In many ways, the sustainability journey is one of growing our capacity to provide critical production outputs like energy, food and water in a manner that does not deplete the natural resources upon which they depend. This needs to be done in a way that also does not produce unwanted byproducts that challenge the carrying capacity of the environment.
Exciting new innovations are being developed and introduced every day. One area that really seems to be heating up is aquaculture. Fish are becoming more and more popular due to their lower fat than other meats, but as their popularity and our population continue to grow, overfishing is becoming a problem. We have written about sustainable fisheries, and the growing community supported fishery (CSF) movement, but there seems to be little doubt that farming fish in a controlled environment can be far more productive than catching it in the wild.
For example, Lake Erie, which encompasses some 4,000 square miles, produces around 11 million pounds of yellow perch per year (down from about 38 million pounds 50 years ago). According to Norman McCowan of Bell Aquaculture, a sustainable operation in Indiana we wrote extensively about last summer, 11 million pounds of perch could be raised indoors on about 7 acres.
This week brought an announcement out of Holland of a new investment fund called Aqua-Spark that is focused exclusively on sustainable aquaculture. The fund was launched in 2013 and has since raised $10 million. This week, Aqua-Spark announced its first two investments.
One thing I promised to look into, after having won the trip to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2015 based on a vision of my city in 2030, was to get a sense of the vision for this place in the same time frame.
Abu Dhabi is clearly one of the most sustainability-focused, forward-thinking cities in the world. This stems from a massive commitment on the part of the iconoclastic ruler Sheikh Zâyed bin Sulṭân Âl Nahyân, father of the current ruler.
The country’s wealth came from oil, which allowed it to sprout from a minor fishing village into a bustling modern city in just the past 50 years. Given Abu Dhabi’s harsh environment, it is not an easy place to implement a brand new vision. Yet, the combined mounting pressure of rapid growth and dwindling water supplies give a unique shape to the challenge the emirate faces. It was a credit to the Sheikh that he recognized that a major step in the direction of sustainability — something few others were doing at the time, especially in this part of the world — was just the right medicine for his people.
A substantial number of exhibits were still focused on oil and gas. Though I skipped most of those, I did stop to thumb through some of the energy projections for the future. ExxonMobil showed residential and commercial demand for oil remaining flat through 2040 and natural gas increasingly slightly, with both coal and biomass declining. Most of the growth in demand will be met by electricity, which is shown to nearly double between 2000 and 2040, according to the company’s projections.
BP, on the other hand, offered projections for 2050, (on a pie chart without numbers) which shows solar comprising more than 40 percent of the total “technically-accessible energy resource.” Second was nuclear at about 20 percent. Geothermal will provide about 15 percent, followed by wind (onshore and offshore) at close to 10 percent, according to BP’s projetions. Oil and gas were little more than slivers on the chart, with the two combining for about the same portion as onshore wind.
Speaking of wind, conference sponsor Masdar had an operational 3-D mockup of their London Array offshore wind farm. Sitting off the coast of England, the wind farm produces 630 megawatts from 175 turbines — that’s 3.6 MW each. Of course, those are tiny compared to the 8MW monsters introduced by Vestas last year. This industry doesn’t stand still for anyone.
Nuclear power was also well represented with a number of vendors on hand. Right here in Abu Dhabi, there is a major project in the works, which I will write more about later in the week.
Next week I will be attending Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in the United Arab Emirates as the winner of the Masdar Blogging Competition. My winning essay described a vision of my city, Rochester, New York, in the year 2030. The conference, which will include the World Future Energy Summit, also hosts numerous talks, displays and presentations featuring sustainable options for the future.
In preparation, I read this post on GreenBiz in which the author interviewed a number of leading thinkers in various fields about their thoughts on what 2030 might bring.
Not surprisingly, each focused on his or her own corner of the world.
The news from China seems to be improving. First, the Asian nation agreed to target peak carbon emissions and produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030. Now China is beginning to take action on pollution, a problem that has become quite severe.
The Chinese Supreme People’s Court just announced that it will reduce the court fees required for environmental groups to bring lawsuits against polluters. The ruling applies specifically to “social organizations involved in public interest litigation” targeting environmental concerns.
Our journey toward a sustainable future has been and will undoubtedly continue to be an uneven ride, marked by setbacks one day and breakthroughs the next. You can’t take much for granted on this landscape, either. It used to be that conservatives could be counted on to take the side of the established fossil fuel industries.
Look at North Carolina, for example. Down there you have utility giant Duke Energy trying to pass a bill that would allow fees to be charged to utility customers who generate their own electricity using rooftop solar and sell it back to the utility through net metering. Appalachian Power in Virginia has asked for similar fees. Public Service Co. of New Mexico has a similar proposal in the works. Most experts agree that these actions would have a discouraging effect on people who were considering the possibility of adding solar to their homes.
You might have thought it was safe to take that trend for granted as something that red states were doing. But a Tea Party group in Florida called Conservatives for Energy Freedom has taken the opposite tack, asking for a measure that would “encourage and promote local small-scale, solar-generated electricity production and to enhance the availability of solar power to customers.”
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence “Larry” Summers makes the point that, with gasoline taxes at levels not seen in years, this would be an excellent time to implement a carbon tax.
It’s not likely that a 25-cent-per-gallon surcharge to help offset the impacts of resulting carbon emissions will draw outrage at a time when gas prices have fallen by over a dollar. Yet, this is the amount that a proposed $25-per-ton carbon tax would cost. The $1 trillion collected from this could be used to fund aggressive development of cleaner technology and to help prepare cities and towns for the many changes that have been predicted.
Summers points out that, “The core of the case for a carbon tax is the recognition that those who use carbon fuels or products do not bear all the costs of their actions.”
Indeed, the only realistic possibility for a successful market-based approach to combating climate change is some mechanism that reflects the full impact of each transaction. “Free” market forces that pro-business advocates often cite are not sufficient because the impact of today’s actions may not show up until years from now and in some locale thousands of miles away. Indeed, buying and burning carbon fuels like gasoline, diesel and natural gas today is a bit like driving without a speedometer — in that we have no feedback on how quickly we are adding carbon into the atmosphere.
Filling up your SUV today could contribute to coastal flooding in Florida 10 years from now, but neither you nor the people who sold you the gas have any connection to this outcome without a mechanism in place to effect this.
As we start the New Year, there is a quiet sense of optimism that says perhaps we are reaching a tipping point in the race against time that will determine the future of life on our planet. Whether it’s the impressive growth of renewable power, the recent agreement between the U.S. and China to take meaningful action to curb emissions or the various moves towards a zero-waste economy, there are signs everywhere that humanity is slowly beginning to pull together in a unified way to save ourselves from our epic miscalculations of the past.
Another sign is the transformation of the transportation sector. According to the website EVObsession, there will be at least 15 new electric vehicle models hitting marketplace this year. Most of them are from well-established brands including Chevy, with an updated Volt, BMW, with a plug-in version of its 3-series, along with the X5 eDrive luxury-style SUV with crisp performance that, at 62 mpg, squeezes more out of a gallon of gas than a Prius. Think about that for a minute.
That machine will be vying for attention against the new Tesla Model X. Tesla, having established itself as the team to beat when it comes to electric vehicles, will certainly attract attention with this latest model. With benchmark styling, gull-wing doors and exceptional performance, this car will certainly turn heads. Though with a price tag in the same range as the Model S, it won’t be the EV for the everyman that the Model 3 (due out in 2017) promises to be.
Also competing in what I’d call the SUEV space will be the diesel hybrid Audi Q7 plug-in, the Mitsubishi Plug-In Outlander (with 512 mile cruising range), the Mercedes GLE-class, and the twin-engine Volvo XC90 T8 (with a 4-cylinder gasoline engine driving the front wheels and an 80 horsepower electric motor driving the rear).
I must confess that despite living in a snowy climate, I have resisted the temptation to purchase an SUV in my desire to minimize my carbon footprint. Vehicles like these could be game changers in that regard.
You don’t have to be a tree-hugger to recognize the fact that we can’t forever continue to take raw materials out of the Earth, use a lot of energy to convert them into briefly-useful products and then pile them into huge landfills. If you understand that, then you get the gist of what sustainability is about. A sustainable future is one where nothing is wasted. Indeed, the idea of zero waste, whether we’re talking about factories or homes, has already taken root.
That means we could find ourselves in a place in the not-too-distant future, where we have no more need for landfills. While that would be a glorious achievement, there are those who could find it a hardship.
That would include those like 13-year-old Inusa Mohammed and his friend Kwesi Bido, who is a year older. The two of them spend their afternoons scrounging through the Agbogbloshie landfill in Accra, the capital city of Ghana, looking for bits of copper or electronic remnants that they might be able to exchange for a few coins. The boys will burn the plastic insulation off the wiring to collect the precious copper inside, heedless of the dangers that dwell within the toxic fumes. The dump is full of other dangers — ranging from broken glass to exploding aerosol cans, to the ubiquitous lead that lurks inside of old and broken computer monitors as well as arsenic and mercury and other deadly toxins.
Agbogbloshie, and places like it, represent the end of the road for your old computer, cell phone or TV. Electronics recyclers here at home are often overwhelmed, especially with things like old cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and TVs for which there is no longer a market. That means some of it gets shipped off, albeit illegally, to places like this.
It has been a challenge at times to get well-heeled and sometimes highly influential people to care about climate change. After all, having a great deal of money can serve to insulate someone from problems that afflict those less fortunate. Food prices going up, for example, not that big a deal. Coastal areas flooding out, go somewhere else for vacation. Many of those at the top of the heap are finding that business-as-usual is working very well for them, thank you very much. Besides, they might have significant investments in industries that could be threatened by changing to a more sustainable model
Perhaps, what is needed to get their attention is something that hits closer to home. Here is an item in England’s The Telegraph that might fit the bill: Apparently, rising temperatures in areas like France, Italy and Spain are affecting the flavor of certain wines. The grapes that are used in the production of certain wines, like pinot noir, are growing more quickly than before.
What that means, according to Kimberly Nicholas, a wine industry consultant, is that “as the atmosphere warms, the desired ratio of acid to sugar occurs earlier in the season.” That challenges the vineyards to deduce the ideal time to pick the grapes. Ms. Nicholas, an associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden, warned that vineyards are finding it difficult to know the perfect moment to pick the grapes in order to retain a wine’s signature taste. The grapes may no longer produce the unique flavors that wine fanciers have come to associate with their favorite reds and whites.
Sometimes you have to think big. That’s certainly what Dr. Phillip Carlson would say. He’s the guy that invented the “energy skyscraper” back in the ’70s. It was a colossal tower that would reach up into the sky to create what you might call artificial weather, which would deliver consistent 50 miles-per-hour winds to the base where an array of wind turbines would convert that wind into electricity.
The principle is basically the same as the chimney effect in which hot air rises and cool air descends. In order for the effect be sufficient to produce significant amount of power, you need a very tall chimney. Spraying water enhances the effect, especially if the air coming up is hot and dry.
Carlson was clearly ahead of his time. After the Arab oil embargo of 1973 came and went, interest in energy went back to sleep as oil had become abundant once again. But the idea was picked up by Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. They proposed construction of a full scale version in the Southern Arava Desert that would be close to 4,000 feet tall and 2,000 feet in diameter. It’s worth noting that the tallest building in the world today, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, is 2,700 feet tall. Needless, to say, the cost of constructing such an engineering marvel would be prohibitive, which is why the Technion project did not proceed.
But now, an American company called, Solar Wind Energy Tower (SWET) is moving forward with plans to build one of these in Southwest Arizona, outside the town of San Luis, Arizona, and another one across the border in San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico. Their design is only 2,250 feet tall, practically a miniature version of the original. The company has purchased land and received approval from the city council for the Arizona project. The town has also agreed to provide the water necessary to run the tower for 50 years.
The SWET tower, as designed, is expected to produce some 4 million MW-hours per year; that’s more than the Hoover Dam. If this seems unbelievable, it’s not. The underlying science is sound. That doesn’t mean there won’t be unanticipated problems with these if they ever get built. (See Video below.)
So, now after some 10,000 years or so of human civilization, what have we actually learned? One thing that seems clear is that greed has been an effective motivating force to get people to use their imaginations to improve their lot in life, often by improving the lots of others with useful products and services. This led to what we call progress — all the wonderful conveniences that make the many aspects of our lives easier and safer, while providing the means to accomplish far more than any individual could have dreamed of in years past.
At the same time, it has produced a society with a high degree of social and economic inequality, a society that does not seem to have progressed very far at all in this regard since feudal times. There are still the haves and the have-nots with a vast chasm of entitlement and privilege dividing the two.
The question of how to bring these two opposing facets of our chosen course into some kind of balance has bred a couple of different approaches that seem to be in contention.
One, government oversight, has been used quite effectively at times, though it also goes in and out of vogue depending on the prevailing political philosophy. Today, in the post-Citizens United era, it seems likely that weakened oversight and regulation will remain the norm — as long as those business interests with money to contribute to political candidates now get to erase those pesky regulations that dampen profits with the swipe of a credit card. Just this week, Dodd-Frank was further weakened in the latest budget bill, another thank-you gift to Wall Street campaign contributors from both sides of the aisle.
The other approach seems to be the installation of conscience into companies, via the move towards increased transparency, sustainability and the growing corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement. Mission-driven companies and companies that truly care are no longer merely hypothetical. This development seems to be consistent with the flourishing vision that is becoming popular, fueled largely by a sense of personal commitment on the part of individual employees.
As we move forward to a more sustainable and flourishing future, we’re going to need to increase our understanding of our role in the biosphere and request the assistance of some of our fellow planetary occupants, many of whom can do things that we can’t.
One of these we’ll likely need are mushrooms. Of course they are delicious on pizza and in soup, but they also have some amazing properties that make them essential for the maintenance of the soil, on which we all depend. Not only are they one of nature’s best recyclers, breaking down waste matter into simpler compounds that feed the soil, but they can also break down toxins and render them harmless.
From this comes the idea of mycoremediation. That’s the practice of using mushrooms to clean up contaminated soil.
This post is an entry in the Masdar Engage Blogging Contest.
It used to be too cold up here in Western New York to ride a bike in early April, but winters have gotten shorter. I also have a lot more flexibility now than at my old job. I work at a freelance co-op where a bunch of us share office space and equipment. So, I’m out for a ride on a weekday morning.
I’m on what used to be the Inner Loop expressway. It was filled in 10 years ago and now there are trails, community gardens, playgrounds and other common spaces. One trail circles the city, while others form commuting corridors that connect a number of neighborhoods with a now-thriving downtown. Many people walk, bike or take electric buses, many from net-zero homes. There are tubes that shield intrepid bikers and walkers from the elements.
The city has grown a lot in the past decade. People are attracted by the moderate temperatures and abundant water supply. Plus, this has become a high-tech hub. Even though so much is done now using virtual worker networks and 3-D printing, the presence of major universities still attracts a skilled workforce. People have come to realize that there’s a limit to what virtual tools can provide and that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction when important matters are at hand.
This is part of a trend emphasizing the human side of business: People are realizing that intangibles, like the richness of one’s social network, meaningful employment and the depth of sharing, are far stronger drivers of happiness and well-being than material wealth. That realization has been a key driver in our transition.
We’ve heard a lot about falling solar prices. Some of that is due to dumping of low-cost panels from China. But there is also a great deal of research being done here in the U.S. and elsewhere that is attacking the problem from many different directions. This is helping to not only reduce cost but to increase efficiency as well.
One area that has shown promise is that of colloidal quantum dots (CQD). These tiny nanotech wonders have a theoretical efficiency of 45 percent, surpassing that of silicon, though no one has come close to achieving that yet. What has been done, however, by researchers at MIT, is the development of production techniques that allows quantum dots to be produced without elevated temperatures or vacuum conditions. That means low cost, with a present conversion efficiency of 9 percent.
One thing to keep in mind with solar is that, given the fact that sunlight is free, the efficiency by which it can be converted into electricity is less important than it is with other sources that require you to pay for the energy. Where it does matter is in two areas: the system cost and the amount of area required.
So if the system cost is low — allowing you to cover your entire roof at a reasonable price — which provides enough power even at low efficiency, then who cares? Still, you have all that mounting hardware and labor to install it, right?
The cool thing about quantum dots is that these solar cells can theoretically be sprayed on, eliminating all that mounting hardware and labor and also permitting the cells to conform to irregular and uneven surfaces.