Monday, October 31, 2011

The true costs of nuclear energy

Here's something else to consider when comparing the cost and benefits of renewable energy technologies with those of fossil fuel and nuclear energy soures. (GW)

Fukushima nuclear plant could take 30 years to clean up

Removal of fuel rods and decommissioning of reactors could take decades, warns Japan's atomic commission

By Justin McCurry

31 October 2011

Experts in Japan have warned it could take more than 30 years to clean up the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

A panel set up by the country's nuclear energy commission said the severity of the accident meant it would take decades to remove melted fuel rods and decommission the plant, located 150 miles north of Tokyo.

The commission called on the facility's operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), to begin removing the fuel rods within 10 years. The damage to Fukushima is more difficult to repair than that sustained at Three Mile Island, where fuel removal began six years after an accident in 1979.

Work to decommission four of Fukushima's six reactors could start this year if Tepco brings the plant to a safe state known as cold shutdown.

The utility will begin by removing spent fuel from storage pools within three years of making the reactors safe, before beginning the more difficult task of removing melted fuel from the three reactors that suffered meltdown.

While radiation emissions have dropped significantly since the 11 March earthquake and tsunami, workers continue to operate in highly dangerous conditions.

Towns near Fukushima have responded cautiously to plans to build temporary storage sites for massive quantities of radioactive debris generated by the accident.

Almost eight months after the start of the crisis the government says the facilities will not be ready for at least another three years. In the meantime, towns will have to store the contaminated waste locally, despite health concerns.

To reach its target of halving radiation levels within two years the government will have to remove large quantities of soil. Scraping 4cm of topsoil from contaminated farmland in Fukushima prefecture would create more than 3m tonnes of waste, says the agriculture ministry, enough to fill 20 football stadiums.

Once completed, the storage facilities would hold soil and other contaminated waste for up to 30 years, local reports said.

"We have been aiming to start cleaning up as soon as possible," Toshiaki Kusano, an official in Fukushima city, told Reuters. "To do so we need to talk about where to store the waste, but we have not been able to answer the question residents are asking: how long it was going to stay there?"

Fukushima city, 35 miles from the nuclear plant, contained enough radioactive waste to fill 10 baseball stadiums, he said.

The government has so far earmarked 220bn yen (£1.75bn) for decontamination work, with an additional 460bn yen requested for next year. But according to one estimate the operation could end up costing 1.5tn yen.

Much of the early decontamination work has been performed by local authorities and volunteers, although neither has found a satisfactory means of storing the waste. The central government is not expected to take control of the cleanup operation until a decontamination law is passed in January.

The decommissioning report was released as another government panel set up to determine the cause of the accident said it would invite opinions from three overseas experts early next year.

The panel has already come under fire after it emerged that of the 340 people it has interviewed so far, not one was a politician involved in the handling of the crisis.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wind-powered steamroller

How anyone characterize an 11-year permitting process for a renewable energy project as being a "political steamroller"is beyond my comprehension. The United States' contribution to mitigating climate change via the development and deployment of its renewable energy resources continues to face mounting obstacles from both Not-In-My-Backyarders and powerful fossil fuel lobbyists. Meanwhile, as we brace for an unprecedented October Nor'Easter here in Massachusetts, it has become clearer than ever that Nature will continue to mount her own course of action to re-establish a stable climate -- with or without us.

Click here to read the testimony of Michael Conathan, director of oceans policy at the Center for American Progress, who offers a thoughtful and assessment of why projects like Cape Wind are needed to help save the very oceans that some claim it will blight. (GW)

Court puts Cape Wind on hold

A federal appeals court has overturned a vital clearance for the proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm in a ruling Friday that dealt the project a major legal setback.

In a 14-page opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., rejected a determination by the Federal Aviation Administration that the proposed wind farm would pose "no hazard" to aviation over the Sound. It also found that the agency overlooked its own rules in making that determination.

The court ordered the case back to the FAA for further review.

The ruling is a blow to Cape Wind LLC, which seeks to put 130 wind turbines, each 440 feet tall, in a 25-square-mile patch of Nantucket Sound. The project was the first offshore wind farm in the United States to win federal approval last year.

The project also had a setback in May when the U.S. Department of Energy put a hold on a federal loan guarantee for the project because of a lack of money in the program.

Friday's ruling effectively halts the project. It's unclear how it will affect the host of other legal challenges facing Cape Wind.

"This represents a major setback for an already struggling project," said Audra Parker, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound who, along with the town of Barnstable, filed the appeal.

Barnstable town attorney Charles McLaughlin echoed those sentiments.

"Someone is finally saying the political steamroller has to slow down and these safety concerns have to be addressed," he said.

Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind, said the ruling shouldn't affect the project's timetable.

"The FAA has reviewed Cape Wind for eight years and repeatedly determined that Cape Wind did not pose a hazard to air navigation," he said in an email to the Times. "The essence of today's court ruling is that the FAA needs to better explain its determination of no hazard. We are confident that after the FAA has done this, that their decision will stand and we do not foresee any impact on the project's schedule in moving forward."

The FAA will review the court's decision and determine whether Cape Wind will need to refile for a new "no hazard" determination, said Jim Peters, a spokesman for the agency.

If so, the company will immediately do so, Rodgers said.

In its ruling, the court cited a failure of the FAA to follow its own guidelines in determining whether the turbines would pose a risk to flights operating under visual flight rules.

"The FAA did misread its regulations, leaving the challenged determinations inadequately justified," wrote Senior Circuit Court Judge Jason Williams in the opinion.

The FAA can find a project adversely affects air traffic if one flight has to be rerouted, according to the opinion.

A 90-day study of traffic in the airspace found that 425 flights flew through the immediate project area and most of these were at an altitude of less than 1,000 feet.

In addition to the ongoing legal challenges, Cape Wind must still find a buyer for half of its power and secure financing.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ominous convergences

You don't have to be particularly prescient to see that humanity is on some kind of collision course with itself and the environment. Climate, environment, economy and human population are about to create the kind of synergetic unpredictability we would prefer not to have unfold.

One often sees synergy described as "The whole being greater than the sum of its parts". "Greater" suggests "better". Problem is that's not necessarily the case.

Having said that, the above convergence of events do not mean that a negative fate is assured. It does suggest, however, the urgent need to identify and implement strategies designed to facilitate humanity's sustainable co-evolution aboard Spaceship Earth. (GW)

The world's population: Growing, growing, gone?

It is about to pass the seven billion mark; by the end of the century, it could reach 15 billion, with the number of people in Africa trebling. How much more can the planet take? Steve Connor investigates

Steve Connor
The Independent
October 27, 2011

Africa will struggle to escape from poverty and hunger this century because its rapidly expanding population will continue to grow significantly faster than any other region of the world, says a United Nations report. Every continent has seen the stabilisation of their populations, with Asia's expected to peak in the middle part of the 21st century, but the number of people living in Africa by 2100 is likely to treble, the report says.

The UN calculates that the global population, which on 31 October 2011 is estimated to reach seven billion people, will hit 9.3 billion by 2050 and more than 10 billion by the end of the century. But it warns that, if fertility rates in Africa do not begin to fall from present levels as demographers predict, then the global population in 2100 could reach as high as 15 billion, more than twice the present level.

John Cleland, a demographer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is quoted in the report as saying that the reason why the focus is on population growth in Africa is clear. "The escape from poverty and hunger is made more difficult by rapid population growth," Dr Cleland said.

Much of the global population increase this century will come from "high-fertility" countries where women have on average many more babies than the 2.1 replacement rate. There are 30 high-fertility countries in Africa, nine in Asia, six in Oceania and four in Latin America, the UN report showed.

Fertility rates worldwide have fallen dramatically since 1950. In Central America, for instance, the rate has fallen from 6.7 children per woman to 2.6, while in East Asia it fell from six to 1.6, helped largely by China's draconian "one-child" policy. The State of World Population 2011, published yesterday, adds: "In some parts of Africa, there has been only a modest drop in total fertility, which today remains at more than five children per woman." Asia will remain the most populated region of the world this century, due largely to the two most populous nations, China and India, but Africa is catching up, with its present population of one billion expected to rise to 3.6 billion by 2100, the report says.

"Africa's population has been growing at 2.3 per cent per year, a rate more than double that of Asia's population (1 per cent per year). The population of Africa first surpassed a billion in 2000 and is expected to add another billion in just 35 years (by 2044)," the report says.

This growth in Africa's population will continue despite an expected fall in average fertility rates from the present level of about 4.6 children per woman to about three children per woman by 2045, it says. But in some African countries, such as Niger, Mali and Uganda, fertility rates will remain far higher than the African average.

An extrapolation of future population trends found that, if existing fertility and mortality rates remained unchanged – which is highly unlikely – then by 2300 the global population would reach a staggering 3.5 trillion people, which is far too high to be sustainable.

Joseph Chamie, former director of the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said that, if Africa's fertility rates remained unchanged over the coming decades, its population alone would reach three billion by 2050 and 15 billion by 2100.

"Globally, it now seems likely that Africa will be the last continent to advance through the demographic transition: that is, the progression from high to low rates of birth and death," Mr Chamie said.

And there's room for 10.9m more in the UK...

The UK is on course to outstrip Germany and France to become the most populous nation in the European Union by 2043, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said, with the UK's population estimated to reach 74.4 million that year, more than Germany's 73.7 million.

Statisticians said this could be partially explained by lower fertility rates in Germany. Only three countries – Luxembourg, Cyprus and the Republic of Ireland – are projected to grow faster than the UK over this period.

The ONS also said more than two-thirds of the UK's population increase would be a result of immigration.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How smart can the grid get?

It's an interesting question and fascinating challenge: How much can innovative software substitute for physical infrastructure improvements and/or regulatory reform to help make the grid more accommodating to renewable energy and electric vehicles?

Perhaps more than originally thought. (GW)

Can Software Patch the Ailing Power Grid?

A consortium including IBM has built a system that makes more of existing infrastructure.

By Kevin Bullis
Technology Review
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Software that enabled a utility in Washington to cut power consumption by up to 50 percent by more intelligently managing the delivery of electricity to homes and business will soon get a much bigger test.

This small demonstration is part of a project that will ultimately attempt to knit together aging, fragmented grid infrastructure across five states and 11 utilities to make way for electric cars and renewable energy. The project will involve 95 smaller efforts to integrate wind power, store power from the grid, accommodate electric vehicle charging, and establish "microgrids" that can survive on their own in the event of a power outage.

The software for the full $200-million project is nearly complete, and the system will be up and running by this time next year, says Ron Ambrosio, the global research leader for the energy and utilities industry at IBM, one of several companies and institutions involved. The project is one of 16 smart grid demonstrations funded in part by the 2009 Recovery Act.

Some of the technology was first demonstrated from 2005 to 2007 on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula. The technology allowed utilities to communicate with smart thermostats and other equipment at residences, reducing peak electricity demand and responding to fluctuations in supply from intermittent resources such as wind turbines.

Ordinarily, such a system would depend on changes in regulations to allow utilities to charge residential customers different prices for electricity depending on demand. But the new technology, developed by IBM, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and others, makes such real-time pricing unnecessary.

The approach keeps electricity rates flat, but gives customers rebates on their power bills in exchange for having thermostats and other smart devices hooked up to communicate with the utility. The utility sends signals to the smart thermostats and appliances about how much it currently costs the utility to provide it electricity. Then, based on the preferences entered by the consumer, the smart systems in a home send signals back to the utility about how much power they will use. If costs are high, for example, the thermostat might signal that it will turn up the temperature to reduce the power consumption of the air conditioner.

The idea is catching on as far away as Denmark, where it is the basis of a project integrating renewable energy and electric cars with the grid.

When the system was tested on the Olympic Peninsula, it reduced electricity demand during peak times by 15 percent, on average. During one period of particularly tight supply for power, consumption dropped 50 percent. Consumers saved about 10 percent on their power bills.

That system involved a relatively small geographic area, and it's not clear it will work on a larger scale. One concern that the demonstration will address, Ambrosio says, is the potential development of feedback loops that can make the system unstable. The concern is that smart devices in 60,000 homes over five large western states could cause unexpected fluctuations in demand that power generators can't keep up with. That problem may be exacerbated when changes in weather or technical problems are added to the mix.

The project will also involve coordinating electric vehicle demand and automating responses to fallen power lines. Altogether, the smart grid project could allow utilities to make much better use of existing equipment, saving billions of dollars. By lowering demand during peak hours, it could reduce the need for utilities to build more transmission lines to meet peak demand. Smart systems could also allow existing transmission lines to carry more power (lines now carry as little as 85 percent of their rated capacity to allow for unexpected problems).

Ambrosio's goal is to run the lines at 95 to 97 percent capacity. "We're asking, can we eliminate outages altogether?" Ambrosio says.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A design show about remaking the world

The future of our cities and, by default, the future of humanity is in the hands of designers.

The good news is that we are all designers - either consciously or by default.

That's also the bad news. (GW)

Rescued By Design

By Michael Kimmelman
New York Times
October 21, 2011

I JOINED the line to get into the United Nations the other day, fiddling with my iPhone before shuffling through security. The couple in back (he was toting an iPad) mused about what a design guru Steve Jobs had been. They headed toward the information desk and I toward “Design With the Other 90 Percent: Cities,” an infelicitously titled but inspired show organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and now installed (since the museum is closed for renovations) in the United Nations visitors’ lobby.

Design shows may conjure up fizzy displays of Van Cleef & Arpels or stylish tributes to Helvetica and classic automobiles. Design implies for most people the beautiful things an affluent society makes for itself.

This show is not about that kind of design. The objects here tend to look rugged and sometimes embarrassingly simple, as in “Why hadn’t anyone come up with that idea before?” Their beauty lies elsewhere: in providing economical, smart solutions to address the problems of millions of the world’s poorest people.

If the genius of Mr. Jobs was giving us sleek and effortless products that answered questions consumers hadn’t thought to ask yet (can my mobile phone feature a speech-recognition system that reminds me to pick up my dry cleaning?), the designs in this case wrestle with what have long seemed intractable crises. I left stirred by how designers have tackled global pandemics like the proliferation of slums and the spread of infectious disease.

This is a design show about remaking the world, in other words. And that’s thrilling, whether it’s happening in Cupertino, Calif., or Uganda, where H.I.V. infects hundreds of people a day, and the latest news cellphone-wise has been the design and distribution of a text-messaging system that spreads health care information.

Text to Change, as the project is called, entails a collaboration by a pair of Dutch communication and technology specialists with local phone service providers and health care organizations. In Kibera, an area of Nairobi, Kenya, and one of the densest slums in Africa, the challenge was different. Traditional wood and charcoal fires cause rampant respiratory disease there. Refuse fills the streets. So a Nairobian architect designed a community cooker, fueled by refuse residents collect in return for time using the ovens.

From cellphones and cookers to cities: in Thailand, a public program called Baan Mankong Community Upgrading has, for the last eight years, been improving conditions in hundreds of that country’s 5,500 slums, bringing residents together with government and nongovernment agencies to design safer, cleaner places to live.

Along the Bang Bua Canal in Bangkok, where thousands of families have long squatted in rickety stilt houses linked by flimsy walkways, all teetering above polluted floodwater, architects from nearby Sripatum University were enlisted to devise row houses, detached houses and semidetached houses, along the lines of what residents said they wanted. Hundreds of decrepit stilt structures were demolished, new homes built in their stead, often from recycled doors and timber, on solid ground and near the former stilt houses, so that communities would not be broken up and families uprooted.

More than just upgrading housing and infrastructure, the strategy in Bang Bua included low-interest loans and renewable 30-year leases for slum residents, making them, for the first time, legal stakeholders in their properties. This helped to end the old cycle of evictions (in many slums around the world evictions are used to clear space for shopping malls and expressways) that left the poor in Bangkok perennially helpless and hopeless. With money from the loans, the residents of Bang Bua also decided to build a center for the elderly and disabled, and to set aside a fund for libraries, child care and school fees for the poorest families.

“It’s easy to build a house, much harder to build a community,” as Cynthia E. Smith, the show’s curator, told me. “Cities are very complex, and what the best designers illustrate is how to give form to sometimes very simple ideas. Good design involves bringing not just a fresh eye to problems but, most of all, listening to the people who live in those communities. We’re talking about a billion people living in informal settlements today,” she added. “You can see them as a billion problems or a billion solutions.”

This show follows a smaller one Ms. Smith organized in 2007 at the Cooper-Hewitt. That exhibition included among its 34 objects a filtered drinking straw that prevents the spread of typhoid and cholera; a bamboo treadle pump that helps poor farmers in Cambodia and India extract groundwater during the dry seasons; and the Q Drum, a doughnut-shaped plastic container, easily rolled, even long distances by children, which is used to transport up to 13 gallons of water.

The 2007 exhibition set the stage for this larger undertaking about whole cities, which couldn’t be timelier. We live in an era of unprecedented urban migration. Ms. Smith mentioned the billion people living in informal settlements, or slums. That number is projected to double by 2030, triple by 2050, according to the United Nations Human Settlements Program. By then one of three people on the planet will supposedly be living in favelas in Brazil, barrios in Ecuador, shack settlements in South Africa, bidonvilles in Tunisia or chapros in Nepal — the names are nearly as endless as the number of these sprawling, unplanned, impoverished places.

Ms. Smith spent a couple of years seeing what designers have been doing to improve living conditions in them. As at Bang Bua, one lesson seems strikingly obvious: the need to solicit the people living in poverty to come up with their own solutions. In so many slums — Dharavi in Mumbai, India; Corail in Bangladesh; Cape Town, South Africa; and in American cities too — the poor are left out of the process. But urban-renewal projects always work best when they’re ground up, not top down.

“The poor,” Somsook Boonyabancha, founding director of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, puts it in the show’s catalog, “are the creators and implementers of the most comprehensive and far-reaching systems for solving problems of poverty, housing and basic services.”

So in Diadema, a huge industrial city outside São Paulo, Brazil, 30 percent of the population used to live in favelas during the 1980s, when the homicide rate was shooting into the stratosphere. The government turned to residents for advice, asking them to help set priorities for the city budget, suggest upgrades for neighborhoods and approve construction projects, which employed workers who lived in the communities.

A land-tenure program awarded residents the right to stay on their property for 90 years, encouraging them to maintain their homes and invest in the neighborhoods. Residents helped to widen and pave streets, install clean-water and sanitation systems. Today, according to Ms. Smith, three percent of Diadema’s residents live in favelas, and the annual homicide rate, a standard measure of civic order and public health, has dropped to 14.3 per 100,000 from its high of 140 during the 1990s.

Ms. Smith also includes in the exhibition the by-now textbook case of Medellín, Colombia, once the world capital of drug cartels, murder and despair. Progressive political leaders there, starting roughly a decade ago, decided somewhat counterintuitively to invest most heavily in the worst slums, building a cable car system to link the city’s center with the isolated, crime-ridden areas that blanketed the surrounding hills. New libraries and parks, public schools and pedestrian walkways were built around the pylons of the transport system so that the most beautiful and ambitious public architecture in the city went into the poorest neighborhoods. Medellín became a changed place.

In Dakar, Senegal, designers working with community organizers developed an irrigation system to recycle wastewater in the crowded slum of Yoff. And in La Vega, one of the settlements lining the steep slopes around Caracas, Venezuela, a team of architects, engineers working with a geologist, again taking cues from residents, devised a series of new stairs and plazas, so impassable climbs became manageable, neighborhoods were linked and nobody was forced to move out of their homes.

I was struck by a map in the show that located 238 schools in Kibera, that dense settlement in Nairobi, which occupies a territory smaller than Central Park. I recall discovering a similarly astonishing number of schools and universities on trips to Gaza. Ms. Smith points out the case of Pune, one of India’s many booming cities, where laborers constantly move from one informal settlement to another, following construction projects and taking their families with them. As a consequence their children often aren’t enrolled in school.

In response a team of designers decided a decade ago to bring the schools to them, via buses equipped with classrooms for 25 that pick the students up where they live. Students receive old-fashioned handbooks that keep track of academic progress and list phone numbers for education centers around Pune (a second bus network is under way in Mumbai) so that when the children move, their parents can find schools in the new neighborhoods and teachers can pick up where the students left off.

Simplicity itself.

One last example, from Bangladesh: Mohammed Rezwan, a local architect, has designed “community lifeboats” that serve as floating schools, libraries and health clinics. With sea levels rising, nearly 20 percent of the land there is predicted to be under water by 2050. The low-lying Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta, the most densely populated area in the world, will flood. Working with native boat builders Mr. Rezwan adapted the traditional flat-bottom bamboo riverboat to create his Noah’s Arks. He outfitted the boats with waterproof roofs and solar panels, installed computers, high-speed Internet and portable solar lamps made from recycled kerosene lanterns. Traditional materials, local building techniques and renewable energy sources produced a model of contextual design.

I’m hoping to check out this fleet and also a few of the cities the show celebrates, to see how they’re doing, firsthand. Meanwhile I gather there are now 54 of Mr. Rezwan’s boats in operation in Bangladesh, serving 90,000 families.

That’s design guru stuff too.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Chances of bringing climate change under control may be "slipping out of reach"

“If success or failure of this planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do... HOW WOULD I BE? WHAT WOULD I DO?”
Richard Buckminster Fuller

Good questions. What's your response? (GW)

Little time left to halt warming

By John von Radowitz
The Independent
October 24, 2011

A lack of international will means the chances of bringing climate change under control may already be "slipping out of reach", scientists have warned.

A study by the Swiss science university ETH Zurich shows that without an early and steep cut in greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are not "likely" to remain less than 2C higher than pre-industrial levels. The 2C target, which experts say is needed to avert dangerous climate change, was agreed by the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009.

But countries that signed up to the Copenhagen Accord have yet to commit to measures far-reaching enough to meet it, according to experts.

A voluntary agreement hammered out in the dying hours of last December's UN climate talks in the Danish capital is said to fall well short of the cuts required.

The new report, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, sounds a further loud warning that time is running out. It suggests that for a "likely" chance (more than 66%) of holding warming below 2C by the end of this century, emissions must peak before 2020.

Emission levels will also have to drop drastically to around 44 billion tonnes in 2020, and then keep falling. By 2050, they will need to be well below 1990 levels at around 20 billion tonnes, says the research.

This is an ambitious goal. Last year's emission levels were estimated to be 48 billion tonnes. If no action is taken to reduce global emissions, experts fear they could grow to 56 billion tonnes in 2020.

Authors of the new study, led by Dr Joeri Rogeli, from the Swiss science university ETH Zurich, wrote: "Without a firm commitment to put in place the mechanisms to enable an early global emissions peak followed by steep reductions thereafter, there are significant risks that the 2C target, endorsed by so many nations, is already slipping out of reach."

The scientists base their conclusions on a comprehensive risk analysis of emission scenarios.

The research takes into account results from a number of previous integrated assessment models on climate change. These incorporate data from a range of different disciplines and are designed to inform policy.

Three pathways were identified that could result in a "very likely", or more than 90%, chance of not exceeding the 2C threshold.

All involved a peak during this decade, high post-peak reduction rates, net negative emissions, and heavy use of renewable energy sources and carbon capture technology.

Scenarios showing peak emissions around 2030 were likely to keep warming below 3C, but would miss the 2C target. Another study published in Nature Climate Change suggests that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the 2C threshold could be crossed between 2040 and 2060. This is well within the lifetime of many people alive today.

The research examines the idea of looking at climate change projections from a different angle, shifting the emphasis from "what" to "when".

Lead author Dr Manoj Joshi, from the University of Reading, said: "It is not just about avoiding potentially dangerous climate change, but also about buying time for adaptation.

"This approach to communicating the impacts and uncertainties of climate change draws attention to rates of change rather than just the change itself. It complements existing methods, and should be employed more widely."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The wind gives and the wind takes

Petroleum, natural gas and coal industry leaders have mounted a furious ad campaign aimed at convincing the public that they are the provider of millions of jobs, that they are becoming cleaner (if not greener) by the minute. At the same time, they drop not-too-subtle suggestions that renewable energy (particularly offshore wind) is an untested, unpredictable and therefore unreliable technology.

If they are successful (they've already gotten Congress to drop the term "renewable" in favor of "clean", they could bring a halt to the development of one of our best options for avoiding major climatic changes.

Offshore wind is neither perfect nor benign. There is no such energy source. (GW)

Offshore Turbines More Powerful than First Nuclear Plant

By Alexander Smoltczyk
Spiegel Online International
October 22, 2011

Part II

The Largest Open Water Wind Farm

The pilot wind farm was to cost about €175 million, a number that eventually went up to €250 million. The farther offshore a wind farm is located, the stronger the wind. But the greater distance from the coast also makes the project most costly and logistically complex.

Alpha Ventus is currently the largest wind farm to be built under open-sea conditions. The work was delayed by a year because of bad weather -- and too much wind.

The assembly of a wind turbine on the high seas is easier than a Space Shuttle mission, but not by much. Ocean currents and high waves make for difficult working conditions, preventing the crane from accurately placing the base, after lowering it through 30 meters of North Sea water, onto the piles that have been driven into the seafloor. In bad weather, three jack-up rigs, a cable-laying ship, various tugboats, a dredger and a guard vessel must wait until conditions improve. This costs several hundred thousand euros a day.

The wind gives and the wind takes. That's Klooster's philosophy.

The tubes for the base had to be rammed 30 meters into the seafloor and then reinforced with concrete. The plants -- the tower, the nacelle and turbine, and the rotor star -- were then built with the help of a jack-up rig. To complicate matters even further, the 100-ton rotor star can only be mounted on the hub when there is no wind at all.

Transported, Calculated and Adjusted

The base elements, which are as tall as buildings, were welded together in Scotland and Norway. The tubes in the seafloor came from Rostock in northeastern Germany, the transformers from Regensburg in Bavaria, and the rotor blade from Bremerhaven and Stade, near Hamburg. Everything had to be transported across the water, calculated and adjusted.

There is a water tank on board the Wind Force 1 so that the water in the collecting tank beneath the transformers can be replaced periodically. On land, a hose would be sufficient for this purpose. But for offshore turbines a tank has be moved from the pier to the ship, transported 60 kilometers and then hoisted into the air from a pivoting deck with a crane.

The Fino 1 is a research platform complete with fish sonar devices, a sonar tower, free fall penetrometers, and radar devices and cameras to track migratory birds. The equipment is capable of tracking every fish and every seal here. Divers take regular samples to determine what kinds of traces sea creatures leave behind. The large conservation groups had insisted on this additional research. The Fino 1 is the wind farm's environment conscience. The migratory bird cameras and other instruments need electricity, and the most obvious solution would have been to lay a cable to the transformer station, but the environment ministry opted to install a diesel generator instead -- the cheaper alternative.

Surrounded by Water the Color of Wet Concrete

The helicopter landing pad on the transformer station is soiled with seagull droppings. The birds should have been driven away with "startling techniques," like playing loud march music, monkey calls or church bells. But nothing worked, says Klooster, not even the church bells. "The animals are pain-free. They just want to land somewhere," he says.

The harbor porpoises were driven away, however. They were unable to tolerate the 15,000 ram strokes needed to drive the piles for each tower into the seafloor. No one knows whether the porpoises will return.

A dive boat -- the "Oil Express," under Danish ownership and sailing under the Liberian flag -- is anchored to turbine AV 1. The ship costs about €10,000 a day. The structure needs underwater repairs, after pressure from the supply ship during docking caused some parts to come loose. It takes three tries before the Wind Force I has successfully docked. The three Dutchmen climb onto the dive boat, where they will spend the next 14 days, surrounded by water that has now taken on the color of wet concrete.

If the wind were not blowing and the ship's engines were shut off, it would be possible to hear the whooshing noise the rotors make, the same noise they make on land. Each rotation generates about 59 cents of revenues.

Built With Tainted Money

That's because Germany's Renewable Energy Act (EEG) guarantees offshore wind farm operators a so-called feed-in compensation of 13 cents per kilowatt hour. Alpha Ventus delivered 190 gigawatt hours of electricity in its first nine months of operation. The 59-cent estimate is based on an average of nine rotations per minute.

This sounds good enough, but to recoup the €250 million in construction costs, the rotor stars would probably have to rotate at the speed of airplane propellers.

The costs of operation, from Joselito's buckets of paint to the Oil Express dive boat, are deducted from the 59-cent figure.

But for the environmental purist, Alpha Ventus was built with tainted money in the first place. Vattenfall and E.on operated the Brunsbüttel and Krümmel nuclear power plants, which have now been shut down. E.on owns four of the nuclear power plants still in operation, including two plants particularly despised by the environmental movement, Brokdorf and Grohde. And turbine manufacturer Multibrid is part of the French energy conglomerate Areva, which has built countless nuclear plants in France. Power supplier EnBW, which has its own nuclear history, owns a quarter of EWE.

The energy may be clean and renewable, but the people behind it are not.

Hard-to-read rules and regulations are posted everywhere, and all of them cost money. One rule, for example, requires that there can never be fewer than three workers on a tower. Every spot of rust has to be removed in accordance with regulations, which is why three men have to be shipped out to the wind farm to climb the towers with their safety suits and paint buckets.

A Milder Version of Navy SEAL Training

Anyone who steps onto one of the towers is required to have completed a health check and survival training, a milder version of Navy SEAL training that involves escaping from a sunken helicopter. These are the regulations.

Whenever the rotors are serviced, they have to be switched off from a control station on land. Normally, the rotors are shut down automatically when the wind is either too weak or too strong; that is, when it's blowing faster than 90 kilometers per hour.

"Each individual plant," says Klooster, "currently requires about 450 maintenance hours a year. We have to get this down to 150." That would be the minimum to make the turbines at least somewhat profitable. But everything is so incredibly difficult.

The amount of time the ship's crew can work in a single stretch will be reduced to ten hours soon. "When that happens," says Klooster, "we'll have to go out with two crews. It'll be expensive. They're not as strict about this in England."

Germany takes the same unconditional approach to regulating the wind that it applied to its decision to phase-out nuclear power. Since the political winds have shifted in Berlin, there is no longer an alternative to renewable energy. Germany has made its commitment to renewables, and now it has to stick to its guns. Klooster feels that all of this is "not normal." Fukushima, he says, did not radically alter his worldview. In fact, it only reinforced it. This sort of thing can happen.

Klooster is neither a Green Party nor a leftist voter. "You can't trust parties. If I had my way, I would assemble the cabinet myself," he says, but points out that this, of course, isn't possible.

"Sustainable Development of the Energy Supply"

By now it's shortly before 4 p.m. The men are collected from the towers like May bugs from trees. The wind has died down a little and the waves aren't as high anymore. Once they're back on the boat, the technicians stagger to the stern and plop themselves down to perform the arduous task of removing their safety suits. When they take off their helmets, their heads are covered with sweat. Afterwards Klaasen remains on deck, puts on his headphones and types his shift report into a laptop. The roadies smoke while Joselito tries to talk about Hamburg, but no one really understands what he is saying.

The rest sit down inside the dimly lit mess room and stare at a small, flickering TV set on the wall, which is tuned to RTL 2, where a German reality show is being broadcast. The workers don't talk much. Working offshore is an exhausting business -- the noise of the engines, climbing around in a protective suit, the constant rocking of the waves, the need to be vigilant and the persistent wind. These men have just completed ten hours of what the Renewable Energy Act describes as "sustainable development of the energy supply." They hardly even have enough energy left to watch RTL 2.

Behind the cloud of spray at the stern, the 12 wind turbines slowly slip back into the horizon until they disappear altogether in the mist. A power cable as thick as a man's arm lies in the sand about 20 meters below the keel. The cable, and the electricity it conveys, is the reason for all of this.

As soon as the ship pulls into port, Klooster will get into his black VW Fox and drive home as quickly as possible. In the evening, the floor in his house will still feel like it's rocking. It doesn't go away with time, as if to remind people like Klooster that offshore wind is a unique thing, and that it will remain that way. It's a rather cumbersome way to build a future.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Sea of Megawatts

For those still questioning the viability of offshore wind energy technology, consider the following: Germany's largest offshore wind farm produces 12 times as much energy as the world's first nuclear power plant. That is a more useful and fair comparison of technologies than are used in most energy debates these days (think Cape Wind). One must remember that offshore wind technology is still nascent and that the resource is vast and virtually untapped. (GW)

Offshore Turbines More Powerful than First Nuclear Plant

By Alexander Smoltczyk
Spiegel Online International
October 22, 2011

Part I

The term "energy revolution" sounds light and airy enough, but how do human beings manage to wrest electricity from the sea? Germany's largest offshore wind farm, a power plant surrounded by a hostile environment, produces 12 times as much energy as the world's first nuclear power plant.

From a distance, say about three nautical miles, the future looks very simple. You stick a wind turbine up into the air, and it turns. Ralf Klooster can explain this to his five-year-old at home. The more difficult question is why Daddy has to drive to the jetty at Norddeich harbor every morning at six to make sure that those simple things out there in the water keep turning.

"It's not as easy as you think," says Klooster. He is a native of the East Frisia region of northwest Germany, has the physique of an Olympic rower and looks as if E.on has cast him for its advertising photos. Klooster is actually a custodian of sorts for the Alpha Ventus offshore wind farm, 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the North Sea island of Borkum. Even at high wind speeds, he is able to finish his sentences. As Klooster says, none of this is easy.

He awoke this morning at 4:45 a.m., boiled water for his tea (he uses "NaturWatt" green electricity, at 23.6 cents per kilowatt hour) and drove to the jetty to board the "Wind Force I."

It sounds like "Air Force One," but it's merely the service boat for the Alpha Ventus wind farm, which consists of 12 five-megawatt towers and produces electricity for 50,000 households. It's the largest offshore wind farm in the country. The morning greetings: "Moin!" - "Moin!"

Germany is the first highly developed, industrialized nation to decide to be dependent on renewable energy in the future. Germany is also the country where nuclear fission was discovered and the internal combustion engine was invented. By 2020 Germany, a country dotted with auto plants, chemical factories and steel mills, is to derive fully one fifth of its power from wind turbines.

The Bet Germany Cannot Afford to Lose

The goal, according to the proponents of wind energy, is to end Germany's epochal dependence on petroleum, so that it will no longer be reliant on a country ruled by someone like Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The goal is to do nothing less than change the climate system and set the agenda for the 21st century. A bigger task is hardly imaginable. Germany has made a bet that it cannot afford to lose.

And everyone is watching. If the phase-out works in Germany, and if the Germans can at least partially replace nuclear power with wind energy, it can work in Great Britain, Chile, France and California. Germany has become a test laboratory. Meanwhile, Ralf Klooster will have his hands full until his workday ends at 6:30 p.m. "Okay, let's get going," he says.

A few men in overalls are standing by the boat, smoking. Others are hoisting boxes full of screws on board, "Big Bags" filled with tools, canisters of grease and lubricants, and duffel bags containing protective suits and provisions. The entire stern is filled with equipment and supplies.

Three Dutchmen, who are joining the crew for the first time, are told that if they have to vomit they should do it overboard ("the easy way") and not into the toilet. Then a safety film is shown, in which a woman puts on a life vest to a soundtrack of club music. The Dutchmen have already dozed off.

The Wind Force I plies between the mainland and the wind farm, as long as the weather is acceptable. It's a four-hour round trip. Helicopters are used during the winter and in bad weather. Batteries and transformers need constant maintenance, and all moveable parts on the crane and turbine have to be oiled and lubricated regularly. The switches have to be tested regularly, as do the fire protection systems, the lights, the life vests and, if there are control devices, those too. Wind is clean, but it's also very labor-intensive.

Joselito from Manila has tied his paint-spattered overalls around his hips. He is one of the four "coaters" whose job it is to constantly paint the towers to protect against rust. He works as a painter at the Blohm + Voss shipyard in Hamburg during the winter, but now he is here. "Wind energy? Good, very good," he says. "Good work."

Looking Like Roadies on a Heavy Metal Tour

On this morning, three mechanics with turbine maker Areva Wind were driven to the pier in a black van. With their tattoos, ponytails and black overalls, they look like roadies on a heavy metal tour. But they're just here to service the crane on tower 11.

The roughly 20 men on board the Wind Force 1 aren't necessarily Green Party voters. In fact, they look more like people who might be working on plutonium plants, if they existed offshore. Or perhaps not?

"The difference," says one man who is leaning against the deck crane, wearing glasses and a Hulk Hogan goatee, "is that if a wind tower falls over, it isn't likely to cause a lot of damage out here."

He wears two bulky ear protectors on his temples, which protrude from his face like insect eyes. The man's name is Andreas Klaasen, and he says he likes working offshore, being sent to work as a supervisor in Taiwan, Scotland or Belgium. "In the offshore world, people listen when you talk." Then he puts on his ear protectors, which are actually headphones, and listens to Shakira and the top 100 hits for the remainder of the trip.

Klooster says that he wouldn't describe himself as the custodian of the wind farm, but rather as an "offshore service technician."

And then the 12 wind turbines suddenly appear on the horizon. The towers look incongruous and yet somehow as if they belong there, their rotors turning above the grayish-green North Sea waters. Each tower weighs about 1,000 tons. They look like an art installation from a distance -- not one that makes a lot of sense, but beautiful nonetheless.

Pages of Conditions and Regulations

On Nov. 9, 2001, wind power pioneer Ingo de Buhr received permission from the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic agency to build and operate an offshore wind farm beyond the 12-mile zone marking Germany's territorial waters.

The license included 43 pages of requirements, conditions and regulations. Item 6.1.4, for example, describes the painting requirements: "The towers are to be painted yellow up to a height of 15 meters (49 feet) above the HAT (Highest Astronomical Tide) (RAL 1023 pursuant to DIN 6171, Part 1)."

The license also requires the operator to make allowances for military flight safety, to ensure that hazard lights are on at night and to monitor the facility's impact on marine mammals and bird migration. According to item 24, when the facility is no longer in use it must be "properly disposed of on land."

Four years later, De Buhr sold the license for €5 million ($6.85 million) to the German Offshore Wind Energy Foundation, a deep-pocketed association of power producers, banks, manufacturers and operators.

The bow of the Wind Force I is now pressing up against tower AV 4, the rubber squeaking against the steel tower in the waves. One after the other, the men climb onto the tower. Wearing their survival suits, they climb the rungs of the ladder to the platform. They will spend the next six hours servicing the tower.

The massive guillotine-like rotor comes down from above every two seconds. The 61-meter rotor slicing through the air, seemingly without making any noise, is longer than the wing of an Airbus 380.

In strong winds, the tips of the rotors travel at racecar-like speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). The rotors wear out the fastest, and not, as one might expect, the transmission or the foundations in the water.

A Sea of Megawatts

This is no longer some environmentalist's toy. These are industrial plants surrounded by open water. The 12 wind turbines are in fact 12 power plants, albeit very small ones, each with an output of five megawatts, which just happens to be the same as that of the first nuclear power plant in Obninsk, Russia, which opened in 1954.

The German government plans to install another 10,000 megawatts offshore by 2020, and 25,000 megawatts by 2030.

That would mean another 5,000 of these wind turbines, or 400 wind farms the size of Alpha Ventus. Large swaths of the German Bight would then resemble a pincushion from afar, turning the body of water into a sea of megawatts.

When that happens, dozens of vessels like the Wind Force I will be needed, as well as hundreds of divers and thousands of men like Ralf Klooster. Germany would then be a true republic of wind.

Klooster was involved in the construction of the facility and is familiar with every bolt. He understands Alpha Ventus the way someone understands something he has built himself. "My father is someone who could do everything with his hands. He even built a replica of a horse-drawn carriage for us." His father was a riveter at the Thyssen Nordseewerke shipbuilding company, until the crisis hit the shipyards and he switched to working as a truck driver.

Nordseewerke is now called SIAG, a supplier to the offshore wind industry. The transformer station for Alpha Ventus was built in the former shipyard where Klooster's father once worked as a riveter. "Most people here," says Klooster, "haven't realized yet what wind energy means for the coast" -- namely, the transformation of the economically ailing East Frisia region. Some industry insiders hope that Germany's new energy policy will result in as much as €100 billion being pumped into the offshore wind economy.

Wind Companies Earning Millions

Two leading wind turbine makers, Areva Wind and REPower, have their production plants in the port city of Bremerhaven. Few people in the hinterlands are familiar with the name Aloys Wobben, but the founder of the wind power company Enercon is now a multibillionaire and one of Germany's richest people. Thanks to former Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin, companies that got their start in garages were able to earn millions upon millions during the years when Germany was run by a Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green Party coalition government. And thanks to the disaster in Fukushima, they will be earning many more millions in the future.

Enercon makes use of shipyards in the northern German cities of Emden, Kiel and Papenburg, has built the first wind rotor ship, and supplies its wind turbines around the world from its headquarters in East Frisia, says Klooster.

E.on, in a joint venture with the Danish energy utility DONG and the United Arab Emirates, is building a 630-megawatt offshore wind farm in the Thames Estuary. The wind farm will have enough capacity to replace a small nuclear power plant.

When the wind blows, that is.

"It blows," says Klooster. In fact, the wind offshore blows at an average speed of Force 5, which is about 30 kilometers per hour, and it also blows much more uniformly than on land.

At the first energy summit in the German Chancellery, on April 3, 2006, it was decided that a large-scale pilot project would be built near Borkum. Three energy suppliers, E.on, Vattenfall and the regional utility EWE, joined forces to form a consortium known as DOTI, which now operates Alpha Ventus. The then Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel contributed another €50 million for additional research linked to the project.

The site had to be far offshore, outside the boundaries of the Wattenmeer (Wadden Sea) national park, far from shipping lanes and certainly out of view of the canopied beach chairs on the East Frisian resort islands of Norderney and Juist.

(Read Part II tomorrow)

Friday, October 21, 2011

" trying to put 12 beach balls in an egg carton"

HYANNIS — It's not every day that a phalanx of state lawmakers descends on Cape Cod to hear from the public on any issue, much less a topic as controversial as wind energy.

But that was the case for eight hours Thursday at Barnstable High School as the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Energy and Utilities heard from residents on a series of bills related to permitting wind turbines.

The primary legislation before the committee, known as the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, has garnered stiff opposition — mostly on the Cape and in the Berkshires, two areas state officials have targeted as prime locations for wind energy production. The proposed law would simplify permitting for wind energy projects over 2 megawatts, consolidating local decisions in a single board and streamlining appeals.

During the daylong hearing, committee members, joined by almost every member of the Cape delegation, heard from dozens of speakers who alternatively touted hopes for a clean energy future and the horrors of living near large wind turbines.

"Too big, too close," said Neil Andersen of Falmouth, where neighbors of a turbine located at the town's wastewater treatment facility have complained vociferously about detrimental health effects caused by noise and shadow flicker from the machine's operation.

A second turbine at the treatment plant is expected to go online soon and another turbine of the same size is operating nearby on private property.

"All of them 1.65 megawatts and 400 feet tall, and all of them improperly sited," Andersen said.

Building more turbines on the Cape "would be like trying to put 12 beach balls in an egg carton," he said. "They do not fit."

Committee co-chairman Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, said the committee would ask the state Department of Environmental Protection and the state Department of Public Health to meet with Falmouth residents as part of a review of health impacts from the operation of wind turbines.

"We have just learned of this request today, and we are looking forward to discussing this idea with the committee," DEP spokesman Edmund Coletta said Thursday night.

A level playing field

Supporters of the proposed legislation testified that green-energy jobs, the need to combat climate change and the ability of wind energy to stabilize energy prices were all reasons to support the measure.

"Good projects are being held at bay too long," said Sue Reid, Conservation Law Foundation's Massachusetts vice president and director.

The bill helps to level the playing field between wind energy projects and fossil fuel projects, she said, adding that it doesn't do so completely.

All energy sources have trade-offs, including severe health problems caused by the burning of fossil fuels, she said. Solar energy, meanwhile, is not as cost efficient as wind, she said.

Cape officials raised concerns about the bill shifting control from the host of boards now responsible for reviewing wind energy projects — such as planning boards and conservation commissions — to a single local board.

A similar concept included in the Hazardous Waste Facility Siting Act in 1981 didn't work, Bourne Town Administrator Thomas Guerino said.

"Simply dusting off a piece of legislation from earlier times and inserting new intent is not reassuring to cities and towns of the commonwealth," he said, reading a letter from the Bourne Board of Selectmen, which has gone on record opposing the wind energy siting reform legislation.

The bill is not well-written, and the committee should not report it out favorably, Guerino said.

"I don't believe the town of Barnstable needs these standards, needs your goals or needs your authority," Barnstable Town Councilor Ann Canedy said, clarifying that she spoke only for herself because the town had not taken a position on the legislation. Barnstable already had standards in place for wind energy projects, she said.

Issues of control

State officials did their best to counter the contention that the bill would usurp local control.

"There is nothing in this bill, and I mean nothing, that will take away local control," said Barbara Kates-Garnick, energy undersecretary at the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

If a local board rejects a project, the developer may appeal to the courts, according to the bill's language. If the local board approves a project, opponents may appeal to the state Energy Facilities Siting Board and then to the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Gov. Deval Patrick has set a goal of 2,000 megawatts of wind energy in the state by 2020. Three-quarters of that energy is expected to come from offshore projects and 25 percent from land-based wind turbines, said Steven Clarke, state assistant secretary for renewable energy.

If the average turbine generates 2 megawatts of energy, the governor's plan would call for 250 land-based turbines across the state, he said.

Given that testimony from state officials at a similar hearing in Hancock indicated 188 turbines were possible in the western part of the state, state Rep. Randy Hunt, R-Sandwich, asked if that would mean about 50 turbines on the Cape.

"It is a possibility," Kates-Garnick said.

Mistrust at local level

Though much of the testimony focused on concerns over local control. committee co-chairman Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, proposed another reason for the opposition: a mistrust of local government.

Though Kates-Garnick said establishing local wind energy siting boards would be voluntary, Cape lawmakers and other speakers seemed unconvinced.

State Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, said her reading of the bill indicated local boards would be required in areas considered to have high wind energy resources, such as Cape Cod.

A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs wrote in an email to the Times that agency officials would look into the discrepancy and report back to the committee.

Despite her concerns, the hearings and legislative process surrounding the bill were far better than what occurred last year, when there was little opportunity for study or changes to its language, Peake said. A final version of the bill failed to make it to Patrick's desk for his signature before the end of the formal session.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

There are at least a couple of important things left off this list of things to do to achieve an effective global sustainable agriculture plan. I'm thinking specifically of the need to encourage millions of new-entry farmers to take to the land and to do so versed in farming methods that minimize if not eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. (GW)

A Global Plan For Sustainable Agriculture

By Michael J. Coren
Fast Company
Wed Oct 19, 2011

Use less land, eat less meat, waste less food. Sounds obvious, but these plans were developed after an intense examination of farm data and satellite images. Now it's just a question of implementing it.

There's a simple equation waiting to be solved. How do we feed 9 billion people by 2050 with roughly the same amount of land? An international team of researchers from Canada, the U.S., Sweden, and Germany has come up with a plan--using global models of agricultural systems and environmental impacts by combining crop data and satellite images from around the world--to double the world's food production while reducing agriculture's environmental impact.

There is already a push to make farming--the leading cause of global deforestation and, in some places, soil erosion--more sustainable so future generations have the same opportunities to grow food that we do. The prescription to make that a reality is elusive. "Lots of other scholars and thinkers have proposed solutions to global food and environmental problems, but they were often fragmented, only looking at one aspect of the problem at one time…[without] the numbers to back them up," says team leader and McGill University geography professor Navin Ramankutty, who worked on the study in Nature, in a statement. "This is the first time that such a wide range of data has been brought together under one common framework, and it has allowed us to see some clear patterns. This makes it easier to develop some concrete solutions for the problems facing us."

The five-point plan calls for some dramatic, but, the team says, achievable measures. These include halting land clearing for agriculture, now the primary cause of the world's topical deforestation; improving food production yields in developing countries (well behind developed country averages) by about 60%; applying fertilizer and other agrochemicals strategically and sparingly; moving toward plant-based diets, and using less crops for animal feed or biofuel; and cutting waste, which now claims about one-third of food production.

The exercise offers a mathematical solution to feed the world without eliminating much of our remaining tropical forests or topsoil. But it is not a political one.

As with famines, most constraints on improving agriculture are political and social. Shifting the world's agricultural system toward one that does not rely on clearing new lands or heavy fossil-fuel fertilizer application will require an unprecedented global effort. The next plan to fix our food supply will need to come from more than scientists.

Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

GRoss UNiversal Cash Heist

Bucky Fuller visited the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod the year before he died. He came at the invitation of Jay Baldwin to be a part of ceremonies dedicated a new geodesic dome bioshelter that Jay had overseen the construction of. Jay and I picked Bucky up at Boston’s Logan Airport and drove him to Cape Cod. I was asking Bucky a thousand questions, and I’m sure it didn’t take long for him to realize that I idolized him. He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a document. He handed it to me and said to me: “Young man, when we get to New Alchemy I’m going to take a nap before the ceremonies begin. I want you to read this manuscript and tell me what you think of it.”

It was his working copy of “Grunch of Giants”.

David McConville is President of the Buckminster Fuller Institute Board of Directors. He is the co-founder of The Elumenati, a design and engineering firm that creates custom installations for clients from art festivals to space agencies. In this capacity, he also serves as creative director of the Worldviews Network, a NOAA-funded collaboration of scientists, artists, and educators at science centers across the United States re-imagining the big picture of humanity’s home in the cosmos. (GW)

We Are The 100%

By David McConville
Buckminster Fuller Institute
October 16, 2011

Integrity, to Buckminster Fuller, represented the degree to which any design or system actively enhances the regenerative processes that support life on Earth. Thirty years ago, he wrote the cautionary tale Grunch of Giants to warn of the immediate dangers posed by the lack of integrity within the “invisible, abstract, and completely ruthless” empire of corporations that control the world’s finances. Dubbing this corrupt system the Gross Universal Cash Heist (GRUNCH), he argued that, as a non-living entity, it was incapable of recognizing how its legal mandate to maximize monetary gains by socializing risks and privatizing profits were in direct opposition to the long-term requirements for human survival.

The expanding occupations and protests around the world directed towards the global economic system testify to the prescience of Fuller’s critique concerning the lack of integrity within manufactured scarcity. The myriad of issues driving unrest reflects a rising awareness that the challenges facing humanity cannot be effectively addressed in isolation. They are in fact interconnected symptoms of a dominant socio-economic environment that is not designed to adequately support 100% of humanity.

Fuller argued that we must begin to transform this dysfunctional system by recognizing that it confuses money with wealth. He maintained that money is “a medium of exchange and a cash accounting system,” while wealth is the “organized technological capability to protect, nurture, educate, and accommodate the forward days of humans” that arises from supporting the integrity of living systems. Based on his calculations of world resources, human trends and needs, he demonstrated that it would be possible to support all of humanity at a better standard of living than ever before if the production capacity and technical know-how of global society were properly applied. Instead of fighting to tear down the existing system, he sought to harness its technological and economic forces to shift “from weaponry to livingry” through the problem-solving approach he called comprehensive anticipatory design science.

The mission of the Buckminster Fuller Institute is to celebrate Fuller's legacy by cultivating a new generation of design science pioneers who can create an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity. Today, this organization - like the whole of human society - is at a critical evolutionary juncture. The widespread recognition of the serious threats the GRUNCH poses to the future of our species is emerging through emergency. Now more than ever, we have the opportunity to identify, promote, and collaborate with visionary yet pragmatic initiatives that embody design science principles and are accelerating the shift to a society that supports the Earth’s interconnected, regenerative systems upon which life on our planet depends.

Since inaugurating the Buckminster Fuller Challenge in 2007, we have placed the highest priority on developing and implementing a rigorous process for recognizing initiatives that exemplify the trimtab priciple. Both the Challenge and our Architecting the Future events have provided essential catalysts for bringing together a community of practitioners and comprehensivists – engineers, artists, architects, designers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and polymaths – committed to radically advancing human well-being and the health of our planet’s ecosystems. We have been inspired beyond measure, and on behalf of the BFI Board of Directors, I want to express our profound gratitude to the participants, jurors, volunteers, staff, sponsors, and members for your role in making this nascent program a success, heralded by Metropolis Magazine as “socially responsible design’s highest award.” .

But these experiences have demonstrated even greater needs and opportunities. The generous grant that seeded the initial 5-year phase of the Challenge and related programming has enabled us to confer $100K each cycle to one selected winner. After reviewing hundreds of compelling submissions, it has become glaringly obvious that we need to develop additional modes of support for as many of these projects as possible. A brief perusal of the Idea Index illuminates numerous commonalties and latent synergies amongst this growing ecosystem of ideas. There is immense potential to further catalyze these projects if participants could more effectively solicit feedback and identify collaborators with complementary goals and resources. Since many of the proposed projects exist at different phases of maturity – from the theoretical to the fully realized - participants have expressed a desire to receive additional forms of assistance, including business development, project management, marketing, design, engineering, etc. Perhaps most importantly, a new iteration of the Idea Index could be offered as a resource for design science education, enabling students, teachers, designers, reporters, and others to examine, and even participate in, real-world projects that demonstrate how whole systems approaches can radically improve the quality of life on Earth.

To realize these ambitious goals, it will be necessary to significantly expand the vision and capacity of BFI. Ever mindful of the paradox of operating as a not-for-profit organization while attempting to draw attention to more effective economic models, we have been in dialogue with members of the growing social capital movement about collaborations that will enable us to provide essential funding, guidance, and fiscal sponsorship. Toward this goal, we have engaged new staff, interns, and volunteers who bring with them considerable experience in business, law, social media, and impact investing. We have also been actively participating in a number of relevant conferences, such as Social Capital Markets, Bioneers, Social Good Summit, UN Habitat, and many others, that can strengthen our network and increase the awareness of design science education, the Challenge, and other BFI programs.

As the recently elected President of the BFI Board, I want to extend a heartfelt and omnidirectional invitation to help us evolve Buckminster Fuller’s legacy by enhancing our ability to support these extraordinary initiatives. The spontaneously cooperative mass uprisings currently erupting around the world are profound reminders of our species’ deeply intuitive sense of interdependence and desire for integrity. We are extremely fortunate to be part of this moment in history, but we have no time to waste by fighting the forces clinging to obsolete models of reality. Now, more than ever, people everywhere are seeking practical examples of how to make the world work for 100% of humanity. I’m deeply honored to have the opportunity to collaborate with this inspiring community to amplify and accelerate their critically important work.