Apr 2, 2010

James Boyce: NRDC's New Videos On Clean Energy Reveal the Faces and Potential of the Green Economy

You can see the videos this review is about at CleanEnergyStories.org All too often, discussions about so-called green job creation are placed in the future tense -- something we predict or hope will happen, but is still considered to be in the realm of the hypothetical. Many people don't know anyone who has a green job, are unable to imagine what one would look like, or who would be creating them. This keeps the concept of green jobs fuzzy and abstract for too many -- not the kind of thing you'd base an economic recovery on. The opponents of clean energy have seized on this, claiming that the whole concept of green jobs is a fantasy that could cost jobs in the established fossil fuel industry that we see all around us. But for many lucky Americans, green jobs are not wishful thinking -- they are a welcome reality RIGHT NOW, giving laid-off workers well-paying jobs so they can keep their homes, revitalize their struggling communities, and do something positive for the entire country by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and decreasing our dependence on foreign oil. NRDC's new videos, "Clean Energy Jobs For A Strong USA" and "Clean Energy Patriots", introduce you to these green collar workers and let them tell their stories in their own words. At the same time, they lay out a roadmap for how America, with its traditions of innovation and tackling the biggest challenges, can put generations of Americans to work by creating and maintaining a clean, efficient, sustainable energy infrastructure -- a project as needed, ambitious and economy-stimulating as the construction of America's interstate highway system that began over 50 years ago. "Clean Energy Jobs For A Strong USA" does an excellent job of demystifying the concept of a green collar worker. They aren't farmers digging in organic compost or scientists in spacesuits -- they're welders, steelworkers, electricians and autoworkers, many of whom saw once-reliable Midwest factory jobs evaporate as the Great Recession ravaged the country. Despite no previous experience in clean tech, these workers found that their skills were easily transferable to clean tech industries. After all, windmills and solar panels are simply generators that need to be manufactured, installed, maintained and connected to the energy grid by skilled workers, and a factory that makes energy-efficient windows is still a window factory. One thing that's notable about the workers interviewed in "Clean Energy Jobs For A Strong USA" is their pragmatism and noted lack of idealism. This is not to say that they aren't optimistic -- they want the rest of the nation to have the same kind of second chance that the clean tech industry has brought to their families and communities. But they don't want that because they are true believers in something unseen -- they want it because they've experienced it firsthand and live it every day as they work at their clean tech job and return to a home they can now afford to own. One could say that wanting to leave a better planet for your children than the one you were given is idealistic, but if so, it's an idealism that every person on the planet should have. At the same time, the executives and spokespeople for the clean tech companies hiring these workers are simply looking at the reality of where the market is heading, where a once-exotic CFL is now simply a lightbulb and "alternative" energy will soon be the norm. Blake Jones, the CEO of Namaste Solar, reveals that he used to work for Halliburton until he understood the consequences of being dependant on oil from unfriendly or unstable nations. Chuck Swoboda, CEO of LED manufacturer CREE Inc., used to work for Ford until he realized that so much energy was being spent protecting the SUV business Ford had that they were failing to make the cars that would drive profits in the future. The two things corporations prize the most are profits and predictability -- if you don't know what the future of your industry holds, it's risky to try to profit from it. Clean tech companies know that clean energy makes profits, but without clean energy legislation that allows them to be competitive with markets in other countries that enjoy government support, future profits, venture capital, entrepreneurs and the innovation they breed, those profits will be made by companies overseas. In "Clean Energy Patriots", we learn the multiple ways that clean tech strengthens the nation and its security. To start, service in America's highly mechanized, technologically advanced military turns out to be excellent training for jobs in the clean tech industry, providing great jobs for returning veterans eager to start working and put down roots. Soldiers building bases in Iraq can build solar farms in Nevada, and a technician who worked on submarine electronics can troubleshoot the electronics of a smart power grid. Many of the men and women in the video served in Iraq, where they experienced the consequences of our dependence on foreign oil firsthand and how American oil dollars fund those fighting against us. By working in clean tech, these former soldiers are able to continue serving their country by making America energy independent -- no bullets or overseas deployments required. "Clean Energy Jobs For A Strong USA" and "Clean Energy Patriots" are videos you should dare elected officials and green job skeptics to watch. Even if you ignore the reality of climate change, the benefits of clean energy to America's economy and national security are overwhelming, and the honesty and excitement of the videos' participants hits you in a way that actors or the most polished PR firms couldn't match. For those who can't imagine a thriving economy based on clean energy, efficiency and energy independence, these videos provide a glimpse into a safer, more sustainable future for America. Or, more accurately, they let you spend time with the men and women who are already living there and want the rest of the nation to join them. Follow James Boyce on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jamesboyce

James Boyce: What's Up With the Rainforest: Are Biofuels an Ethical Solution?

While scientists make strides in researching solutions towards a better future, we have become apathetic to our environmental crisis. Are we falling back on the idea that technology will save us? We need technology and innovation combined with the power of human action and devotion in order to win the fight for a sustainable, clean environment. This week the Rainforest Newsladder has brought to light both encouraging scientific advancements, as well as sobering truths about the way we see the world. Along with our partner Rainforest Alliance, we hope you become an active participant towards a brighter tomorrow. As we have seen in the past weeks, biofuels, especially palm oil, are being scrutinized for their negative environmental, economic and social effects. Our first group of stories looks into the new energy alternatives being studied to provide a solution that will be both beneficial to the environment and to our lifestyle. One option scientists are considering is using "biochar - charcoal created in an oxygen-free environment - to improve soil quality and sequester carbon". Still in the early stages of research, it is impossible to tell, with certainty, biochar's impact on the environment, but the lab results so far have been promising, suggesting that biochar would lead to less carbon in the atmosphere while also improving crops and soil fertility. Another possible solution could be growing right in your backyard, grass. The Carbon Trust has recently announced it will be working with the University of York to "research how using microwave technology could turn garden and wood waste into biofuel". According to the Carbon Trust, the environmental benefits could be substantial, with this new pyrolysis biofuel producing a carbon footprint that could save "95 percent of carbon compared to fossil fuels". In relation, a new consortium of British businesses led by Axion Energy has been created in order to enhance existing technology to produce biofuels created from organic waste materials en masse, with hopes of having a pilot plant up and running by 2014. Although scientists continue to develop innovations and new strategies, the drive towards a sustainable future must be carried by all of us. Unfortunately, as indicated in this next article, environmental concerns are at a 20-year low in the US. An annual Gallup survey saw "record-low levels of concern in all but two if its categories - global warming and maintenance of fresh water supply". What caused the drop in numbers? Gallup speculates it could be "due in part to Americans' belief that environmental conditions in the U.S. are improving", as well as "greater public concern about economic issues, which is usually associated with a drop in environmental concern". This study reveals the "alarming disconnect from the problems that still face the planet", we don't live in a world where we can afford to ignore our environmental crisis, yet we continue to act that way. However, Daniel Janzen, pioneer biologist, reminds us how hard it is for the youngest generation to not be apathetic about what the world now looks like, because "they don't have any idea of what they... could be seeing, or what they could have in their backyard". That combined with the digital age means the only kind of biodiversity they become exposed to is through their laptop or television screen. But Janzen has an idea on how to instill a new perspective - through a DNA barcoder that fits in your back pocket and would allow you to identify "anything, anywhere, anytime". Janzen hopes that "if people can 'read' biodiversity, they will then find it much more valuable to be interested in". The environment and climate change can be a complicated web to understand, but becoming informed on the issues that face our planet today, each of us can become a passionate advocate for a better world. Start your journey by checking out the Rainforest Newsladder to discover the top stories happening around the globe, and then connect with other concerned citizens to continue the conversation by visiting our Facebook page. Follow James Boyce on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jamesboyce

Apr 1, 2010

Food, Inc Director says “It’s not just about food, it’s about our right to know” (VIDEO) | Grist

by Frank Sesno - 25 Mar 2010 10:20 AM
What he says about science is not what you expect. He's not another alarmist who tells us the sky is falling. His solution is different--more open and more reasonable. Check it out. Robert Kenner's documentary about the industrialization of food got a plug from Oprah, was nominated for "Best Documentary" in this year's Academy Awards and has its PBS premier on April 21st. He came to the Planet Forward studios to respond to questions posed by our members, including a fifth generation family farmer who's intimately aware of the big ag's impact on small farms. We also hear from one high school class that has watched the movie, which is being shown in schools around the country.He heard our questions and he answers them.

How to Annoy PETA and Monsanto, Part 2 of our Interview with Food, Inc Director (VIDEO) | Grist

Watch now and see why Robert Kenner has become such a controversial figure on both sides of the aisle.
by Frank Sesno - 1 Apr 2010 1:15 PM

Robert Kenner may have annoyed Monsanto and the others in the food industry, but you may be surprised why PETA hates him. Kenner discusses who's attacking him now in this interview with Planet Forward.

How do you reduce food's carbon footprint? The production, transportation and sale of food requires millions of barrels of oil and per year. Kenner argues maybe science can help us find a solution. One that helps us maintain cheap food prices, but doesn't come at such an environmental cost.

Monsanto has developed a website devoted to dispelling the "myths" of Food Inc and the American Farm Bureau has called the movie "an assault on food production and agriculture."

EPA Raises the Bar for Mountaintop Mining | SolveClimate.com

Few Valley Fills Likely to Meet Federal Standards Under New EPA Guidance
by Guest Writer - Apr 1st, 2010 in Clean Energy Appalachia Environmentalists EPA mountaintop mining MTR
By Suzanne Goldenberg, Guardian
The Obama administration effectively called time today on one of the most destructive industries in America, proposing new environmental guidelines for mountaintop mining removal.
The move was seen as a bold action from the White House, which has in the past disappointed environmental organizations for failing to move more aggressively on pollution and climate change.
But in a conference call with journalists, just an hour after the administration for the first time finalized regulations setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars, officials spelled out guidelines that they acknowledged would make it virtually impossible for mining companies in Appalachia to carry on with business as usual.
The economics of mountaintop mining removal involve a highly destructive practice of blasting through hundreds of feet of mountaintop to get at thin but valuable seams of coal. The debris is removed to "valley fills", and nearly 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia have been buried beneath such fills.
In recent years, opposition to the practice has spread from local activists to celebrities, with Robert Kennedy Jr. and Darryl Hannah demanding an end to the method.
Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said today it is unlikely that valley fills would meet the new standards.
"You are talking about either no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this," she said. "What the science is telling us is that it would be untrue to say you can have any more than minimal valley fill and not see irreversible damage to stream health."
Jackson said the new guidelines were not intended to end coal mining. But she admitted it would be hard work for mining companies to meet the new standard.
"They are going to require folks to roll up their sleeves to protect water quality," she said. "We believe that they are often going to need adjustment to projects proposed because of these new guidelines."
The guidelines laid out by Jackson today would set limits on conductivity in streams near mining sites. The electrical conductivity of streams is seen as a measure of the presence of harmful pollutants.
Officials said the new policy, which will apply to all new proposals and some 79 permits now under review, would protect 95% of aquatic life in streams in Appalachia.
EPA scientists have established that streams with conductivity greater than a certain level — 500 microsiemens per centimeter, a measure of salinity — were irreparably damaged. Officials said today the EPA would block any proposed operations projected to exceed its figure.
Today's guidelines mark a gradual tightening of conditions for mountain coal mining. Last week, the EPA took the rare step of vetoing a West Virginia mine that had already been granted a permit. The EPA said the Spruce No. 1 mine, which was approved under the Bush administration in 2007, would bury up to seven miles of stream and that toxic chemicals would hurt aquatic life. If approved, it would have been the largest mine in West Virginia.
The National Mining Association immediately condemned the move, saying it would cost jobs throughout Appalachia.
The Rainforest Action Network said: "The EPA has finally taken a leap to protect America's mountains and drinking water."

Mar 31, 2010

Court Rules that DNA Is Information, Not Intellectual Property

This illustration depicts DNA packed tightly into chromosomes, as well as a DNA molecule unwound to reveal its 3-D structure.
SOURCE: genome.gov
DNA packed tightly into chromosomes, as well as a DNA molecule unwound to reveal its 3-D structure.
By Andrew Plemmons Pratt | Tuesday, March 30th, 2010
"This, in turn, could shape not just Myriad’s appeal, but future decisions on intellectual property involving innovative biotech processes." ... could be a big deal!  ... Monte
A federal judge in New York ruled yesterday that patents on a set of human genes are invalid. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet handed down his decision in favor of the case brought buy a coalition of groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Patent Foundation. The lawsuit argued that patents owned by Myriad Genetics on two genes connected to breast and ovarian cancer both stunt genetic research and limit access to health care for women.
The full implications of the surprise decision are not yet clear, but gene patents are a contentious intellectual property issue both because they underpin significant investments in the biotechnology industry and because they might pose barriers to increasingly complex genomic research. The ruling is also noteworthy because it invalidates both the patents on the genes themselves and patents for the methods of analyzing and comparing genes to identify mutations in the genetic material.
There are about 40,000 patents that currently protect some 20 percent of the human genome.
Some of the patents in question are for the sequences of DNA that make up the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Mutations on these genes are linked to 3 to 5 percent of breast cancer in the United States and 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But for women with a family history of cancer, genetic testing can be an important medical decision, as BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations carry a 60 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer and up to a 40 percent risk of ovarian cancer.
Myriad holds patents on the genes along with the University of Utah Research Foundation. As a result, Myriad is the only company that can market a test for the mutations, and it charges as much as $3,000.
Filmmaker Johanna Rudnick spoke with Science Progress in 2008 about her documentary, In the Family, which chronicles her own discovery at age 27 that she carries a mutation on the BRCA1 gene. “There is no other, cheaper test that you could go get in another laboratory, because they have the exclusive patent,” she explained, adding that Myriad also controls the efficacy of the test—there is no other company to turn to for a second opinion.
There are about 40,000 patents that currently protect some 20 percent of the human genome. Last year, a federal advisory panel recommended exceptions from patent infringement liability for genetic research. The proposal came from the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health, and Society, known as SACGHS, at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But Timothy Caulfield at the University of Alberta argued here at Science Progress that there is little data to back up the claim the gene patents inhibit reserach. “A 2005 study done for the National Academy of Sciences found only 1 percent of the scientists surveyed reported suffering a project delay of more than 1 month due to patents,” he wrote.
Patents are designed to foster innovation, not stand in the way. That’s why patents are public documents that detail the inner workings of a new invention, exposing the idea for anyone to see and understand. Inventors are protected for the life the patent, currently 20 years, from anyone else copying their idea, but in exchange, they share their technology with the rest of the world, advancing knowledge.
Yet the District Court ruling does not hinge on claims about the impact of the patents on research. It deals instead with whether or not the genes and the processes for analyzing them are patentable in the first place.
An analysis of the ruling posted at Genomics Law Report makes it clear that the decision presents DNA as pure information—whether it is part of a complete genome or isolated in the form protected by Myriad’s patents. From the judgment itself:
DNA represents the physical embodiment of biological information, distinct in its essential characteristics from any other chemical found in nature. It is concluded that DNA’s existence in an ‘isolated’ form alters neither this fundamental quality as it exists in the body not the information it encodes (pp. 3-4).
That is, patents on the chemicals that make up specific sequences of DNA are no different from the information they encode in the human genome. And this naturally occurring information is not eligible for patent protection.
The decision in this trial court for the Southern District of New York is not binding precedent for other trial courts, though it could influence thinking elsewhere. But Myriad has the right to appeal the case the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and has indicated it will do just that. This process could take more than a year, and ultimately, if the case proceeded to the Supreme Court, the justices there would have the final say on the matter.
The implications for the biotech industry and medical research are uncertain at the moment. “We do not foresee this decision producing any radical changes in commercial, clinical or other activity surrounding Myriad’s BRCA patents, or gene patents more broadly,” write the lawyers at Genomics Law Report. The New York Times quotes Bryan Roberts, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, who suggests that the work of discovering genes and developing the accompanying diagnostic tests will move to university laboratories: “The government is going to become the funder for content discovery because it’s going to be very hard to justify it outside of academia.”
But the ruling did not merely invalidate the patents on the gene sequences themselves. It went even further and invalidated the method patents on the processes for analyzing the genes. The Supreme Court is currently considering a case involving method patents, and that ruling could have implications for the appeal on yesterday’s decision. The case, referred to as Bilski, focuses on a business method patent on a process for hedging commodities risks.
The current rule for testing method patents laid out by the Federal Circuit in Bilski requires that the process be connected to a particular machine or device or that the process transform an article or piece of matter into something else. In yesterday’s ruling, Judge Sweet found that the Myriad patents fail this test, writing, “because the claimed comparisons of DNA sequences are abstract mental processes, they also constitute unpatentable subject matter” (p. 4).
The Supreme Court’s decision could uphold the test or propose a new set of rules that would become the legal precedent. This, in turn, could shape not just Myriad’s appeal, but future decisions on intellectual property involving innovative biotech processes.
Andrew Plemmons Pratt is the managing editor for Science Progress.

James Lovelock: Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change | Environment | The Guardian

James LovelockHumans are too stupid to prevent climate change, according to the British scientist James Lovelock. Illustration: Murdo Macleod

Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change from radically impacting on our lives over the coming decades. This is the stark conclusion of James Lovelock, the globally respected environmental thinker and independent scientist who developed the Gaia theory.

It follows a tumultuous few months in which public opinion on efforts to tackle climate change has been undermined by events such as the climate scientists' emails leaked from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit.

"I don't think we're yet evolved to the point where we're clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change," said Lovelock in his first in-depth interview since the theft of the UEA emails last November. "The inertia of humans is so huge that you can't really do anything meaningful."

One of the main obstructions to meaningful action is "modern democracy", he added. "Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while."

Lovelock, 90, believes the world's best hope is to invest in adaptation measures, such as building sea defences around the cities that are most vulnerable to sea-level rises. He thinks only a catastrophic event would now persuade humanity to take the threat of climate change seriously enough, such as the collapse of a giant glacier in Antarctica, such as the Pine Island glacier, which would immediately push up sea level.

"That would be the sort of event that would change public opinion," he said. "Or a return of the dust bowl in the mid-west. Another Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report won't be enough. We'll just argue over it like now." The IPCC's 2007 report concluded that there was a 90% chance that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are causing global warming, but the panel has been criticised over a mistaken claim that all Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2030.

Lovelock says the events of the recent months have seen him warming to the efforts of the "good" climate sceptics: "What I like about sceptics is that in good science you need critics that make you think: 'Crumbs, have I made a mistake here?' If you don't have that continuously, you really are up the creek. The good sceptics have done a good service, but some of the mad ones I think have not done anyone any favours. You need sceptics, especially when the science gets very big and monolithic."

Lovelock, who 40 years ago originated the idea that the planet is a giant, self-regulating organism – the so-called Gaia theory – added that he has little sympathy for the climate scientists caught up in the UEA email scandal. He said he had not read the original emails – "I felt reluctant to pry" – but that their reported content had left him feeling "utterly disgusted".

"Fudging the data in any way whatsoever is quite literally a sin against the holy ghost of science," he said. "I'm not religious, but I put it that way because I feel so strongly. It's the one thing you do not ever do. You've got to have standards."

• Read the full transcript of James Lovelock's G2 interview with Leo Hickman
• The G2 interview

Video (13min 25sec)Father of Gaia theory James Lovelock defends his forthcoming trip into space, and suggests that the technology for reversing climate change may be within our grasp

America's Largest Private Water Utility Joins Lawsuit Against Herbicide Maker | Water

The lawsuit alleges that Syngenta AG made billions of dollars selling an herbicide that endangered public health. American Water Company joined the suit yesterday.
March 31, 2010 | The nation’s largest private water utility company has joined a federal lawsuit that aims to force the manufacturer of atrazine, a widely-used herbicide, to pay for its removal from drinking water.

As the Investigative Fund reported two weeks ago, the class action lawsuit was originally filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois by 16 cities in Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, and Iowa. The communities are alleging that Swiss corporation Syngenta AG and its Delaware counterpart Syngenta Crop Protection, Inc. made billions of dollars selling atrazine while local taxpayers were left “the ever-growing bill for filtering the toxic product from the public’s drinking water.”

American Water Company joined the lawsuit in five of those states yesterday, representing 28 additional Midwestern communities.

A spokesman for American Water, Terry Mackin, said in a written statement that the company’s state subsidiaries are joining the case to recover past and future “costs of treating their raw water supplies for atrazine which they all have done in meeting or exceeding the federal and state drinking water standards.”

Syngenta spokesman Paul Minehart told the Investigative fund that the company had not yet been served with a federal lawsuit. He re-emphasized that “the EPA re-registered atrazine in 2006, stating it would cause no harm to the general population.”

We reported in a series of articles last fall that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to notify the public that the weed-killer had been found at levels above the federal safety limit in drinking water in at least four states. The EPA recently announced that it would be undertaking a re-evaluation of the chemical’s potential to cause harm to humans and animals.

BBC News - Today - Lovelock: 'We can't save the planet'

File:James Lovelock in 2005.jpg
Listen to the full broadcast interview

Professor James Lovelock, the scientist who developed Gaia theory, has said it is too late to try and save the planet. The man who achieved global fame for his theory that the whole earth is a single organism now believes that we can only hope that the earth will take care of itself in the face of completely unpredictable climate change. Interviewed by Today presenter John Humphrys, videos of which you can see at the full blog site, he said that while the earth's future was utterly uncertain, mankind was not aware it had "pulled the trigger" on global warming as it built its civilizations. 'We're not really guilty. We didn't deliberately set out to heat the world' What is more, he predicts, the earth's climate will not conveniently comply with the models of modern climate scientists. As the record winter cold testifies, he says, global temperatures move in "jerks and jumps", and we cannot confidently predict what the future holds. 'The world doesn't change its climate conveniently' Prof Lovelock does not pull his punches on the politicians and scientists who are set to gain from the idea that we can predict climate change and save the planet ourselves. Scientists, he says, have moved from investigating nature as a vocation, to being caught in a career path where it makes sense to "fudge the data". 'Science has changed in our lifetime' And while renewable energy technology may make good business sense, he says, it is not based on "good practical engineering". Renewable technology 'doesn't really work' At the age of 90, Prof Lovelock is resigned to his own fate and the fate of the planet. Whether the planet saves itself or not, he argues, all we can do is to "enjoy life while you can". Trying to save the planet 'is a lot of nonsense'

Mar 30, 2010

Dan Nocera: Personalized Energy

MIT Professor Dan Nocera believes he can solve the world’s energy problems with an Olympic-sized pool of water. Nocera and his research team have identified a simple technique for powering the Earth inexpensively—-by using the sun to split water and store energy—-and thus making the large-scale deployment of personalized solar energy possible.

Michael Pollan: Sustainable Food

Author and activist Michael Pollan is a passionate advocate for sustainable food. In his compelling PopTech talk, he explores how our industrial food system keeps us overly dependent on fossil fuels, destroys our environment, and makes us sick. Breaking this cycle requires changing our relationship to food – and eating more meals together.

Zero Waste panel at SxSW with Beth Ferguson, Jason Aramburu on Vimeo

Zero Waste panel at SxSW with Beth Ferguson, Jason Aramburu from PopTech on Vimeo.

re:char - Latest News

File:James Lovelock in 2005.jpgre:char has appointed Dr. James Lovelock as scientific advisor. Dr. Lovelock is a world-renowned climate scientist and originator of the Gaia Hypothesis. He was the first to discover CFCs in Earth's Atmosphere, and is a respected advocate for biochar as a means to slow down global climate change. Dr. Lovelock will provide re:char with a gaia-centric approach to the development and deployment of biochar technology. 
re:char founder, Jason Aramburu, spoke on a panel entitled "Zero Waste: The Future of Green" at SXSW interactive in Austin, TX. Listen to Jason's remarks via Pop!Tech 
re:char founder, Jason Aramburu, will participate as a fellow at this summer's Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, CO. The Unreasonable Institute is a gathering and incubator for social entrepreneurs, providing mentoring, collaboration and capital to leading social enterprises.
re-char celebrates their relocation to Austin, TX. In Austin they've opened a full-time fabrication and engineering lab, as well as a small test farm to demo our technology.

One of the Most Incorrect Statements in History

One of the Most Incorrect Statements in History“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” – Elbert Hubbard

... So if you’re facing scathing skepticism, just keep these 3 stories in mind:

1) A German Greek Grammar teacher named Joseph Degenhart told the father of one his 7th grade students “It doesn’t matter what he does, he will never amount to anything.” That student was Albert Einstein.

2) A Management Professor at Yale told Fred Smith, a business student who wrote a paper proposing an overnight delivery service, “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.” Smith went on to start Fedex.

3) In 1962, The Decca Recording Company turned away a band looking to put together an album, saying “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” That band was The Beatles.

If someone tells you what you’re doing will never work…well, it just might be one of the most incorrect statements in history.

2010 Spud Season Begins – New Technique! One Straw: Be the Change

Papa Paw Paw
Great use of the best ideas available combined should produce tremendous results. Only thing that remains would be the addition of 1/2″ biochar added to the soil mixture to retain nutrients, provide porous environment for soil organisms, prevent leeching, and be carbon negative (long term sponge carbon effect – 100’s of years). A portion of the wood chips could be made into biochar. ROB IS THE CHANGE AND INSPIRES US ALL!

Mar 29, 2010

A Growing Tradition: Learning from the Past

I've been thinking a lot today about why I feel compelled to grow my own food. Somehow, I think this video has a lot to do with it. I love watching this footage of our gardening forefathers working the land. While our growing techniques have changed through the ages, it seems the core principles still remain the same. Will our country ever take part in such a powerful movement again? Victory was their motivation....what should ours be? A wonderful post by "A Growing Tradition Blog" Monte

Harvesting the Winter Garden

Posted by Sam Kass
After a long, and historically snowy winter here in Washington DC, we harvested our winter crop on March 10th. We have been enjoying the lettuce, spinach, turnips, carrots, and greens ever since. From the beginning, we wanted to demonstrate that a four-season garden was indeed possible even in Washington D.C. As it turned out, this winter was harsher than most and in fact more like the ones typical to Chicago, with the city experiencing over two feet of snow one week!

Farmers and gardeners around the world are extending their growing seasons through the very simple technology of hoop houses. We used a smaller version that is often referred to as high tunnels. The structures are simply a series of four or five metal bars arched over the beds about three feet high. Fixed to the bars is a simple plastic covering which traps the heat of the sun during the day to keep the plants from freezing at night.

We were cautiously optimistic that our hoop houses would protect the crops and were pleasantly surprised. All told we harvested just under 50lbs of produce. A modest harvest compared to what the summer had brought, but it is exciting to have been able to produce food during a long harsh winter. The lettuce and spinach are particularly sweet and delicious. We also learned a few things. For example, we planted our carrots a little too late. They were not as big as we had hoped, but the little things are tasty! We also discovered that the beds to the north side of the garden get considerably more sun the beds that the beds on south side. The sun is much lower in the sky and late in the day the southern beds are shadowed by surrounding trees. Next year, we will be sure to put plants that need more sun on the north side of the garden. Good lessons to learn, but all together a nice surprise.

Over the next few weeks we will be getting the garden ready for our spring planting. Seeds are being sprouted and at the First Lady’s request we have expanded the garden by 500 square feet so we can grow even more varieties of fruits and vegetables. Needless to say we are excited for Spring so stay tuned!

Mar 28, 2010

BlueLeaf Inc is Setting up Large Scale Biochar Field Trials in Canada

biochar vs controlTo date, very little data has been available on the effect of biochar on tempurate soils, especially for field trials in commercial farming operations. One of the pioneers to research and field-test biochar in Canada is BlueLeaf Inc. BlueLeaf set up a biochar commercial farm field trial in the spring of 2008 and has been intensively monitoring the plots for two growing seasons.

Barry Husk, President of BlueLeaf, says he became interested in working with biochar after doing research on the subject on the Internet in 2007. Barry and his team had been developing techniques for reducing lake eutrophication caused by nutrient runoff from agricultural land, working with farmers located in a small watershed near Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. Soils of the area had become saturated with phosphorus after repeated applications of animal manures and chemical fertilizers. “We thought biochar could potentially fit well into local farmers’ management systems and also address some serious problems related to phosphorus runoff from local soils contributing to algal blooms in our lakes."

In May 2008, BlueLeaf purchased biochar from the Canadian company DynaMotive Energy Systems Corporation and applied it to a clay soil in one swath. An adjacent, unamended swath was marked for comparison. The field had previously been managed conventionally with dairy cattle manure applications. One of the questions the BlueLeaf team had was how to best work with and apply the biochar. The material provided by DynaMotive was produced through a fast pyrolysis process, resulting in very finely divided particles. It was applied using a commercial lime spreader and losses by wind were significant. This was an important learning experience and points to the fact that finely divided biochars must either be processed after production (e.g. by pelletizing, prilling, wetting, etc.), and/or best management practices must be developed for working with these fine biochars. In the Quebec region, application of biochar in a mixture with manure could potentially drastically reduce the losses of biochar during handling and application. New equipment being developed by the United States Department of Agriculture for the subsurface application of poultry litter could also prove to be useful in reducing biochar losses during application.

The effect of biochar on soybean yields in the first season of the BlueLeaf field trial was positive, with a 19% yield increase when biochar was applied at an estimated rate of 3.9 t/ha. A mixture of annual and perennial forage species was seeded in 2009 and fresh above-ground biomass doubled where biochar had been applied compared to the unamended control. Although the yield improvements could not definitively be related to the availability of nutrients in soil, biochar did improve some physical and biological parameters of the soil such as increased earthworm density in biochar-amended plots. For a full report on this work, please go to: http://www.blue-leaf.ca/main-en/report_a3.php .

In addition to continuing to monitor this experiment, BlueLeaf will undertake new trials in the spring of 2010 which will compare different biochar materials at different application rates and monitor more closely the effect of biochar on phosphorus dynamics in soil, with and without manure application.

BlueLeaf’s vision for the future of the biochar industry would involve the pyrolysis of existing streams of agricultural and forestry biomass. Ideally this would be achieved through the use of small-scale, mobile pyrolysis equipment going to the source of the biomass, processing it on-site and leaving it for application to soils by the farm operators. BlueLeaf hopes to validate this concept as a business model by demonstrating and quantifying the economic advantages of biochar for agricultural purposes. They believe that large scale use of biochar relies on its adaptation by the agricultural industry and demonstrating its economic advantages is essential.

In addition to the economic advantages for agriculture, BlueLeaf will continue to examine all potential environmental advantages to biochar in soils, including soil nutrient retention (thereby reducing surface water eutrophication, groundwater contamination, and nutrient input requirements) as well as soil greenhouse gas reductions. BlueLeaf will also examine potential positive effects of biochar on soil biodiversity.

BlueLeaf Inc. is a private, for-profit, social enterprise active in environmental and agricultural endeavours for more information:

Website: www.blue-leaf.ca
Email: info@blue-leaf.ca

Economical carbon capture by restoring degraded soils - Carbon Capture Journal

Feature Articles, Mar 12 2010 (Carbon Capture Journal) - Improved farming methods could quickly rebuild degraded land and store enough carbon to offset the emissions caused by burning fossil fuels. Thomas Blakeslee, President, The Clearlight Foundation, outlines some approaches to capturing CO2 in soils. Poor farming practices have degraded the world's soils causing them to release carbon that should have stayed in the soil. In the past 150 years soils have released twice as much carbon as fuel burning. Dr Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, a leading expert on soil carbon, estimates that the potential of economical carbon sequestration in world soils may be .65 billion to 1.1 billion tons per year for the next 50 years. This is enough to draw down atmospheric CO2 by 50 ppm by 2100. This is a one-time opportunity, however. We must ultimately stop burning fossil fuels. Man has already degraded about five billion acres of land on the planet by misguided farming practices and overgrazing. In fact, many of the world's deserts were once rich land. Desertification from overgrazing, plowing and growing annual crops has greatly reduced the carbon retained in the earth's soils. Many of our deserts started as forests which were cut or burned down to clear the land and then ruined by overgrazing. If we could reclaim these ruined lands we could restore the carbon balance of our planet. We have only recently begun to understand the destructive effects of plowing and overgrazing. The delicate surface crust is an almost invisible biotic network of algae, cyanobacteria and lichens that hold the soil together with tiny filaments. This thin crust takes in an amazing amount of CO2 by photosynthesis and also fixes the nitrogen in the air to a form usable by plants. Tilling the soil breaks up and buries the biotic crust, stopping photosynthesis. The dust bowl in Oklahoma in the 1930s was an example of the bad effects of plowing the land. Wind and erosion almost turned that once-rich grassland into a desert. In China and Africa the sand dunes have been advancing southward, turning more and more land into sterile deserts. Dust storms in the Gobi desert often block the sun in Beijing and many Saharan dust storms ultimately evolve into the hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. One very encouraging project in China has restored a desert community and given them a source of revenue growing sand willow for making wood planks. This experiment was so successful that the restored area is growing rapidly as individuals plant sand willow as a source of income. Even more exciting, is the plan to build hybrid solar power plants in the area that will use the sand willow as biomass to feed boilers when the sun doesn't shine. Esolar will provide heliostats and a solar tower for generating solar power in the daytime. The same turbines will be driven at night by steam, generated by burning the sand willow. A total of two gigawatts of these hybrid power plants are planned. The sand willow matures in only three years and quickly regrows when cut. Villagers sell sand willow timber to plank companies for $30/ton. This economic boom has driven more and more plantings which are greening of the desert. Once a beachhead is established, the local micro climate is changed. Trees provide shade and shelter from the desert winds. Ultimately moisture brings clouds and increases in rainfall. A whole new ecosystem evolves. Carbon credits could drive this kind of renaissance even faster. It is very important that we develop inexpensive soil carbon monitoring systems so that such important changes in land use can be rewarded. Farmers are already receiving millions of dollars for no-till farming in the US but some have challenged their legitimacy as being "non-additional." Hopefully, projects with multiple benefits should not be deprived of carbon credits which could drive the fast progress we need. A "green wall" project has been proposed by the UN which will plant trees along a 7000 km strip which is the current southern edge of the Sahara desert. It is floundering now for lack of money but carbon credits for land restoration could restore it to health. One of the biggest challenges is re-educating people in degraded areas to keep them from turning it back into a desert. Grazing goats and sheep were practical only when population density was much less than it is today. Under crowded conditions animal hooves quickly trample the soil crust. Denuded plant life soon leads to erosion and desertification. Goats and sheep are particularly destructive as they pull up vegetation by the roots. Too much of our agriculture has been dedicated to feeding animals which is inefficient at best. It takes 15 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beefsteak. Fish, being cold blooded, are much more efficient. They eat as little as two pounds per pound of meat. The "green revolution" doubled cereal production between 1961 and 1985. Unfortunately, much of the increase was based on use of cheap fossil fuels to make fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and to irrigate and cultivate the land. The energy content of food has reached frightening levels. Worse yet, the whole philosophy of this movement treats nature as an enemy to be conquered. Other plants, insects and microbes are simply poisoned. Unfortunately, the result has been degraded soils that need even more chemicals. Good healthy soil can hold three times more carbon than the plants themselves, mostly in the form of humus, bacteria, algae and other organic matter. The University of Illinois has maintained corn-growing test plots for over 100 years. Since 1955 synthetic nitrogen fertilization has been applied which contained 90-124 tons of carbon per acre. Today, all of that residue has disappeared into the atmosphere adding to global warming and there has been a decrease in soil carbon of 4.9 tons per acre. Today, there is a healthy revival of permaculture principles that work with nature instead of against it. Annual crops only do photosynthesis during the growing season, leaving bare dirt the rest of the year. By growing perennials, the root mass and the biotic community can grow steadily larger year after year instead of starting from scratch. Roots go deeper and deeper with each season, increasing drought resistance. Yearlong Green Farming maximizes carbon and water storage in the soil by keeping soil covered with greenery all year long. The world's soils hold three times as much carbon as the atmosphere and four times as much as all of the plants in the world. A large part of the carbon storage is in the biotic soil community and humus, which forms only when the community is kept intact. Restoration experiments in Australia found that conventional cropping practices had reduced soil carbon to half to one third of original levels. Biomass can be grown from perennial grasses harvested regularly like a lawn that is repeatedly mowed. This allows undisturbed roots to continue to grow larger every year. Symbiotic fungi called mycorrhizae form an association with the roots which can increase their efficiency by a factor of ten. They are powered by the grasses' metabolism but pay back by creating nitrogen and collecting nutrients. By putting rows or clumps of perennial grasses in fields of other crops, yield can be increased while collecting carbon credits. In some cases 8 tons of CO2 stored per acre per year have been recorded with virtually no biomass inputs. Grazing animals can help restore soils if the grazing patterns simulate migrating herds. They are an important part of the grassland ecosystem. The more the soil has been degraded the easier it is to earn credits with changes that store significant carbon. A recent study by Stanford University's Carnegie Institution identified 1.8 million square miles of abandoned farmland worldwide. Heavy use of chemical fertilizers is unnecessary if the soil's crust is kept intact. Even in barren deserts specialized cyanobacteria on the very top surface remove CO2 and nitrogen from the air through photosynthesis. They protect and colaborate with other species in the next layer that fix the nitrogen but cannot stand oxygen. These species have coevolved to work together to hold the soil together and support the growth of more complex vascular plants. Almost invisible to the naked eye, this crust ecosystem stabilizes the soil while fixing carbon and nitrogen. When the delicate crust community is destroyed, plants starve for nitrogen unless they are given massive fertilizer applications. Chemical fertilizers are an environmental nightmare which release lots of nitrous oxide into the air. Nitrous oxide is 298 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Fertilizers also pollute streams, consume fossil fuels and emit CO2 in their manufacture. Bioinoculants can restore degraded soils by adding natural microorganisms that greatly reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and even water in the soil. Dramatic increases in soil carbon are possible in a single season. Damaged soil crusts could be healed by aerial spraying of tiny amounts of cyanobacteria mixtures which remain viable through long periods of dryness yet rehydrate and begin growing within minutes of receiving rain or even dew condensation. Cyanobacteria were responsible for creating the oxygen on our planet from CO2 billions of years ago. Perhaps they can help us to rescue the planet today. Another promising approach to greening deserts is seawater farming. Coastal desert areas lacking fresh water can grow plants like Mangrove and Salicornia along with fish and shrimp that provide the fertilizer. The first commercial-scale saltwater farm was built by the Seawater Foundation on a barren desert in Eritrea, on the west coast of the Red Sea. Before the project, ecologists found only 13 species of wild birds in the area. By the time the farm was completed in 2002, the count had increased to 200. Here is a movie about that farm. Another massive farm is planned for Abu Dhabi. Boing and Honeywell are partners in the project which will grow salt-water biomass to be used for making green fuel for jet aircraft. There are 25,000 miles of coastal desert in the world that could be developed in this way. Carbon trading could be the driver for these projects if we can only develop sound verification protocols and measuring instruments. The Clearlight Foundation