Mar 13, 2010


Charcoal Mellow

Charcoal Mellow
CHARCOAL MELLOWING - Jack Daniel believed "Every day we make it, we'll make it the best we can." For him, that meant mellowing his whiskey drop by drop through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal. PICTURES: MAKING CHARCOAL THE JACK DANIEL'S WAY! See wonderful web photo posts: Jack Daniel's Distillery Tour and Jack Daniel's Distillery

Mar 12, 2010

Harvesting Golden Rod Grass for Pelleting

Finished Bale
The golden rod is harvested with the same equipment as hay -- a cutter, a rake, and then a baler. First, the plants must be cut. The cut golden rod still has some flowers and leaves which are not needed for pellets. The plants are allowed to stay in the field for a couple of weeks so most of everything other than the stalk comes off in the process of retting, similar to rotting. This leaves the soft and nutritious material to go back into the earth. This leaves the raking of the stalks lying loose all over the field. Not at all efficient for the baler to pick up. The baler straddles the windrows and picks up the stalks. If the weather has been dry enough, the rake and the baler can run at the same time. It's a coordinated "dance" The finished product, waiting to be picked up and taken to the pellet mill. Each one of these bales has the equivalent amount of energy as 40 gallons of oil when made into pellets for heating. That's money that stays here, not only in the States, but in the county! It is carbon neutral; it does not pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from fossil fuels. It is renewable and we can look forward to a new crop every year. Now it's off to the pellet mill!

The Biochar Workshop at Pony Farm

Watch amazing video demonstrations!

Graphic illustration of how the TLUD does not burn the fuel but rather the gases that have been driven off the fuel. The next demonstration produced charcoal with a retort made from a recycled Cornelius keg. Explanations of what it is and how to convert one as an excellent and affordable retort. Keg in action as a retort for making charcoal from wood scraps. Dr. Thomas B. Reed shows his technique for making charcoal with inspiration from Jack Daniels.

Make Biochar — this Ancient Technique Will Improve Your Soil

Garden burning
By Barbara Pleasant

Last year, I committed one of the great sins of gardening: I let weeds go to seed. Cleaning up in fall, I faced down a ton of seed-bearing foxtail, burdock and crabgrass. Sure, I could compost it hot to steam the weed seeds to death, but instead I decided to try something different. I dug a ditch, added the weeds and lots of woody prunings, and burned it into biochar, thus practicing a “new” soil-building technique that’s at least 3,000 years old.

What’s biochar? Basically, it’s organic matter that is burned slowly, with a restricted flow of oxygen, and then the fire is stopped when the material reaches the charcoal stage. Unlike tiny tidbits of ash, coarse lumps of charcoal are full of crevices and holes, which help them serve as life rafts to soil microorganisms. The carbon compounds in charcoal form loose chemical bonds with soluble plant nutrients so they are not as readily washed away by rain and irrigation. Biochar alone added to poor soil has little benefit to plants, but when used in combination with compost and organic fertilizers, it can dramatically improve plant growth while helping retain nutrients in the soil.

Amazonian Dark Earths
The idea of biochar comes from the Amazonian rain forests of Brazil, where a civilization thrived for 2,000 years, from about 500 B.C. until Spanish and Portuguese explorers introduced devastating European diseases in the mid-1500s. Using only their hands, sticks and stone axes, Amazonian tribes grew cassava, corn and numerous tree fruits in soil made rich with compost, mulch and smoldered plant matter.

Amazingly, these “dark earths” persist today as a testament to an ancient soil-building method you can use in your garden. Scientists disagree on whether the soils were created on purpose, in order to grow more food, or if they were an accidental byproduct of the biochar and compost generated in day-to-day village life along the banks of the Earth’s biggest river. However they came to be, there is no doubt that Amazonian dark earths (often called terra preta) hold plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, much more efficiently than unimproved soil. Even after 500 years of tropical temperatures and rainfall that averages 80 inches a year, the dark earths remain remarkably fertile.

Scientists around the world are working in labs and field trial plots to better understand how biochar works, and to unravel the many mysteries of terra preta. At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., microbiologists have discovered bacteria in terra preta soils that are similar to strains that are active in hot compost piles. Overall populations of fungi and bacteria are high in terra preta soils, too, but the presence of abundant carbon makes the microorganisms live and reproduce at a slowed pace. The result is a reduction in the turnover rate of organic matter in the soil, so composts and other soil-enriching forms of organic matter last longer.

In field trials with corn, rice and many other crops, biochar has increased productivity by making nutrients already present in the soil better available to plants. Results are especially dramatic when biochar is added to good soil that contains ample minerals and plant nutrients. Research continues (track it at The International Biochar Initiative), but at this point it appears that biochar gives both organic matter and microorganisms in organically enriched soil enhanced staying power. Digging in nuggets of biochar — or adding them to compost as it is set aside to cure — can slow the leaching away of nutrients and help organically enriched soil retain nutrients for decades rather than for a couple of seasons.

Finding Free Biochar

Biochar’s soil building talents may change the way you clean your woodstove. In addition to gathering ashes (and keeping them in a dry metal can until you’re ready to use them as a phosphorus-rich soil amendment, applied in light dustings), make a habit of gathering the charred remains of logs. Take them to your garden, give them a good smack with the back of a shovel and you have biochar.

If you live close to a campground, you may have access to an unlimited supply of garden-worthy biochar from the remains of partially burned campfires. The small fires burned in chimineas often produce biochar, too, so you may need to look no further than your neighbor’s deck for a steady supply.

Charcoal briquettes used in grilling are probably not a good choice. Those designed to light fast often include paraffin or other hydrocarbon solvents that have no place in an organic garden. Plain charred weeds, wood or cow pies are better materials for using this promising soil-building technique based on ancient gardening wisdom.

How to Make Biochar

To make biochar right in your gardens, start by digging a trench in a bed. (Use a fork to loosen the soil in the bottom of the trench and you’ll get the added benefits of this “double-digging” technique.) Then pile brush into the trench and light it. You want to have a fire that starts out hot, but is quickly slowed down by reducing the oxygen supply. The best way to tell what’s going on in a biochar fire is to watch the smoke. The white smoke, produced early on, is mostly water vapor. As the smoke turns yellow, resins and sugars in the material are being burned. When the smoke thins and turns grayish blue, dampen down the fire by covering it with about an inch of soil to reduce the air supply, and leave it to smolder. Then, after the organic matter has smoldered into charcoal chunks, use water to put out the fire. Another option would be to make charcoal from wood scraps in metal barrels. (For details, go to Twin Oaks Forge.)

I’m part of the Smokey-the-Bear generation, raised on phrases like “learn not to burn,” so it took me a while to warm up to the idea of using semi-open burning as a soil-building technique. Unrestrained open burning releases 95 percent or more of the carbon in the wood, weeds or whatever else that goes up in smoke. However, low-temperature controlled burning to create biochar, called pyrolysis, retains much more carbon (about 50 percent) in the initial burning phase. Carbon release is cut even more when the biochar becomes part of the soil, where it may reduce the production of greenhouse gases including methane and nitrous oxide. This charcoal releases its carbon 10 to 100 times slower than rotting organic matter. As long as it is done correctly, controlled charring of weeds, pruned limbs and other hard-to-compost forms of organic matter, and then using the biochar as a soil or compost amendment, can result in a zero emission carbon cycling system.

Burning responsibly requires simple common sense. Check with your local fire department to make sure you have any necessary permits, wait as long as you must to get damp, windless weather, and monitor the fire until it’s dead.

The Bigger Picture

If global warming is to be slowed, we must find ways to reduce the loss of carbon into the atmosphere. In the dark earths of the Amazon, and in million-year-old charcoal deposits beneath the Pacific Ocean, charcoal has proven its ability to bring carbon release almost to a standstill. If each of one million farmers around the globe incorporated biochar into 160 acres of land, the amount of carbon locked away in the Earth’s soil would increase five-fold.

But there’s more. What if you generate energy by burning a renewable biomass crop (like wood, corn, peanut hulls, bamboo, willow or whatever), while also producing biochar that is then stashed away by using it as a soil amendment? (For an example, see the Archive article, Mother’s Woodburning Truck, about wood-gas generators.) The carbon recovery numbers in such a system make it the only biomass model found thus far that can produce energy without a net release of carbon. Research teams around the world are scrambling to work out the details of these elegantly Earth-based systems.

Much remains to be known about how biochar systems should tick, but some may be as simple as on-farm set ups that transform manure and other wastes into nuggets of black carbon that help fertilizer go farther while holding carbon in the soil.

As gardeners, it is up to us to find ways to adapt this new knowledge to the needs of our land. To make the most of my bonfire of weeds, I staged the burn in a trench dug in my garden, and then used the excavated soil to smother the fire. A layer of biochar now rests buried in the soil. Hundreds of years from now, it will still be holding carbon while energizing the soil food web. This simple melding of soil and fire, first discovered by ancient people in the Amazon, may be a “new” key to feeding ourselves while restoring the health of our planet.
To learn more about this fascinating topic, read Amazonian Dark Earths by Johannes Lehmann.

Dirk-Jan Rosse - Farm Scale Making of Biochar in place

Farm Scale Making of Biochar in Place

If we are going to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in order to to stop the greenhouse gas effect, we must do more than conserve energy and use sustainable fuel sources. We have to actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Nature already does this. It pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and stores carbon in plant matter. But when we burn it or let it compost or rot, the carbon is joined with oxygen again and goes back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The problem gas. To break the cycle, we can actually keep the carbon in the soil by making biochar, charcoal. It's something that farmers can do to help themselves by improving their soil. And help the rest of the planet!

If biochar is going to be used by farmers it has to be able to be made by farmers: it not only has to be relatively convenient for them to put into their fields but also into their already busy workloads. And it has to be in a quantity that can be applied to acres of farmland. It has to be made by the ton!

First, meet Dirk-Jan Rosse, who has been experimenting with making biochar in place. Dirk-Jan Rosse lives in farming country although he calls himself a "digger", running an excavating company. Since childhood he has prowled all over the woods and fields of northern Dutchess County, NY, where he still runs across traces of charcoal-making from the days when it was used to smelt the iron for weapons in the Revolution and Civil War. Dirk-Jan has a lot of surplus wood on his own property. He milled some lumber for his own use, but there was an awful lot more than he needed for himself and there was not much of a local market for firewood. He has been thinking about how to make charcoal at a scale that would suit a farm using equipment available to a farmer. But being in the excavation business, however, he had his own commercial earth-moving gear that you would not really find lying around a farm. This allowed him to ramp up the scale and the speed of making some tests, but on a smaller and slightly slower scale everything could also be done by tractor with a bucket and grapple. He remembered those remains of charcoal pits and kilns. His plan is quite simple: rather than make biochar someplace and then cart it to the field, why not actually make it in the field itself? It would be based on a traditional way: covering a pile of scrap wood, tree clippings, cut-offs, etc. with dirt and letting it pyrolyze right on the spot. The same dirt that forms the "retort" would end up as the home for the charcoal. There is no apparatus required. Just the existing dirt and some bad hay (of which there is plenty where we live). What needed to be tested was the design of the pile, how the wood should be stacked, and what kind of air or smoke openings should be placed.

STEP ONE: MAKING THE STACK Again, the Bobcat can be replaced by a tractor's bucket loader and grapple. It's time to light up! After a few days of smoldering, the pile was ready to be opened. Well, in truth, we were dying of curiosity! Now let's switch to an implement of a different scale... This is only a small fraction of the pile. There is plenty of good carbon to be put into the soil that has been taken out of the air. The experiment is not over. There will be more piles to make biochar and to improve the process: the smoke needs to be burned off, the air-flow improved... the charcoal will need to be matched with appropriate compost... more - videos of the process ....

Mar 11, 2010

Brave Thinkers - Magazine - Atlantic Monthly

Name: Danny Day
Job: Founder and President of Eprida
Why he’s brave: His company offers a promising method for absorbing and burying excess carbon dioxide.
Quote: “We have 3 billion people out there who are at risk for climate change and they can be making money solving our global problem.”

Indigenous tribes of the Amazon Basin had a neat trick for sequestering carbon: they buried a combination of animal by-products and charcoal in their fields, which made their crops grow in abundance. Thousands of years later, that soil, known as “terra preta,” remains exceptionally fertile—and rich in carbon. Day believes that this process could be the key to relieving the atmosphere of its burgeoning levels of carbon dioxide. He and others advocate expanded use of a material called biochar, which results when organic waste—like peanut shells or chicken excrement—is cooked in a special container that limits its exposure to oxygen. This process creates small pellets of charcoal (biochar) that lock in the carbon from the cooked organic matter—preventing it from escaping back into the atmosphere—and generates gasses that can be used as fuel. When the biochar is buried in the right agricultural areas, it enriches the soil, increases crop yields, and keeps the carbon trapped beneath the ground. The NASA climate expert James Hansen says that the carbon could be stored for “centuries to millennia.” Eprida hopes to use the biochar to soak up carbon dioxide at polluting factories and then bury it in areas with poor soil quality—potentially addressing two grave problems with one elegant solution.

Biochar work at Burt's Greenhouses

Alex on the Edge of the Char pool

Hugh McLaughlin was in Kingston for 3 days of visits and work shops. Hugh had a very successful and well attended workshop at Queen's University. He covered a lot of ground over the course of an afternoon on the basics of characterizing charcoal down to his "1G Toucan" stove for making a small quantity of charcoal for experimental purposes. On Wednesday Hugh, Julie Major of the IBI and Lloyd Hefferty of Ontario Biochar spent the morning at our greenhouses discussing the process by which we make charcoal. This was a very fruitful exercise that was characterized by an openness that makes this type of work twice the fun! Thursday was the last day and Hugh gave a seminar in the morning. It was well attended with a mix of some academics that missed the Tues. workshop as well as local people from Wilton (wondering what Burt's are up to!) and a further mix of farmers and just plain interested from as far away as St. Catharines. After the seminar at the Wilton Woman's Instite Hall everyone came to the greenhouse for a tour. It was a hectic time for Alex to make sure the system was up and running and both of us were kept busy with questions about our system. It really was a delight to give the tour and see the sincere interest in Biochar as well as receive so many informed questions. Of course everyone should have been informed having just come from Biochar 101 with Hugh! ...

Innovation at Burt's Greenhouses

Video Explaining some of the innovations done in support of a biomass heating system. This has ultimately led to experimenting with the system to produce Biochar.

Mar 10, 2010

Organizing for America | | Final March - Spread the Facts

Organizing for America: The Final March for Reform

Conversations With History: Natural Capitalism :

Conversations host Harry Kreisler welcomes Amory Lovins for a discussion of Natural Capitalism. Lovins explains the origins and mission of Rocky Mountain Institute and analyzes the opportunities and benefits of using the profit motive to redesign the relationship between the environment and capitalism. Drawing on his thirty year career as an innovator/consultant/scientist,he analyzes the mechanisms by which ideas can impact business practice and government policy with the goal of sustaining the environment. Series: Conversations with History [1/2009] [Public Affairs] [Business] [Show ID: 15591]

The Power to Feed the World? a Tale of Sustainable Development, Bioengineering, and Citizen Activism :

March 10, 2010 by Even set against the standards established by today’s behemoths of international trade and commerce, The Monsanto Company is a veritable giant. Since its founding in 1901, Monsanto has advanced through various embodiments, most often as a producer and purveyor of chemicals. Its many mergers and acquisitions have often dramatically altered the scope of its operations, and as the twentieth century came to a close Monsanto began a transition of its principal role from that of a chemicals company into a formidable biotechnologies operation where she remains today. Following this transformation Monsanto has sought to portray itself as a soldier of the sustainability cause; on its homepage a brief description asserts that “We apply innovation… while also reducing agriculture’s impact on our environment.” Monsanto maintains 17,500 employees around the globe, and recorded revenues of US$7.344 billion in 2006. And yet all is not well in the corridors at Monsanto headquarters in Saint Louis. Monsanto continues to carry the baggage of some dubious legacies which predate its biotechnologies reincarnation. Amongst them is the Texas City Disaster, a 1947 explosion during loading of its fertilizers at Galveston Bay which is considered the largest industrial accident in American history. In the years of the Vietnam War Monsanto supplied the defoliant Agent Orange to the United States Armed Forces for use in its herbicidal warfare program. In a 2002 report Monsanto was identified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as being a “potentially responsible party” to the contamination of 56 industrial sites. Its popular “Roundup” glyphosate herbicides are cited in a number of studies as causes of cancer (though a number of countervailing studies refute these claims). Monsanto has been accused or implicated in a litany of cases of adverse health effects on both employees at its plants and users of its products. And Monsanto’s enthusiastic use and promotion of genetically modified seeds has provoked the ire of many in Europe and beyond, where a deep public mistrust of these organisms remains widespread. Enter Marie-Monique Robin. The veteran French investigative journalist has never earned a reputation as a scourge of corporate interests in the spirit of such crusaders as Ralph Nader; her interests and works in the past have been mostly political in nature. She was widely recognized for a book and accompanying documentary film which exposed the role of French secret services in endearing certain unsavory techniques to their Argentine and Chilean counterparts during South America’s troubled 1970s and 1980s. But with a new book and documentary film entitled Le monde selon Monsanto (The World according to Monsanto), she has executed a full frontal assault on Monsanto itself, and the corporate world may never be the same again. I have neither read the book nor viewed the documentary, but to judge from reviews and from the author’s own comments in interviews it seems that her premise is as follows. Following her extensive three-year investigation which exposes the depth of Monsanto’s vices past and present, Robin feels that we must ask the question: “Can we believe [Monsanto] when they tell us that biotechnologies are going to solve the problems of hunger and environmental contamination?” (My own translation from the French) (source: Arte TV) In essence Robin questions the ethic, given the ignominy of its past, of allowing Monsanto to feed the world today. The overwhelming evidence shows that Monsanto is indeed guilty of grave misconduct on many counts. Robin’s work is a product of an age in which we now expect our corporations to behave as responsible members of society, and its form and tone give teeth to this approach. Not only are these expectations legitimate and real, but the citizenry is willing to act, and act decisively, to ensure corporate compliance. The forceful way in which Robin transmits this message is welcomed, and Monsanto (and indeed any and all corporations that have committed environmental and other transgressions) is to make reparations accordingly. However I would make the point that it is important in this particular case to divorce the instances of Monsanto’s wrongdoing from the bio-engineering industry wholesale. I am not delusional and I acknowledge that it is the profit motive and not a spontaneous and overwhelming altruism which guides firms such as Monsanto. However if the entire system is properly monitored, there are many poster illustrations of how the interests of global capitalism and the underprivileged need not be mutually exclusive. It is a fact that high-yield seeds and other varieties, readily proffered by Monsanto and others, have allowed for intensifications of agricultural cultivation. This is of particular importance in densely populated poor rural regions where the land available for agriculture would otherwise simply not be sufficient to carry the population. The consequent reductions of malnutrition have saved many lives and have improved countless others. A New York Times article dated October 2007 gives a a sense of the enormous transformative potential at hand if only a comprehensive implementation can be achieved. In this article, Celia W. Dugger shows that seed programs in Africa have fallen short not owing to deficiencies of the seeds themselves, but rather to inadequate farm economy infrastructure and local know-how. She highlights the pockets of success, and makes reference to India’s “Green Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s that enabled the feeding of hundreds of millions of people. India’s success, she says, is attributable to the stronger farm-economy foundation with which it was endowed. These truths serve as a telling example of the dangers that are inherent if we allow cases of corporate negligence and neglect to necessarily sink the entire ship. We can and must showcase specific outrages and demand redress, but it would be a mistake to paint an entire industry with the toxic brush. As with pharmaceuticals, the bio-engineering industry must be allowed and encouraged to continue its work with aid and input from philanthropic and other organizations, and under the oversight of national and international bodies of governance. We must demand accountability where accountability is often refused. But in the spirit of equity, we must also give credit where credit is well due.

John Deere Attractions - The Plowshare Newsletter

File:Waterlooboy.jpgIf you're interested in John Deere history or vintage tractors and memorabilia The Plowshare should be required reading for you!

U.S. Department of Agriculture - Range Fuels, Inc. is the recipient of a loan guaranteed by USDA Rural Development to make cellulosic biofuel from wood chips

WASHINGTON, March 3, 2010 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture today announced that Range Fuels, Inc., a Colorado based firm with a planned biorefinery located near Soperton, Ga., is the recipient of a loan guaranteed by USDA Rural Development to make cellulosic biofuel from wood chips. The deal, recently finalized, was first announced last year and represents the first ever loan guarantee by USDA to a commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel plant. This project is expected to provide biorefinery jobs, construction jobs and support the timber industry.

"USDA's investment in the construction of Range Fuels' commercial facility, which will produce cellulosic biofuel from non-food biomass, such as wood chips, demonstrates the Obama Administration's goal to make the United States a leader in renewable energy production and furthers the President's ongoing efforts to bring jobs to rural communities," said Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager. "USDA is proud to work with the lender and the private sector to bring economic opportunity to rural areas."

The $80 million loan, being made by AgSouth Farm Credit to Range Fuels, Inc., is being guaranteed through USDA's Biorefinery Assistance Program authorized by the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 and administered by USDA Rural Development. When fully operational, the plant is expected to produce an estimated 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. USDA announced a conditional commitment to provide the loan guarantee for Range Fuels in January, 2009.

USDA's Biorefinery Assistance Program promotes the development of new and emerging technologies for the production of advanced biofuels - defined as fuels derived from renewable biomass other than corn kernel starch. The program provides loan guarantees to develop, construct and retrofit viable commercial-scale biorefineries producing advanced biofuels. The maximum loan guarantee is $250 million per project. The program is designed to create energy-related jobs and economic development in rural America. To learn more, please visit

USDA Rural Development administers and manages more than 40 housing, business, and community infrastructure and facility programs through a network of 6,100 employees located in 500 national, state and local offices. These programs are designed to improve the economic stability of rural communities, businesses, residents, farmers and ranchers and improve the quality of life in rural America. Rural Development has an existing portfolio of more than $130 billion in loans and loan guarantees.

1366 Tech leaping from pure silicon to solar wafer | Green Tech - CNET News

Solar start-up 1366 Technologies is developing a technology to convert raw silicon ingots directly into solar cells, a process that could slash solar manufacturing costs. The Lexington, Mass.-based company, which was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had received a $4 million grant last fall from ARPA-E, the federal government's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, to pursue the technology.
If successfully commercialized, the technology could reduce the costs of making silicon wafers, which are turned into solar cells, by 60 percent, said Frank van Mierlo, CEO of 1366. Its target customer: companies that manufacture solar cells. "This can give significant competitive advantage. If anything can let us manufacture in this country, this is it," he said Tuesday.
The company is cagey on how it produces wafers from silicon ingots--which look like large logs of very pure, gray silicon--but executives say that it has already tested the process. The machine is being designed to cut out two steps in the traditional wafer-making process and use less silicon material.
Early runs have allowed it to make a wafer, which was turned into a cell with efficiency that's higher than existing thin-film solar cells, van Mierlo said. By the end of this year, it hopes to boost efficiency to the equivalent of multi-crystalline silicon cells, he added. Its plan is to start construction of a 100-megawatt demonstration plant with its Direct Wafer machines next year.
In addition to its ARPA-E-funded work, 1366 is also designing machines for improving silicon cell efficiency.
By year's end, 1366 plans to deliver its "patterning machine," which adds a texture to solar cells to trap more light and improve overall efficiency slightly. By next year, it hopes to finish its second piece of equipment, a machine that allows cell manufacturers to put thinner wires on solar cells and use copper, rather than silver.
Until recently, the company had not discussed its Direct Wafer work, but company executives began talking about it at last week's ARPA-E Summit near Washington, D.C.
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer for CNET's Green Tech blog. He started at CNET News in 2002, covering IT and Web development. Before that, he was executive editor at IT publication InfoWorld.

Stewart Brand’s nuclear enthusiasm falls short on facts and logic | Grist

Amory Lovins
Physicist Amory Lovins is Chairman and Chief Scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute and Chairman Emeritus of Fiberforge, Inc. Published in 29 books and hundreds of papers, he advises governments and major firms worldwide on advanced energy and resource efficiency.

Supporting technical details and citations for this post can be found here: "Four Nuclear Myths" (PDF). Download 485KB

Whole Earth Discipline, by Stewart Brand (Viking, 2009)
I have known Stewart Brand as a friend for many years. I have admired his original and iconoclastic work, which has had significant impact. In his new book, Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto (Viking), he argues that environmentalists should change their thinking about four issues: population, nuclear power, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and urbanization. Many people have asked me to assess his 41-page chapter on nuclear power, so I'll do that here, because I believe its conclusions are greatly mistaken.
Stewart recently predicted that I wouldn't accept his nuclear reassessment. He is quite right. His nuclear chapter's facts and logic do not hold up to scrutiny. Over the past few years, I've sent him five technical papers focused mainly on nuclear power's comparative economics and performance. He says he's read them, and on p. 98 he even summarizes part of their economic thesis. Yet on p. 104 he says, "We Greens are not economists" and disclaims knowledge of economics, saying environmentalists use it only as a weapon to stop projects. Today, most dispassionate analysts think new nuclear power plants' deepest flaw is their economics. They cost too much to build and incur too much financial risk. My writings show why nuclear expansion therefore can't deliver on its claims: it would reduce and retard climate protection, because it saves between two and 20 times less carbon per dollar, 20 to 40 times slower, than investing in efficiency and micropower.

That conclusion rests on empirical data about how much new nuclear electricity actually costs relative to decentralized and efficiency competitors, how these alternatives compare in capacity and output added per year, and which can most effectively save carbon. Stewart's chapter says nothing about any of these questions, but I believe they're at the heart of the matter. If nuclear power is unneeded, uncompetitive, or ineffective in climate protection, let alone all three, then we need hardly debate whether its safety and waste issues are resolved, as he claims.

In its first half-century, nuclear power fell short of its forecast capacity by about 12-fold in the U.S. and 30-fold worldwide, mainly because building it cost several-fold more than expected, straining or bankrupting its owners. The many causes weren't dominated by U.S. citizen interventions and lawsuits, since nuclear expectations collapsed similarly in countries without such events; even France suffered a 3.5-fold rise in real capital costs during 1970-2000. Nor did the Three Mile Island accident halt U.S. orders: they'd stopped the previous year. Rather, nuclear's key challenge was soaring capital cost, and for some units, poor performance. Operational improvements in the '90s made the better old reactors relatively cheap to run, but Stewart's case is for building new ones. Have their economics improved enough to prevent a rerun?

On the contrary, a 2003 MIT study found new U.S. nuclear plants couldn't compete with new coal- or gas-fired plants. Over the next five years, nuclear construction costs about tripled. Was this due to pricey commodities like steel and concrete? No; those totaled less than one percent of total capital cost. Were citizen activists again to blame? No; they'd been neutralized by streamlined licensing, adverse courts, and Federal "delay insurance." The key causes seem to be bottlenecked supply chains, atrophied skills, and a weak U.S. dollar -- all widening the cost gap between new nuclear power and its potent new competitors.

Today's main alternatives aren't limited to giant power plants burning coal or natural gas. Decentralized sources provide from one-sixth to more than half of all electricity in a dozen industrial countries and, together with more efficient use, deliver the majority of the world's new electrical services. Booming orders did lately raise wind-turbine and photovoltaic prices too, but they're headed back down as capacity catches up; PVs got one-fourth cheaper just in the past year, and reactor-scale PV farms compete successfully in California power auctions. New U.S. wind farms -- "firmed" to provide reliable power even if becalmed -- sell electricity at less than typical wholesale prices, or at a third to a half the cost utilities project for new nuclear plants.

Rather than viewing nuclear power within this real-world competitive landscape, Stewart simply waves away its competitors. He praises efficient use of electricity, but rejects it because he says it can't by itself replace all coal and power all global development. He also dismisses wind and solar power, and omits small hydro, geothermal, waste/biomass combustion, all other renewables, and cogeneration. Yet worldwide these sources make more electricity than nuclear power does, and for the past three years, have won about 10-25 times its market share and added about 20-40 times more capacity each year.

The world in 2008 invested more in renewable power than in fossil-fueled power. Why? Because renewables are cheaper, faster, vaster, equally or more carbon-free, and more attractive to investors. Worldwide, distributed renewables in 2008 added 40 billion watts and got $100 billion of private investment; nuclear added and got zero, despite its far larger subsidies and generally stronger government support. From August 2005 to August 2008, with new subsidies equivalent to 100+% of construction cost and with the most robust nuclear politics and capital markets in history, the 33 proposed U.S. nuclear projects got not a cent of private equity investment.

Nonetheless, Stewart rejects all non-nuclear options, for four fallacious reasons:

Baseload: Wind and photovoltaics can't keep the lights on because they can't run 24/7.
Footprint: Photovoltaics need about 150-175 times, and wind farms from 600+ to nearly 900 times, more land than nuclear power to produce the same electricity.
Portfolio: We need every tool for combating climate change, including nuclear power.
Government role: The climate imperative trumps economics, so governments everywhere must and will do what France did -- ensure that nuclear power gets built, regardless of economics or dissent.
I believe each claim is unsupportable:

Baseload: The electricity system doesn't rely on any plant's ability to run continuously; rather, all plants together supply the grid, and the grid serves all loads. That's necessary because no kind of power plant can run all the time, as Stewart says they must do to meet steady loads. I repeat: there is not and has never been a need for any particular plant or kind of plant to run all the time, and none can. All power plants fail, varying only in their failures' size, duration, frequency, predictability, and cause. Solar cells' and windpower's variation with night and weather is no different from the intermittence of coal and nuclear plants, except that it affects less capacity at once, more briefly, far more predictably, and is no harder and probably easier and cheaper to manage. In short, the ability to serve steady loads is a statistical attribute of all plants on the grid, not an operational requirement for one plant. Variability (predictable failure) and intermittence (unpredictable failure) must be managed by diversifying type and location, forecasting, and integrating with other resources. Utilities do this every day, balancing diverse resources to meet fluctuating demand and offset outages. Even with a largely (or probably a wholly) renewable grid, this is not a significant problem or cost, either in theory or in practice -- as illustrated by areas that are already 30-40% wind-powered.

Footprint: Stewart understates nuclear power's land-use by about 43-fold by omitting all land used by exclusion zones and the nuclear fuel chain. Conversely, he includes the space between wind or solar equipment -- unused land commonly used for farming, grazing, wildlife, and recreation. That's like claiming that two lampposts require a parking lot's worth of space, even though 99% of the lot is used for parking, driving, and walking. Properly measured, per kilowatt-hour produced, the land made unavailable for other uses is about the same for ground-mounted photovoltaics as for nuclear power, sometimes less -- or zero, for building-mounted PVs sufficient to power the world many times over. Land actually used per kWh is up to thousands of times smaller for windpower than for nuclear power. If land-use were an important criterion for picking energy systems, which it's generally not, it would thus reverse Stewart's footprint conclusion.

Portfolio: The one paper he cites as proof that we need all energy options (Pacala & Socolow's "Stabilization Wedges") actually says the opposite. There is no analytic basis for his conclusion, and there's strong science to the contrary. We can't afford to stuff our energy portfolio indiscriminately with some of everything, and we shouldn't: some options are less worthy and effective than others. The more you fear climate change, the more judiciously you should invest to get the most solution per dollar and per year. Nuclear flunks both these tests.

Government: If nuclear power isn't needed, worsens climate change (vs. more effective solutions) and energy security, and can't compete in the marketplace despite uniquely big subsidies -- all evidence-based findings unexamined in Stewart's chapter -- then his nuclear imperative evaporates. Of course, a few countries with centrally planned energy systems, mostly with socialized costs, are building reactors: over two-thirds of all nuclear plants under construction are in China, Russia, India, or South Korea. But that's more because their nuclear bureaucracies dominate national energy policy and face little or no competition in technologies, business models, and ideas. Nuclear power requires such a system. The competitors beating nuclear power thrive in democracies and free markets.


Stewart's reputation and his valuable prior contributions to clear thinking for a better world may win his nuclear views some attention. Yet judged on its merits, not his history, this nuclear chapter's assertions can only worsen climate and security risks.

Compost and climate change: how they are related | Peat free compost |

Peat Bog on Westerdale Moor in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, UK
A peat bog on Westerdale Moor in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. You can help protect such environments by using peat-free compost. Photograph: Alamy

Amateur gardeners take note: your choice of compost could be contributing to climate change. Why? It's all to do with peat.

Prior to the 1970s, most gardeners relied on loam-based potting mixes for growing plants. But they were heavy and expensive to transport and far from ideal. Then lightweight peat-based products began to be aggressively marketed as a cheaper alternative, and gardeners embraced them wholeheartedly.

As famous gardener Christopher Lloyd wrote in his 1970 book The Well-Tempered Garden: "There is currently a tremendous vogue for peat, which is so widely believed to be a panacea for every cultural problem that supplies can barely keep pace with demand."

Lloyd put his finger on a fact that may escape many modern gardeners - peat has only been a horticultural must-have for the past 40 years or so.

When Fisons launched a brand new invention called the Gro-Bag in 1973, filled of course with a peat-based compost mix, this black crumbly stuff became so common as a growing medium that many gardeners hardly realised what their compost sacks were full of.

But what is peat, and why did it become so popular? Peat is made of semi-decomposed plant debris that's formed at a snail's pace over hundreds or thousands of years in layers of about 1mm a year in the waterlogged, oxygen-starved conditions found in bogs both in the UK and around the world. Once extracted, this rich, dark stuff holds both water, air and plant nutrients well, meaning it's been seen as highly useful in the garden as a mulch, a soil improver, and most crucially as a growing medium.

But during the last two decades, we've woken up to the fact that the bogs being destroyed to feed our peat addiction are valuable habitats for all kinds of increasingly rare plants and animals, and need protection.

And in the last few years, the role of peat extraction in hastening climate change has hit home, too. Scientists recognised that peat bogs act as huge 'carbon sponges': as peat is formed it locks away the carbon dioxide that is absorbed by plants as they grow. When the peat is extracted, that CO2 - a potent greenhouse gas - is released back into the atmosphere. Digging up peat from British bogs for use in our gardens releases nearly half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – the equivalent of carbon emissions for around 100,000 UK households.

Amateur gardeners make up around two thirds of the peat market, so it's vital that we wean ourselves off our peat habit. And the message is starting to get through to both growers and producers: peat's use in the garden dropped for the first time in 2007, (from 3.4m cubic metres to 3.01m cubic metres), and in the same year the proportion of peat in compost mixes used by amateur gardeners dropped to 72%, down from 94% in 1999.

The government set a target for compost to be 90% peat-free by 2010, but as more and more of us latch onto the delights of growing our own food movement, we're also heading to the garden centre to buy compost in increasing numbers. That means it is even more vital that alternatives to peat take centre stage in potting sheds and greenhouses across the land, as gardeners switch to peat-reduced products - or even better, peat-free compost wherever they can. Click here to check out the options.

Sneak-peek at “fuel from thin air”: Joule Biotechnologies and its “game-changing technology”

how it works
In Massachusetts, Joule Biotechnologies CEO Bill Sims, sitting atop one of the most discussed and least understood technologies in biofuels, visited with the Digest to shed some light and provide some timelines for future guidance on the development of Joule’s bio-based technology, which uses a microorganism to produce biofuel directly from CO2, water and sunlight.

The Joule technology

In the Joule technology, biomass is not used as an intermediate. Via a solar converter unit, the microorganism obtains carbon and oxygen by fixing atmospheric CO2 or utilizing direct fed waste CO2, and obtains hydrogen from water at a rate of two gallons of water consumption per gallon of fuel produced – however, brackish, non-potable water is sufficient.

What is a solar converter – think closed photobioreactor without the biomass. Like a bioreactor, there are microorganisms, water and a nutrient package (think nitrogen, for one). In this case, however, the purpose of the PBR is not to produce biomass as an intermediate which can be converted to fuel, but rather to directly produce fuel.

There are other microorganisms that produce a diesel molecule — for example, that is the path for Amyris and for another David Berry company, LS9. The difference here is that neither biomass nor sugars are required as feedstock, so it’s a biomass-independent route all the way through its process.

Ethanol, renewable diesel now, maybe jet fuel later

Sims confirmed that the company will initially target diesel with its as-yet publicly unidentified microorganism, although the company has the capability of producing renewable jet-A and JP-8 fuel in the future. “Gasoline is not in our development path,” Sims explained, although he confirmed that the company’s internal testing has yielded a dozen fuels and chemicals to date.

He confirmed that the company will be producing at small scale before the end of the year and will move to large scale by 2012. He described the yields from the developing technology as already “exceeding what cellulosic ethanol will ever be able to do”. Pricing is estimated at competitive with $40-$50 per barrel of oil.

Currently, the company is testing ethanol production and will move to production of hydrocarbons in the second half of the year — both will be produced at the company’s pilot facility in Leander, Texas. In 2011, the company will be looking to “start fresh” with a next-generation version of its solar converter, with a goal of using direct-fed waste CO2 and a 10-acre demonstration of the technology to simulate the conditions of a large scale deployment of Joule’s technology.

Commercialization timescale and metrics

By 2012, the company expects that it will be ready to start implementation of its first commercial-scale facility, with a size in the 500-5000 acre range. The technology, at that scale, will require a large-scale source of CO2, but Sims confirmed that Joule’s technology can utilize flue gas that has been scribed with “generally accepted” scrubbing technologies that have removed NOx and SOx, and will require 120 tons per acre of CO2 per year.

The company is currently looking at yields of up to 25,000 gallons per acre per year for ethanol and in the 15,000 gallon per acre range for diesel. Accordingly, we are looking at a production yield of 7.5 Mgy to 75 Mgy by 2012, if commercialization plans hold to their timelines and yields continue to increase towards goal as the company expands its technology. Currently, the company is producing at a 6,000 per acre per year rate.

Joule’s CEO and co-founder presenting at the 2010 ABL conference

Joule CEO Bill Sims — as well as company co-founder David Berry — will be among the presenters at the 2010 Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference in Washington, DC, April 27-29 (which is now sold out, regrettably). The Digest expects to come back to the Joule story at that time with some further investigations of the economics of the system, including more detail production and capital costs.

For now, here are the top-line points:

Joule expects to be producing 75 Mgy of renewable diesel by 2012, and will not be using biomass as an intermediate, thereby bypassing the need to develop its technology using, or depending on, the availability of arable land or requiring feedstocks beyond the supply of CO2 and water. ... more

Joule Named Among 50 Most Innovative Companies in the World

The Wrong Kind of Green

Why did America's leading environmental groups jet to Copenhagen and lobby for policies that will lead to the faster death of the rainforests--and runaway global warming? Why are their lobbyists on Capitol Hill dismissing the only real solutions to climate change as "unworkable" and "unrealistic," as though they were just another sooty tentacle of Big Coal? ... A must read Story and Slideshow! Monte - Story - Slideshow

The Real Climategate: Conservation Groups Align with World's Worst Polluters

Major environmental groups are coming under criticism from within their own ranks for taking positions that some say are antithetical to their stated missions of saving the planet. In the latest issue of The Nation magazine, the British journalist Johann Hari writes, “As we confront the biggest ecological crisis in human history, many of the green organizations meant to be leading the fight are busy shoveling up hard cash from the world’s worst polluters—and burying science-based environmentalism in return…In the middle of a swirl of bogus climate scandals trumped up by deniers, here is the real Climategate.” [includes rush transcript]

Mar 9, 2010

Ex Monsanto Lawyer Clarence Thomas to Hear Major Monsanto Case

by: dsnodgrass
Tue Mar 09, 2010 at 09:19:13 AM PST

In Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, No. 09-475, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case which could have an enormous effect on the future of the American food industry. This is Monsanto's third appeal of the case, and if they win a favorable ruling from the high court, a deregulated Monsanto may find itself in position to corner the markets of numerous U.S. crops, and to litigate conventional farmers into oblivion.
Here's where it gets a bit dicier. Two Supreme Court justices have what appear to be direct conflicts of interest.

Stephen Breyer

Charles Breyer, the judge who ruled in the original decision of 2007 which is being appealed, is Stephen Breyer's brother, who apparently views this as a conflict of interest and has recused himself.

Clarence Thomas

From the years 1976 - 1979, Thomas worked as an attorney for Monsanto. Thomas apparently does not see this as a conflict of interest and has not recused himself.

Fox, meet henhouse.

dsnodgrass :: Ex Monsanto Lawyer Clarence Thomas to Hear Major Monsanto Case
The lawsuit was filed by plantiffs which include the Center for Food Safety, the National Family Farm Coalition, Sierra Club, Dakota Resources Council and other farm, environmental and consumer groups and individual farmers. The original decision:

The federal district court in California issued its opinion on the deregulation of “Roundup Ready” alfalfa pursuant to the Plant Protection Act on February 13, 2007. Upon receiving Monsanto’s petition for deregulation of the alfalfa seed, APHIS conducted an Environmental Assessment and received over 500 comments in opposition to the deregulation. The opposition’s primary concern was the potential of contamination. APHIS, however, made a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) and approved the deregulation petition, thereby allowing the seed to be sold without USDA oversight. Geertson Seed Farms, joined by a number of growers and associations, filed claims under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as well as the Endangered Species Act and Plant Protection Act. In regards to NEPA, they argued that the agency should have prepared an EIS for the deregulation.
Addressing only the NEPA claims, the court agreed that APHIS should have conducted an EIS because of the significant environmental impact posed by deregulation of the alfalfa seed. A realistic potential for contamination existed, said the court, but the agency had not fully inquired into the extent of this potential. The court also determined that APHIS did not adequately examine the potential effects of Roundup Ready alfalfa on organic farming and the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds and that there were “substantial questions” raised by the deregulation petition that the agency should have addressed in an EIS. Concluding that the question of whether the introduction of the genetically engineered alfalfa and its potential to affect non-genetic alfalfa posed a significant environmental impact necessitated further study, the court found that APHIS’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered the agency to prepare an EIS. The court later enjoined the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa from March 30, 2007, until completion of the EIS and reconsideration of the deregulation petition, except for those farmers who had already purchased the seed. In May of 2007, the court enjoined any future planting of the alfalfa. An order by the court in June, 2007 required disclosure of all Roundup Ready planting sites.

Monsanto filed appeals in 2008 and 2009. In both instances, they were unsuccessful in having the original decision reversed, so they appealed to the Supreme Court, who agreed to hear the case.

Alfalfa is the fourth most widely grown crop in the United States, behind corn, soybeans, and wheat.
South Dakota alfalfa farmer Pat Trask, one of the plaintiffs, said Monsanto's biotech alfalfa would ruin his conventional alfalfa seed business because it was certain his 9,000 acres would be contaminated by the biotech genes.

Alfalfa is very easily cross-pollinated by bees and by wind. The plant is also perennial, meaning GMO plants could live on for years.

"The way this spreads so far and wide, it will eliminate the conventional alfalfa industry," said Trask. "Monsanto will own the entire alfalfa industry."

Monsanto has a policy of filing lawsuits or taking other legal actions against farmers who harvest crops that show the presence of the company's patented gene technology. It has sued farmers even when they have tried to keep their own fields free from contamination by biotech plants on neighbouring farms.

The case has implications beyond alfalfa crops. About eight hundred reviewed genetically engineered food applications were submitted to the USDA, yet no environmental impact statements were prepared. Even as this diary is being written, a federal judge in San Francisco is reviewing a similar case involving genetically modified sugar beets. The decision is expected this week and could halt planting and use of the gm sugar beets, which account for half of America's sugar supply.

Back to the Supreme Court case, oral argument is slated to begin on April 27, 2010. With Breyer recused and Thomas opting not to recuse, the bench appears to be heavily tilted to Monsanto.

Once more with feeling. Fox, meet henhouse.

Gardeners urged to stop using peat-based compost - Green Living, Environment - The Independent

Extraction releases huge amounts of CO2 into atmosphere
By Martin Hickman, Consumer Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday, 9 March
The star of Gardeners' World,Diarmuid Gavin, has been brought in to try to persuade people not to use peat compost

Ministers hope that Diarmuid Gavin will help them convince gardeners to stop using peat, which is present in almost half of all compost sold by garden centres.

Yesterday the Environment Secretary Hilary Benn announced a new target to phase out the use of peat compost in amateur gardens by 2020 but shied away from imposing a ban, provoking criticism from members of wildlife groups who said that ministers should have taken stronger action years ago.

In 1999 the Government aimed to eliminate peat from all but 10 per cent of compost by 2010, but it is still present in 46 per cent of the compost sold in Britain. Its extraction in the UK not only disturbs rare wildlife but also releases an estimated million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

Around 70 per cent of peat is used in horticulture, much by amateur gardeners who have long considered it the best way of encouraging plant growth. It is rich in nutrients, being made up of partially decomposed plant material that has not decayed fully because of local conditions.

In northern Europe, peat is being extracted quicker than it is renewed on moors and bogs. Some 38 per cent of peat sold here comes from the UK, with 56 per cent coming from Ireland and 6 per cent from the Baltic states.

Launching the campaign at Kew Gardens in west London yesterday, Mr Benn said: "Amateur gardeners are by far the biggest users of peat, using over 2 million cubic metres each year. Our research shows us that gardeners often don't realise the damage that peat extraction causes or that the compost they're buying contains peat."

The launch was backed by Mr Gavin, who said: "Using peat-free products in the home and garden is one of the simplest yet most effective ways that people can make a positive environmental impact and reduce their carbon footprint. For most uses in the garden, for example, pots, growbags, hanging baskets, digging into or tidying up flowerbeds, peat-free alternatives are just as good as peat-based compost, and they don't lead to the loss of our valuable peat bogs."

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will hold talks with retailers this summer about how they can meet their 2020 target.

But a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds criticised Mr Benn's plans, saying that they were not ambitious enough. Dr Mark Avery, the group's director of conservation, said that peat would still be used in private gardens in 10 years' time, and that the proposals would not affect commercial growers, who account for a third of peat use. Representatives from the RSPB and other environmental organisations are due to meet Defra ministers tomorrow to discuss their concerns.

Dr Avery said: "The Government has missed the chance for an easy win in the fight against climate change. Using peat in gardens releases a million tonnes of CO2 every year. Removing it from composts and grow-bags would cut those emissions at a stroke and would be the same as taking about 350,000 cars off the road. It would also help end the destruction of our precious peat bogs and the loss of birds, plants and insects that rely on them."

Peat compost: The alternatives

*Peat is not necessary to grow most plants. A Which? survey this year found that alternative composts performed better than peat for growing potatoes and flowers in pots.

*Alternatives include bark, green compost, wood waste, wood fibre and coir. Defra acknowledges peat is best for some "very specialist uses and plants", such as carnivorous plants native to peat bogs and some ericaceous plants native to moorlands, but advises gardeners to use peat-free compost for all main garden uses. It offers advice at

MIT Researchers Tip Their Cards - Renewable Energy World

by Graham Jesmer, Staff WriterBoston, United States [] Last week, as part of the 2010 MIT Energy Conference, the institute opened the doors to its energy research projects. Press and other interested parties got a first look at technologies that could one day make renewable energy abundant, cheap and more deployable. These cutting-edge technologies were presented by a handful of MIT faculty and students who showed some innovations in the solar, hydrogen and energy storage areas that are on the road to commercialization. While each of these technologies seem disparate, MIT Energy Initiative director Moniz emphasized that they all have one goal, to make renewable energy cheaper and easier to implement around the world, reducing reliance on carbon intensive sources of energy and helping to bring about a fundamental shift in the way the world produces and consumes electricity. Energy is huge business at MIT, with a full 20% of its faculty involved in some kind of energy research. MIT Energy Initiative director Ernest Moniz said that the the goal of all MIT's energy research is to partner with the renewable energy and power industries to commercialize technology, because, unlike in IT, energy technologies can't go from an idea to commercialization in a garage. Researchers at MIT have been particularly active in the solar energy sector, having already spun-out companies including 1366 Technologies, and the school is now home to one of 40 nation-wide Energy Frontier Research Centers that are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy with stimulus funds. The Center for EXcitonics is studying the application of excitons, quasiparticles consisting of a bound state of an electron and an imaginary particle called an electron hole in insulators and semiconductors, for solar lighting. Excitons are the main mechanism for light emission in semiconductors and Dr. Marc Baldo, director of the center and professor of engineering, thinks they may be the way to offset the electricity demands of lighting, which makes up close to 30% of overall electricity usage. In order to take advantage of these particles, Baldo and the rest of the team at the center are developing disordered materials, such as quantum dots, that can be sprayed on substrates. The example Baldo presented was called "luminescent solar concentrators," which are pieces of glass that concentrate light onto edges coated with the quantum dots. When light is concentrated on the dots, excitons are formed. The advantage of this type of technology, Baldo said, is that disordered materials, unlike traditional crystalline materials that are used for solar energy technologies, are cheap and much easier to work with and produce. "If we do solar right, it can be very, very, very cheap," Baldo said. The center is still in the early stages of its research and the goal is to learn how to control the particles and movements to generate a charge. The ultimate end-game is to build thin-film, non-tracking solar cells with power efficiencies exceeding 30%. Solar Thermoelectrics While Baldo and the team working on excitons are looking at new ways to use the sun to generate electricity, engineering professor Dr. Gang Chen and the team at the Solid-State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion Center are looking at how plastics can replace copper parts in solar hot water systems, and be used to convert heat into electricity at CSP and possibly geothermal energy plants. Chen's team is researching what it calls solar thermoelectrics. The technology involves using Fresnel lenses to concentrate light and in effect heat, onto a solid state converter made of plastics, which uses the heat differential on either side to create electricity. The same converter could also be used in what Chen referred to as thermophotovoltaics. In this case, heat from any source could be exposed to one side of the converter, the other side would be used to create light which could then be focused on a photovoltaic panel, potentially allowing solar plants to produce electricity even when the sun isn't shining. Energy Storage If technologies like those being developed by Baldo and Chen, in addition to those already working in the field, are deployed at the scale that is necessary to reduce dependence on fossil fuel generating technologies, then large-scale storage will have to play a role. Dr. Luis Oritz from the materials science department said that not only are large scale storage solutions necessary for renewable energy deployment, but they're also important from a security vantage point. Currently only 2.5% of the capacity of the U.S. grid is able to be stored, compared with 10% in Europe and 15% in Japan, which in the event of a grid failure could mean trouble for the U.S. Ortiz said that this is why his team, which is led by Professor Donald Sadoway, has received US $7 million from the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E), $4 million from French oil company Total and support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and MIT. The goal of Sadoway's research is to bring the cost of large scale energy storage facilities in line with the cost of natural gas plants. He said that in order to do this, incredibly large liquid metal batteries will need to be built and the facilities will need to be used in much the same way that flywheel storage plants are expected to be used, as frequency regulators that are capable of dispatching energy quickly in the event of an emergency. The basic principle behind the technology is to place three layers of liquid inside a container: Two different metal alloys, and one layer of a salt. The three materials are chosen so that they have different densities that allow them to separate naturally into three distinct layers, with the salt in the middle separating the two metal layers — like novelty drinks with different layers. The energy is stored in the liquid metals that want to react with one another but can do so only by transferring ions — electrically charged atoms of one of the metals — across the electrolyte, which results in the flow of electric current out of the battery. When the battery is being charged, some ions migrate through the insulating salt layer to collect at one of the terminals. Then, when the power is being drained from the battery, those ions migrate back through the salt and collect at the opposite terminal. The whole device is kept at a high temperature, around 700°C, so that the layers remain molten. While each of these technologies has a lot of lab work left before it's ready for field testing on a large scale, chemistry professor Dr. Dan Nocera and the company he helped found Sun Catalytix are working to commercialize a catalyst that can be used to split water. The basis of Sun Catalytix's technology is a cobalt phosphate catalyst that Nocera said is more efficient at splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen than other materials. He said that the catalyst can work within normal ambient temperatures and with water sources as diverse as tap water and water straight out of the Charles River in Boston. While commercial electrolyzers that split water to make hydrogen already exist, Nocera said that they're far too expensive and require a significant amount of energy to run. Sun Catalytix is in the process of testing an electroylzer that is built with its proprietary catalyst that can be manufactured using PVC plastic. A completed 100-watt system would work like this: solar PV panels would power an electrolyzer, which would then produce hydrogen that would be stored in tanks and then used as fuel for a fuel cell for electricity or to power a hydrogen vehicle. Nocera said that three liters of water a day could power a home. He said the ultimate goal of the Sun Catalytix system is use cheaper solar panels and fuel cells (still a stumbling block) to implement systems like this in the developing world where there is little-to-no electricity generating infrastructure in place and where three liters of even low-quality water per day could dramatically increase the quality of life of the people living there. Development of the technology is being financed by more than $1 million from Polaris Venture Partners. Nocera said that he expects a working prototype to be completed in the next 5-8 years and that the company has already been approached by solar companies interested in having their panels used in the system. While each of these technologies seem disparate, MIT Energy Initiative director Moniz emphasized that they all have one goal, to make renewable energy cheaper and easier to implement around the world, reducing reliance on carbon intensive sources of energy and helping to bring about a fundamental shift in the way the world produces and consumes electricity.

The High Cost of Clutter

File:Messie mess 1.jpg
Do you have piles of papers lurking on your desk? Mountains of laundry looming beside your bed? Shelves double-stacked with knick-knacks? I have a bit of a clutter problem myself. The other day, I spent an hour looking for the vacuum cleaner, which eventually turned up buried under a pile of laundry almost as tall as I am.

All that clutter isn’t just annoying. It’s expensive. That’s right: Excess Stuff can keep costing you money even after it’s been bought and paid for.

How expensive is your Stuff? Professional organizer Jen Hunter of Find Your Floor in Boston says clutter can cost us real money in a lot of ways:

Buying replacement Stuff: Somewhere in your closet is that pair of running shoes you bought last year. Probably next to the ones you bought the spring before that. Clutter costs us dollars and time when we have to buy duplicates of stuff we know we own but just can’t find.
Damage to your Stuff: When you have more Stuff than space, storage can become a problem. Things can get stepped on, stored improperly and broken, water-damaged or just so buried they can’t be retrieved when needed.
Missing deadlines: When your Stuff is disorganized, you wind up paying hundreds of dollars a year in bank fees, late charges, library fines, overdue fees and tax penalties. Trust me on this one. I speak from years of painful experience.
Renting storage space: Almost 10% of U.S. families rent storage space for belongings that don’t fit in their homes. That’s a lot of dollars going to serve your Stuff instead of your life. Even those that don’t rent space may choose larger homes than they need so that they can store more Stuff.
Health costs: Out of control clutter can pose health risks from falling, and encourage the growth of allergens like dust and mold. Treatments for those can get expensive. Clutter can also affect your mental health. Writer Ariel Gore saw a therapist until she realized that what she really wanted was a clean home. So she hired a housekeeper for less than she paid the therapist and lived happily ever after.
To Hunter, the biggest cost is an intangible. “It’s the impediment that it presents to people’s lives,” she says.

Stacy J. Kaplan of Clutter Away in San Diego agrees. “You can’t function at your optimum level if you’re disorganized,” Kaplan says. “You wouldn’t run a business without a business plan. If you’re not organized your business will fail. A house is a small business in a way. It’s the operating structure behind what your family is doing.”

Clutter stops us from working as effectively as we otherwise might. At its most basic level, time spent looking for your car keys is time you’re not spending working, playing or relaxing.

It also costs us time because all that Stuff demands attention. While clutter might be a sign of neglect, it requires us to spend time working around it to accomplish basic household tasks like paying bills or preparing a meal. Those extra hours of housework are a drain on time and energy that could go into creative side projects, education or any number of other productive pursuits.

We can become prisoners of our Stuff. J.D. has written a lot here about how Stuff ties up our money. We can inadvertently tie up a lot of our earnings in rarely used sports equipment, video games, and other pricey toys. Selling that unused Stuff frees up not only your cash but your energy. When there’s too much Stuff around you, you’re like a plant in a too-small pot. It’s hard to grow or thrive when hemmed in by clutter.

Of course, the answer isn’t to move to a bigger place. There are families who live happily in 100-square-foot apartments. They just have less Stuff than we do.

The solution is to put your space on a diet. Some basic steps to get started:

Consider adopting The Compact, an agreement to buy nothing new for one year. This should cut the flow of Stuff coming in down to a trickle.
To deal with the Stuff you have, go through one small area at a time. Don’t try to do the whole house at once. Choose a room, a closet, a desk, or even just a kitchen drawer.
A good rule of thumb: Get rid of anything you don’t use or love.
A habit of clutter can be hard to give up. If you’re used to having a lot of Stuff around you, a pared-down space can feel too spare and empty. Before you rush to fill that void, try sitting with it for awhile and really setting an intention for you want to replace your clutter with. It might be original art, new bookcases, workshop space or just more breathing room.

Whatever you choose to do with your space, you can use the same techniques you used to clear it to keep it clean. Don’t keep Stuff you don’t use or need. Don’t buy Stuff you don’t want or need. Spend a little time each day keeping your space organized.

Here are the top three clutter-busting tips from GRS Twitter followers:

“Throw clutter in bags, put them in the attic. As you need something, take it from the bag. After 6mo, donate bags.” — @jacobmlee
“For clutter: I’m using @gretchenrubin’s rules: Make your bed and the 1-min rule: if you can do it in 1 min, do it now!” — @jc_losangeles
“My fave declutter advice: Spend 15 Mins a day!” — @BudgetsAreSexy

More Than Jobs, We've Outsourced Our Carbon Emissions : TreeHugger

outsourced carbon emissions chart
We've written about the phenomenon of outsourced carbon emissions a number of times, with the example of perhaps up to one third of China's emissions coming from manufacturing goods destined for consumption abroad being most prominent. Well, a new study by scientists at the Carnegie Institution adds some more data to our our understanding of this issue:

The researchers studied trade flows of 57 industrial sectors, from 113 countries and regions and were able to determine the net emissions imported and exported for specific countries.

Some Small Nations Outsource More Emissions Than Produced Domestically
Doing this, they found that for most European countries, over one third of emissions linked to goods and services consumed domestically were emitted in another country. In Switzerland, often held up for it's comparatively low per capita carbon emissions, these outsourced emissions actually were higher than domestic emissions. The United States turns out to outsource a total of 11% of consumption-based emissions, mostly to developing nations.

Report lead author Steve Davis described what this means,
Just like the electricity that you use in your home probably causes CO2 emissions at a coal-burning power plant somewhere else, we found that the products imported by the developed countries of western Europe, Japan and the United States cause substantial emissions in other countries.

We need GM plants that benefit consumers and not just farmers | Eoin Lettice | Science |

Supermarket shelves
Despite the decision by the European Union last week to approve the cultivation of a GM potato, plant scientist Eoin Lettice argues that consumers will only accept the technology when it provides tangible benefits for them

A survey suggests that a substantial proportion of shoppers would buy GM food if it provided extra health benefits. Photograph: Guardian

Last week's decision by the European Commission to allow genetically modified potato varieties to be grown in some European Union countries concludes a 13-year campaign by the German chemical company BASF.

Ordinary potatoes produce two kinds of starch, but the GM potato Amflora only produces the economically useful form, amylopectin, which is used in the paper, textiles and adhesives industries. Production of the uneconomic form, amylase, has been turned off by genetic modification, so the useful starch doesn't need to be separated from the useless form during processing.

BASF says that while starch from its GM potato will not be used in human food, it may use the product in animal feed.

What particularly worries opponents of GM technology, however, is that Amflora carries an extra gene that makes the potato resistant to the antibiotics neomycin and kanamycin.

Why is it there? GM plants are produced by inserting novel genes into individual plant cells and then growing the cells into whole plants in the laboratory. Gene insertion can be achieved by using a bacterium to "ferry" it into the cell or by blasting it in using a gene gun. Alternatively, the tough plant cell wall can be stripped off and the gene can be inserted into this "naked" cell.

Regardless of the technique used, not all of the plant cells will take up the novel gene and incorporate it into their own DNA – perhaps just five cells out of every thousand. Tagging the novel gene with an antibiotic resistance gene allows modified cells to be singled out, because they will be resistant to a specific range of antibiotics.

This has been a source of concern for campaigners, but in June 2009, the European Food Safety Authority ruled that marker genes like this are unlikely to cause adverse effects on human health and the environment. As a result of limitations in sampling and detection it was unable to be conclusive, but the authority emphasised that it considered Amflora to be safe.

BASF first submitted its Amflora potato for approval in 1996. However, an EU-wide moratorium on GM between 1998 and 2004 delayed the process substantially.

When the potato was resubmitted for approval after the moratorium ended, progress was so slow that in 2008 BASF filed an action against the EC in the European Court of First Instance for "failure to act" and decide on the issue despite the European Food Safety Authority saying in two separate reports that the product was as safe as any conventional potato.

The company claimed that the previous commissioner, Stavros Dimas, "unjustifiably delayed" the decision on several occasions.

Now, within weeks of stepping into the role, the new European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, John Dalli, has given the green light for planting to begin. BASF says the potatoes will be grown in Germany and the Czech Republic this year, and in Sweden and the Netherlands in 2011.

Opponents of GM technology have been quick to denounce the decision, with Greenpeace saying that Dalli has "steamrolled" a decision through. Given that the potato variety in question has undergone 13 years of testing since its first submission, this analogy might be better applied to the lumbering decision-making process in Europe rather than this final decisive move by the new commissioner.

At the root of this issue is consumers' wariness about GM foodstuffs and GM organisms in general. Consumers genuinely do not see the worth of GM products, which is why there is a need to move beyond crops that confer benefits to industry and growers alone towards second-generation GM that produces added health and nutritional benefits for consumers.

Hans Kast, president and CEO of BASF Plant Science, is on record as saying that the Amflora potato could potentially earn European farmers an extra €100 million annually. The company has also pointed out that it is losing between €20m and €30m in licence income for every lost cultivation season.

Perhaps I'm being presumptuous, but I can't imagine many Irish or European consumers lying awake at night worrying about lost revenues for BASF. What Irish consumers are interested in, however, are real and tangible benefits from their foods.

In a survey in 2005 by Ireland's Agriculture and Food Development Authority, 42% of consumers questioned indicated that they would consider purchasing a hypothetical GM-produced yoghurt if it had anti-cancer properties. In the same study, 44% of consumers said that they would use a GM-produced dairy spread if it had anti-cancer properties.

"Second generation" GM crops also have a role to play in developing countries, with the development of fortified foodstuffs such as "golden rice" to counteract malnutrition. A new variety of Golden Rice has been engineered to produce even more pro-vitamin A to combat vitamin A deficiency.

Undoubtedly, some British and Irish consumers, in common with their European counterparts, are reluctant to consume GM crops and see them growing in their countries. The focus of industry on benefits to the grower and seed producer rather than on consumer-centred benefits will prolong this reluctance and hamper the innovation in our food and agriculture industries that is so badly needed.

Eoin Lettice is a lecturer in the department of zoology, ecology and plant science at University College Cork, Ireland. He specialises in the control of plant pests and diseases

New Publication Available - Biochar and Sustainable Agriculture

Download your copy at the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
Biochar has the potential to produce farm-based renewable energy in a climate-friendly manner and provide a valuable soil amendment to enhance crop productivity. If carbon offset markets develop, biochar can provide income for farmers and ranchers who use it to sequester carbon in soil. This publication reviews the current research and issues surrounding the production and use of this emerging biomass energy technology and explore how biochar can contribute to sustainable agriculture. Biochar is the product of turning biomass into gas or oil with the intention of adding it to crop and forest production systems as a soil amendment.

Mar 8, 2010

Summary of Old Growth Redwoods - Good Educational Video!

Video work by GF Beranek in three parts showing views of present old growth redwood stands and comparing view points of past logging practices and how they resulted in todays second growth redwood forests.
GF Beranek website:

Mar 7, 2010

Breakthrough Producing Hydrogen from Water + Sunlight

solar hydrogen breakthrough image
Image: Angewandte Chemie, Wiley

Sunlight + Water = Hydrogen Gas
Scientists at the University of East Anglia, led by Dr. Thomas Nann, report a breakthrough in the production of hydrogen from water using the energy of sunlight. Amidst all the hype about a potential hydrogen economy, which would rely upon the highly energetic and clean burning hydrogen atom, one of the big questions has been whether sufficient hydrogen can be produced without using yet more energy to create the hydrogen. Typical production methods include stripping hydrogen from other fuels like methane or using electrolysis to split the hydrogen out of water. But with efficiencies between 20 and 40% for producing energy from traditional photovoltaic processes, the hydrogen economy cannot be solar powered. Or can it?

The Hydrogen Tipping Point?
In fact, producing H2 is so energy intensive that some have even referred to hydrogen as more "battery" than fuel. Breakthroughs in the generation of hydrogen from solar power could tip the balance in favor of hydrogen fuel cell technologies. Enter Thomas Nann and colleagues. They report 60% efficiency for a process in which hydrogen is produced from water by the photons in light that strike a specially designed submersed electrode.

The concept of water + sunlight = hydrogen is not new. But turning 60% of the energy in light into hydrogen power is. The trick lies in the nanophotocathode used by Nann's team. A gold electrode coated with nanoclusters of indium phosphide absorb incoming photons of light (that is the wavy line marked "hv" in the image). The nanoclusters then pass electrons liberated by the sun's energy into an iron-sulfur complex which acts like a match-maker between the negatively charged electron and a hydrogen proton in the surrounding water molecules. Gaseous hydrogen results.

Better Net
The team credits the "better net" effect for the efficiency breakthrough. The indium phosphide nanoclusters are 400 times more likely to grab a photon passing through them than some organic molecules that have been used to split water. Another breakthrough is the durability of the gold-nanocluster electrodes. Other materials have deteriorated under the bombarding rays of sunlight, limiting their utility for an industrial hydrogen generation process.

The next step is to demonstrate the process with cheaper materials. The scientists report there is no special reason to use gold (nor platinum which was used as the second electrode to complete the circuit) -- other than that these nobel metals happened to be lying about the lab.

Catalyst could power homes on a bottle of water, produce hydrogen on-site (w/ Video)

( -- With one bottle of drinking water and four hours of sunlight, MIT chemist Dan Nocera claims that he can produce 30 KWh of electricity, which is enough to power an entire household in the developing world. With about three gallons of river water, he could satisfy the daily energy needs of a large American home. The key to these claims is a new, affordable catalyst that uses solar electricity to split water and generate hydrogen.

Using the electricity generated from a 30-square-meter photovoltaic array, Nocera’s cobalt-phosphate catalyst converts water and carbon dioxide into hydrogen and oxygen. The process is similar to organic photosynthesis, except that in nature, plants create energy in the form of sugars instead of hydrogen.

The hydrogen produced through artificial photosynthesis can be stored in a tank and later used to produce electricity by being recombined with oxygen in a fuel cell, even when the sun isn’t shining. Alternatively, the hydrogen can be converted into a liquid fuel.

"Almost all the solar energy is stored in water splitting," Nocera said at the first-ever ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) conference last Tuesday. "We emulated photosynthesis for large-scale storage of solar energy."
With his start-up company, Sun Catalytix, Nocera hopes to make the system affordable enough to allow individual homes to generate their own fuel and electricity on-site. By distributing hydrogen production in this way, the new method could potentially solve the problem of hydrogen transportation.

“If I could store the sun in terms of a fuel, then at night when the sun goes down I can use the sun, effectively,” Nocera said in a company video. “What we’ve done is that we’ve made sunlight available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

In January, Sun Catalytix was awarded $4 million in government funding through the new ARPA-E agency. Modeled after DARPA, ARPA-E was formed to promote the development of advanced energy technologies - in this case, “direct solar fuels,” or “electrofuels.” Nocera explained that Sun Catalytix is using the financial support to take its prototype to the next level.
“Where Sun Catalytix is headed is that your house would become its own power station and gas station,” he said in the video. “All of a sudden, you don’t need any more energy from anybody else because you’re using the sun at your house.”

More information:
via: Scientific American