pitre and Cody Floyd and I trucked out to Maine's Charleston Correctional Center to erect an anemometer tower.

(Actually, Cody Floyd is currently a Colby College employee, an intern in the nascent Mid-Maine Sustainability Coalition. But he's a Unity College student, in our famous Sustainability Design and Technology program.)

The MCC is a combination of two facilities, a fairly high security juvenile facility, and a medium security adult lock-up, very separate from one another for obvious reasons. But it's on the site of a former USAF station.

Our mission was to take an abandoned radar building and give it a temporary new lease of life as ad-hoc anemometer tower.

I find it ironic but helpful to realize that as a former cold war military airplane technician, I am now recycling my skills in this new national security-related field of renewable energy, while old bases like this one can also serve new purposes.

Context is always helpful.

The old building looked to me like part of the DEW line from the fifties/height of cold war era. There's what must have been an almost identical, but still operational, USAF facility with which I'm quite familiar, at RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire, back in the territory of my old RAF Leeming Mountain Rescue Team.

Check out the Fylindales wikipedia page for a view of the kind of DEW line radomes (scroll down to see the shot) which must have sat on this building at one time.

This Maine site was no doubt superb for radar, and is likely to prove superb for anemometry, and our data will aid considerably in public knowledge of Maine winds. The view from the top of the building yesterday was easily fifty miles in all directions. You could clearly see the Bigelow Mountains to the southwest and Kahtahdin to the northeast.

The NREL 50 meter AGL high resolution Maine wind mapping data shows this to be a Class 2 wind site, with a 50 meter mean wind speed (MWS) of 5.6 to 6.4 meters per second, which I find fairly unlikely, to say the least.

If not absolutely ridiculous.

But everyone in the wind business knows that the NREL data is only recommended for preliminary wind power planning. The NREL average annual wind speeds are extrapolated from local weather station data based on standard wind industry equations. They're only as good as the original weather station input, much of which is from municipal airfields. The airfields and other weather stations used are much lower in altitude than the wind sites we need to explore here in Maine.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Eventually the very few anemometrists that work in the public domain here in Maine will have enough data to piece together a more accurate wind map for the state. It will take many years, because as far as I've been able to find out there are only three of us doing this work in the public interest. In the meantime, data from key sites like this one will be crucial to dozens of local community-scale, and hundreds of household scale, wind projects.

If we can find out what the winds are at 277 meters ASL and 26 meters AGL on this site, we can better estimate what they are on similar hilltops within 30-40 miles.

My guess is that this is a lower-bound Class 4 wind power site, with an 50 meter MWS of 7 to 7.5 meters per second.

But we're going to find out for sure.

It doesn't help that the five or six major private companies prospecting for wind power sites in Maine keep their data a commercial secret. They do this because wind power anemometry is expensive, and because they compete with one another, but the best public interest would be for any wind data data to be available to anyone if they wanted to use it.

Especially the government and people of the great State of Maine. Whose wind is it anyway?

Our task was made difficult by the abandoned nature of the host building. We slushed all our tools and equipment through an inch or two of nasty wet pigeon poop, up about ten flights of debris-strewn iron staircase, with the piece de resistance a ten foot steel ladder. There was of course no power except what batteries and generator we could bring to the site. And we had to rig an improvised hoist to get the heaviest pieces up to the top of the roof, using the big truck for motive power.

"Survivor" challenge games, only with proper tools and safety glasses.

Once up there, we had to assemble the tower, which we had custom-made for the site over the last few weeks, improvise a means of fixing it firmly to the building, ensure electrical conductivity for lightning strike, and program the computer.

Nothing went right, and we had to use a lot of Plan B's and C's. If intrepid Dale had not figured out how to fish the main bolts through the gantry decking with the ground wire, and if another of us hadn't had the idea to re-purpose some socket heads as spacers for too-long shouldered bolts, we'd still be up there now.

But all's well that ends well. A great day's work by a great crew, and a massive team effort in the background.

Lots of people have a little piece of this project:

Thanks are due to Cody Floyd and Dale Pitre, renaissance men and improvisers of note, and to their respective bosses for letting them go off for the day, to Roger Duval, Tom and Rick and the UC Maintenance and Custodial crews for suffering my invasion of their workspaces and tool racks, to Carol Palmer of UC Academic Affairs, for processing grant money and invoices, to VPAA Amy Knisley for tolerating my misuse of Carol's time, to Ervin and Joas Hochstettler, Unity Amish wind engineers par excellence, for fabricating the main part of the tower which I should think will last for a few decades if not centuries, to Efficiency Maine and KD Roux for the initial site visit and work-up, to the Google Earth Pro educational program and the Quantum GIS team for free wind mapping software, to NREL's Tony Jimenez for the initial data and assistance with data processing protocols and validation, to NRG Systems for free anemetry equipment, and last but not least to David Lovejoy and George of the MCC for letting us use their great site.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Maine wind ordinance recommendations

Keywords and phrases: Model wind ordinance, wind turbine ordinance, wind power regulation in Maine.

There has been quite a bit of confusion about what I recommend for wind turbine ordinances for Towns in Maine that are considering such legislation, so I wanted to post a summary online where they could be found easily with a Google search.

Some of these recommendations were sent to the State Planning Office but arrived too late to be considered in the draft of the model ordinance. They are, however, supported by both the science, by legal precedent, and by the experience we have seen so far in Maine with wind power developers.

I have been thinking about them since the draft of the model ordinance came out, and have added some elaborations.

For the record, I advocate that Towns considering wind turbine planning ordinances have a moderate setback, variable for different turbine size categories, with a severe and absolute noise performance standard for all turbines. Elaborations include required anemometry data submission with some categories of turbine and farm proposal, and possible wind power development zoning.

So the main regulatory requirements would be 1) moderate and variable (by category of turbine size) setback, combined with 2) severe and absolute noise performance standard. You have to include both for this to work well.

I think noise performance standards should be in the region of no more than 40 decibels (dBA) from a wind power plant day or night, measurable at any residence in place and occupied at the time the permit was issued, (not the property boundary, not unoccupied buildings such as barns or industrial sites or abandoned houses, not a newly erected building put up deliberately to deter turbine planning).

This is much, much lower than the 45 decibel standard implicit in the State of Maine's Site Location of Development Law, as the decibel scale is a logarithmic scale. Towns might consider 40-43 dBA, but 40 would be best, in my opinion. The 45 dBA standard is far too much noise. The 45 decibel standard in the Site Location law was not meant for the kind of grating noise that turbines, especially these GE 1.5s, make day and night.

We should be clear about this. It is the noise that is the greatest dis-amenity created by turbines.

Setbacks for the larger machines should be at least 1,500 feet, preferably 2,000, but much less for smaller machines. The GE 1.5 turbines are quite audible downwind on a moderately windy day at 1,000 feet, while for a Bergey or Skystream, you probably can't even see it at 1,000 feet, let alone hear it.

Setbacks could be included from roads, or certain classes of roads too, such as State roads, if Towns wish to avoid ice throw hazard on roads. Ordinances should state clearly that setbacks are for ice throw, shadow flicker, and other hazards, as well as noise. The nuisance has to be clearly defined, and setbacks are not just for noise. Actually, setbacks are not very good for controlling noise at all.

But they should not be one mile or anything ridiculous like that, unless Towns specifically wish to prohibit turbines, in which case they should just prohibit turbines and be done with it.

If Towns want to prohibit turbines they should just do so and save themselves litigation down the road. A determined developer could sue on the basis of the noise or setback regulation if the effect is to remove the developer's ability to develop the site for no good reason. The legal history of planning in the US is rife with such examples, but the case of precedent remains Lucas vs. South Carolina Coastal Commission, which states that government must show a reasoned attempt to avoid a public nuisance if it wishes to take away a developer's property rights. In the words of the Cornell Law School's summary of the case, the government "must identify background principles of nuisance and property law that prohibit the uses" intended. A suit would thus turn on the question of whether a public nuisance were created, which would turn on the scientific evidence of noise, ice thrown, shadow flicker, or catastrophic failure, using expert witnesses. If Towns try to control development for noise or safety reasons, they therefore have to have reasonable standards.

It is also reasonable that Towns could vote to prohibit turbines overall, having determined that they are inherently a public nuisance, detrimental to historical or landscape values, and their development was outside of the normal bundles of property rights. Although this would seem to take away a developers rights and so provoke a Lucas case, in Maine, where townsfolk vote on planning ordinances, the clarity of such a vote in identifying public values and what would locally be considered a nuisance would carry great weight. No developer would wish to develop a site where the townsfolk had clearly voted to prohibit turbines.

But to prohibit turbines through the back door using unreasonable setback or performance standards is definitely leaving the road open for a Lucas suit. In particular, since the State's own model ordinance has a much lower setback, that creates a red flag. If I were a developer who was particularly mad about a town's regulatory efforts, I might drum up some financial support from my buddies in wind power development, and sue on the basis that the science showed that the regulations were too severe considering the intent, just to prove a point and discourage other similar ordinances.

I recommend that violations of noise performance standards should be punished with severe consequences, such as shutting the site down. These should be clearly stated in the ordinance.

I also recommend that Towns require companies to provide the wind data from their anemometry studies as part of the permit, so that claims for noise impacts can be matched against the wind direction and wind speed data before the turbines go up. The wind that is strong enough to turn the turbine probably comes out of a different quarter than the so-called "prevailing wind." This is counter-intuitive, so you need the data. The results are however predictable and plan-able if you have the wind speed and direction data, the topographic data, and the noise characteristic data of the proposed turbine or turbines.

Ordinances should allow an "out" for when a developer compensates a homeowner, by mutual agreement, for the noise and other dis-amenity that they create at a residence site.

The overall effect of these regulations, should towns include them in ordinances, would be to encourage wind power developers to undertake much better planning and noise analysis, and to have upfront negotiations with noise amenity "losers," who will have to be compensated. Companies that do not plan out their noise carefully will suffer financially if they go ahead and erect turbines that create a dis-amenity. Companies will also be encouraged to use the quietest possible turbines (which the GE machines are not -- although they are cost-effective).

And Towns will know, from the anemometry studies, how much money the companies are making, more or less. My data suggest that companies that use the GE 1.5s gross around $200,000-500,000 per turbine depending on the wind power class of the site, before taxes. I think the Townsfolk deserve to have this information.

Towns that wish to direct wind development to certain sites might offer a reduced noise performance standard on those sites using regular zoning, in effect to declare a "wind power production zone." Or they could use no performance standard at all in these zones at all, since the Site Location of Development Law would be in effect with the 45 dBA standard.

These recommendations would also not place an undue burden on small household scale turbines, assuming the size categories were carefully selected. Through the net-metering and other laws, the PUC's net-metering and power production regulations currently recognize six categories of turbines and wind farms implicitly. I recommend using these categories. My setback and other ordinance recomendations by categories are...

1) Household scale, under 10KW, not grid-tied. No setback. 40 dBA noise performance standards only.

2) Household scale, under 20 KW, grid-tied. 200 foot setback (for ice throw and catastrophic failure), 40 dBA noise performance standard.

3) Industrial scale, under 100KW, net-metered. 500 foot setback (for ice throw and catastrophic failure), 40 dBA noise performance standard. Must provide anemometry and turbine noise characteristic data with construction permit.

4) Industrial scale, under 660 KW, joint ownership, net-metered. 1,000 foot setback (for ice throw and catastrophic failure), 40 dBA noise performance standard. Must provide anemometry and turbine noise characteristic data with construction permit.

5) Industrial scale, wholesale supply, farms under 5MW. 1,500 or 2,000 foot setback (for ice throw and catastrophic failure), 40 dBA noise performance standard. Must provide anemometry and turbine noise characteristic data with construction permit. Possibility of wind power development zone declared by Town.

6) Industrial scale, wholesale supply, farms over 5MW, 1,500 or 2,000 foot setback (for ice throw and catastrophic failure), 40 dBA noise performance standard. Must provide anemometry and turbine noise characteristic data with construction permit. Engineering impact study required (by existing PUC regulation).

7) Possibility of wind power development zone declared by Town in which the noise or setback standards, or requirements for permits are relaxed, in order to direct developers to preferred sites.

The State's draft ordinance also has regulations for the screening of turbines. I think this is silly, and don't mind saying so. What people think of the visual impact of turbines is subjective, and if Towns think them ugly or detrimental to tourism, they should just ban them. For other towns, the public capital that is represented by the resources in a wind turbine should be put to good use, in which case it should be put on the highest hill with the strongest wind available that does not create a noise dis-amenity or hazard for neighbors.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Ethical Man" comes to America

The BBC Newsnight team's "Ethical Man" has a new season, and Justin has come to America to explore government- and industry-led efforts to reduce climate emissions. However, one session features the 2009 PowerShift conference. Unity College Sustainability Coordinator Aaron Witham took a van-load of Unity students. I was searching the faces to see if there were any I knew, but then I got hooked and started watching the whole series.

You can too if you like. It's online at

Recommended, if only because lots of ordinary Americans are interviewed along with the Obamites and technology leaders. It makes for interesting viewing to see how they all respond to his questions.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Blue Hill on the hill, and other sustainability activities

Here's Unity College professor John "Z" Zavodny planting tomatoes under the strict supervision of former Unity College student and current Community Garden manager Sara Trunzo.

Planting tomatoes is good for the soul. John is a very soulful guy.

Then there's a couple shots of our local wind farm. Several folks from a prospective community wind cooperative from the Blue Hill peninsula came to visit, to learn about wind power anemometry and planning, and to see for themselves the scale and impact of these huge GE 1.5 MW machines.

It was a breezy day and the 1.5's were running at their regulated rpm of 12. They were almost certainly putting out a full 1.5 MW. They were also putting out about 2/3 of the maximum noise they put out. Paradoxically, if the wind increases a bit, the noise increases too, but after a while the wind in the trees and leaves will make more noise than the turbine. Turbines on relatively low wind sites may actually make more noise disamenity than those on high wind sites.

Good planning can help mitigate the primary impacts, which are this noise disamenity and the shadow flicker. You also have to remember that more than one turbine on a site makes more noise, and that the majority of the noise will be felt downwind of the turbine. The prevailing wind on any site is likely to be out of a different quarter than the wind that is strong enough to spin the turbine, so the noise may show up in an unexpected place. On this site the wind that is above 4.5 meters/second, above the cut-in speed of the turbine, is almost certainly out of the northeast while the prevailing wind is from the southwest. That northeast wind will drive the turbine noise downwind to the southwest.

All this is predictable and plan-able. You can anticipate the noise impact, and either put the turbine in a different place, or offer a stream of income compensation to the most impacted residents. But if you are foolish enough, or in too much of a hurry to get your turbine up, you can make a family or householder who lives downwind very miserable.

I think our Blue Hill folks have already learned a good deal about how these things work, and will plan out a good, useful development that minimizes the impacts and makes money and green power. In addition, because this is a locally-owned and locally controlled development, much of the money they make will stay in the community and circulate. This is the economic multiplier theory: Every dollar-making unit of locally actuated and owned productive capital can make five or six dollars of local and regional economic multiplier.

Here they are doing their homework. Some very smart, very publicly-minded Mainers. We could use a few more folks like them.

Derrida on an airplane, or Real Climate reality

A new post at RealClimate, along with reading Matthew B. Crawford's new book "Shop Work as Soulcraft," has got me thinking about perceptions of reality and their importance.

Engineers, natural scientists, farmers, gardeners, and mechanics have something important in common: We daily experience the natural world in its purely physical manifestation, and by trial and error, otherwise known as scientific method, we make it conform to human needs.

This gives us a fairly rare perspective -- rare in today's rarified world, that is -- of having a physical yardstick against which to measure ourselves and our competence. Essentially, you can't make it up, as you often can in the post-modern bureaucracies that host most "professional" level jobs. There's no boss to fool. The motorcycle, or rototiller, or airplane, is either working or not working, and the consequences are direct and in the case of my former career as an airplane technician, they can be deadly.

For several decades now, in philosophy, social science, in some westernized eastern religions, and certain of the arts, it has been trendy and popular to express the countervailing view that reality is made up by individuals and societies using cultural construction, and that, in fact, there is no such thing.

The reductio ad absurdum is easy enough to find: whenever a physical or mechanical device on which we depend breaks down, a car, an air conditioner, an airplane over the Atlantic ocean, we don't call for a postmodern philosopher to change our perception of the thing, but instead for a mechanic or handyman or engineer to come make it work again. In the case of the airplane, we may not be able to get that engineer, but we're definitely in a very immediate reality.

As a former medic and rescue troop, and a current SAR leader, I often see folks in this kind of situation. The immediate and hugely physical shock of the reality of a lost loved one, say a child, or a spouse, in the Maine woods, is a life-changing feeling for most close relatives of the victim of an SAR incident. And for the rescuer, the person is either found or still lost, either alive or dead. There's no room for reconstructing or deconstructing perceptions, no room for negotiation about what the reality means. Lost, found, live, dead, are physical states, easily measured, by which you judge the competence of the rescue team.

(If it's my rescue team, it had better be a good one, tough, fit, hard-working, high morale, no bullshit.)

I wonder how much the lack of such physical yardsticks has caused the recent recession. Derivitive holdings, for instance, or hedge funds, are yet further abstractions of the physical economic process. One huge factor in the recent bidding down of the stock price of what were otherwise still productive companies that were still turning out goods that people still wanted to buy, albeit in reduced numbers, was that the hedge fund managers and stock jobbers in the short market were controlling the perceptions of traders for their own short-term ends. The physical reality of still-turning assembly lines was ignored as short sellers ran down the market on purely speculative visions of doom. The great physical capital of the western world, the product of decades of engineering prowess and labor, was rapidly devalued on paper or electronically. But what had really changed? In the physical manifestation of those stocks and shares, the factories and machines, nothing was being altered while the ticker was falling.

No wonder that when the market turned around, it regained so quickly.

And of course, we of the science persuasion are terribly worried about climate change. But it's very hard to explain to ordinary folks how the climate works and how hugely devastating to civilization a climate tipping point, such as the methane feedback, may be. While the solution, reducing climate emissions, is conducive to direct measurement and verification. But we keep having to explain ourselves again and again, while the naysayers and denialists peddle the same old lies. As RealClimate says in this most recent blog post, "the concept of an objective reality against which one should measure claims and judge arguments is not something that is universally shared."

No s**t, Sherlock.

For anyone who is interested, a nice long essay by Crawford is available here. But I recommend buying the whole book too.

China's "green power revolution"

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Friday, June 5, 2009

Rocky Mountain National Park

Here's outgoing Sustainability Coordinator Aaron Witham in a possibly damp situation. Aaron accompanied the UC delegation to this RMI- hosted meeting in Denver to discuss accelerating our campus climate efforts.

I was pleased that we were able to get up to the mountains, even only for a few hours.

There was some nature to be seen even in downtown Denver. Here's a shot of an old friend, some sagebrush, growing somewhat wild in Denver's Riverfront Park. The smell brought back many memories.

We were able to see three different species of sage in one day yesterday.

That made me very happy.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Green campus/climate wonking

I'm on a trip to Colorado, although I won't get to see much. I'm sequestered with (yet) another bunch of energy wonks, scientists, architects, planners, finance folks, plotting again how to save the world through climate emissions reductions. This time we're hosted by the fabled Rocky Mountain Institute, so I'm very happy, in energy geek heaven of a sorts, as we figure out how to accelerate campus climate emissions reductions.

This time the finance people are starting to gather, sensing finally that there's money to be made. And there is. Oil is going up in price again, and, in Congress, we're beginning to see the glimmers of real cost pricing for the deleterious effects of carbon.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Unity, the firm that built our new president's residence, dubbed the Unity House, has begun marketing it as a modular house for less than $200,000, quite the bargain when you realize it has no power or heat energy consumption.

That would be, say, between $1,000 - $1,500/month for the mortgage, depending on your site and interest rate, but you'd save on electricity, hot water, and heating, which might be as much as $600/month over the course of the year.

Sounds like a half-price house to me.