Archive for April, 2010

Save the Frogs Day!

In honor of Save the Frogs Day, re-posting an earlier piece

(copyright Reuters/Lucas Jackson, from the Boston Globe website photoessay.)

All those Eyjafjallajokull volcano-stranded air travelers reminded me of a story:

I have a small pewter pin in the likeness of a wide-mouthed frog that I wear when I travel.  Three weeks after 9/11, I was in Detroit on business and heading home.  Security protocols were in flux; travelers were not yet removing their coats and footwear; the line through security was an hour long and wound slowly around the terminal.

When it was time for my frog and I to walk through the metal detector, the machine gave off a  peevish “breep”.

The TSA agent – a large, large individual with an even larger voice –  boomed,  “MA’AM, PLEASE STEP BACK AND COVER YOUR FROG.”

I glanced over my shoulder, obediently covered my frog with the palm of my hand, and stepped through the screener again.  It was silent.

I imagined other requests to the good folks in back of me: “Ma’am, please cover your Glock?” “Sir, would you mind covering that Bowie knife?” I am not a nervous flyer by nature, but at that moment I began to wonder if another mode of travel – say, hitch-hiking home to Colorado – might be less risky.

There is an ongoing debate – rekindled recently by the advent of  full-body scanners – about whether heightened security in airports makes us safer.   Odds of dying in a air (or space) related accident? A little over one in 5, 000.  The odds of being killed by, let’s say, a volcano during one’s lifetime? 1 in 80,000. Odds of becoming shark lunch? One in eight million. The odds of dying in a terrorist attack?  See responses to this question here, here, and here for a selection of numbers and opinions across the political spectrum.

2006 National Geographic Magazine

Meanwhile, climate scientists are calculating the odds of global catastrophe caused by climate change. The numbers are sobering. At temperature increases above 2 degrees Celsius,  millions of people may experience increased coastal flooding globally and  up to thirty percent of species are at increasing risk of extinction. If temperatures increase more than 1.5 degrees, small island nations like Tuvalu will very likely be underwater.

If we stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at 450 parts per million CO2, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates at least a fifty-fifty chance that temperatures will rise at least two degrees by 2100.  To reduce odds of a 2 degrees increase down to a mere one in three, the target is 350 parts per million.

So where are we now? According to Climate Interactive, current international goals for reducing greenhouse gas will put CO2 at 770 ppm – a  temperature increase of between 2.3 and 6.2 degrees Celsius. At a three-degree increase,  the IPCC predicts a 30% loss of coastal wetlands; at four degrees, we’re contemplating serious decline in crop yields.

A statistician might argue that comparing these odds to one another is misleading. Author and former hedge fund manager Nicholas Taleb says there are two types of risk: risk of volatility indicated by fluctuations in the system, and risk of a shock to the system that is large, severe and abrupt. Taleb believes that they are often confused with one another but are not connected.  Arguably, risk of a shark attack would fall into the first category and risk of climate change into the second, and we should not compare the two.

But here’s the kicker: we should be much more worried about the second kind of risk. It’s not just that the odds are high.  It’s the long-term consequences of a massive, irreversible shift in the system.  Climate risk is more likely and (to me)  more scary than the threat of runaway lava or a Glock-toting grandmother in the airport security line.

As an early warning of changes to the system, climate change is already impacting  frog populations.  Persistent shifts in temperature have been linked to a  fatal skin fungus in mountain frog populations, disruption of habitat range, and general population declines.  They act, effectively, as slimy green canaries in our planetary coal mine.

So, please.  Step back.  Take a deep breath.  And for Gods’ sake cover your frog.


Blogging Green:Net Gigaom conference

.. afternoon power panel at GigaOm’s Green:Net conference.

Molly Webb from Climate Group (and co-author of Smart2020), Jonathan Koomey of LBNL, Saul Griffith of WattsOn and Casey Herrell of Greenpeace, with Wired magazine’s Alexis Madrigal facilitating.

These folks are discussing dematerialization – the process of moving bits instead of atoms to reduce environmental impact. How?

As a climate and green IT geek, it’s like having Flash, Green Lantern and Batwoman up on stage.

Gigaom Green:Net 2010 conference – a few sound bites

Steve Jurvetson on data centers: if we start with a clean sheet of paper, we can save a terawatt-hour of energy (1 trillion watt-hours)  from data centers.

Steve Jurvetson on cars – not long from now, we’ll look back and ask why we put a million vehicles on the road that were only 15% efficient (internal combustion engines)?

Bill Gross, CEO of Idealab, on how software and computing will deliver low cost solar: Resources are getting more expensive, EXCEPT for compute power. Thanks to Moore’s Law, compute power is getting cheaper. The answer? Use computing to model optimum efficiency of materials, assembly, and drag coefficient in stirling engines, solar thermal, and cars. This will radically improve efficiency since we can build hundreds of different models in minutes.

Blogging from Gigaom Green:Net – on electric cars and the free wi-fi model

Interesting panel on electric cars at Green:Net. One of the ideas batted around was, who pays for the electricity and what’s the business model? One option is the “free-wifi-if-you-stay-and-buy-another-latte” model. What if you got free electricity while shopping?

…Mark Perry from Nissan pointed out that retailers know down to the dollar how much it is worth in revenue to keep us in their store for one more minute. What if you lingered in the mall for an extra half-hour after work while your Nissan Leaf charges up for free  in the parking garage?

I think this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of ingenious business models that will make the cost to operate (and the up-front cost) of pure electric and plug-in hybrids cheaper. For example, while lithium-ion batteries in these cars are expensive, utilities are beginning to explore the value of that battery for storing power and feeding it back to the grid during peak demand hours. What if the car owner doesn’t have to buy the battery, but just rents it from the utility in exchange for acting as a standby peak power plant on wheels?

Just in: 130-turbine Cape Wind project approved. How much closer does this get us to Renewistan?

The  hotly contested Cape Wind project was approved today.

The New England offshore wind project will build 130 massive turbines. The Department of Interior claims in their press release that the Atlantic region has a million megawatts of potential offshore wind capacity that is still untapped. (See here for an analysis of eastern wind potential from the National Renewable Energy Lab.)

Between drilling platform explosions and problems with the current climate bill, it’s good to see some progress.  But how much progress is it?

For context,  see Saul Griffith’s presentation on how much clean energy we need just to avoid catastrophic impacts from climate change. (Here’s a summary of the talk from Stewart Brand).

Saul estimates that we need to build a “Renewistan” of 11.5 terawatts of clean energy, or 11,500,00 megawatts, within the next 25 years.  His hypothetical recipe for getting there includes a combination of wind, solar PV, solar thermal, biofuels, nuclear and geothermal.

It took nine years to get approval for Cape Wind, which would at best represent .004% of Renewistan.  Saul’s numbers suggest that we need to build a Cape Wind sized project every year for the next twenty-five to get us where we need to go… while simultaneously building all other forms of alternative energy at the same pace.

Based on these assumptions, if we can get a million megawatts of wind out of the Atlantic in the next two and a half decades, that’s only at peak 9% of what’s needed for Renewistan.  (Here’s a Department of Energy report on US wind potential as another data point.) It’s not enough, and requires us to move much, much faster. But there’s a proverb about eating an elephant: the way you do it is one bite at a time.

Cape Wind may be a first bite at a really, really big elephant.

NYT on the oil spill’s consequences for the climate bill, and my favorite systems blog

Short rollup this morning:

1) The New York Times reports on the implications of the Louisiana oil spill on the climate bill (thanks E for the heads up)

2) Tom Fiddaman’s blog on system dynamics & other things is always well-written and on point. And his titles are hysterical.

3) Big, gorgeous full rainbow over Daly City from the shuttle bus to work this morning.

Wind Power, Theo Jansen, imagination and potential

The fate of Cape Wind  – a proposed 130-turbine offshore wind project that has involved 6 East Coast governors, two Native American tribes, nine years of ferocious public debate and at least two Kennedys – is coming to a head. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is due to make a ruling on whether  or not the project should move forward by the end of the week.

Thinking about the future of wind, and whether the proposed wind farm represents a destructive eyesore or an essential part of a sustainable energy infrastructure, makes me think of Theo Jansen’s work:

Theo Jansen is a sculptor and inventor of solar and wind-powered devices. Here’s another one made of cardboard:

Nifty videos like this do not make the current Cape Wind debate less urgent (or, offshore elsewhere, last week’s offshore oil rig explosion in Loiusiana any less poignant).

However, even as we figure out a strategy for near or mid-term energy independence in this country, we should remember that future energy resources may  look very, very different.  Don’t assume storage, or solar, or transportation will be limited to current design .. or current aesthetics.  The future of energy may be weirder, and less limited, than we think. It will certainly need to be at least as creative as Jansen’s designs to overcome the energy and environmental challenges ahead.

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