Why Solar?

Today I want to offer a clear, concise statement on why solar is the only solution to our world’s energy and pollution problems.

(1) Our Sun is an immense nuclear reactor. The fusion of hydrogen atoms occurring within its core releases an enormous amount of energy that radiates through the solar system. Only a fraction of this radiant energy strikes our planet, but so powerful is the energy source that each hour enough sunlight falls upon the Earth’s surface to meet all of civilizations’ energy needs for a year.

(2) The compound that allows us to harness the Sun’s energy and convert it to power is silica. Silica is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.

(3) The mechanism by which we convert sunlight to power – the photovoltaic cell – is a near flawless machine: PV panels have no moving parts and therefore are long-lasting and require minimal maintenance. They have zero emissions.

The energy produced by our Sun is free, abundant, constant, and inexhaustible. No other existing source comes even remotely close to matching its energy output. The raw materials to harness this energy exists in abundance. And we have the knowledge to turn this energy into power. And yet…

Always there is an “And yet” with us. We can muddle the clear and confuse the simple. It is a strange habit for a species so advanced.

The problems with solar in United States are political, not technical. Very soon we will overcome the obstacles of solar efficiency and energy storage (begin the video at 6:40). All that will remain is for us to overcome our resistance, our fear, our confusion. We have an energy source 1/10,000 of which can meet all of our energy needs. All that is left for us to do is accept it. The greatest leap forward for society since the invention of agriculture is within our grasp. Limitless, free, non-polluting power will liberate humanity in ways we can’t comprehend.


Could Budget Cuts Close 200 National Parks?

Automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect in January could close up to 200 national parks. That’s the assessment from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) as reported by Fox News. These automatic cuts, called “sequestration”, are part of a 2011 budget agreement between President Obama and Congress that will automatically reduce federal spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years unless the two parties reach agreement on a new budget. Washington has been operating without a budget for the past three years.

But back to the story: Is the proposed $218 million cut to the National Park Service budget a serious threat? Of course it is, but not for the reasons you may assume. This $218 million cut would come from the discretionary part of the NPS budget, which presently sits at $2.7 billion. $218 million is a reduction of 8%, which doesn’t sound like a reason to close 200 national parks. But the NPS, like many federal agencies, spends most of its discretionary budget on employee salaries, salaries that can’t be cut and must be paid. As a taxpayer, you don’t fund the national parks so much as fund national park employees.

The good folks who run the National Park Service will admit (off record) that this spending pattern leaves the agency no flexibility to deal with unforeseen problems and unexpected costs. In fact, it leaves little money for the upkeep and maintenance of the parks. The 22,000 strong workforce of the NPS does a good job, and I’d hate to argue that a lot of them don’t earn their pay. But for many national parks, their annual operating budget barely covers their employee costs. This is not a model for success.

Look, this budget sequestration – a $218 million cut – is nothing compared to the long-term budget situation facing the NPS. Our government is operating with an annual budget deficit of over $1.1 trillion, with a debt of $16.2 trillion ($16,200,000,000,000). And with the rapidly increasing costs of social security, medicare, the new healthcare law, and boring old interest on all that borrowed money, there will be less and less room in the budget for the NPS.

As I’ve written here, reform of the park service is absolutely necessary if it is to survive. There is no doubt that the NPS will have to slim down. But if it can become a model federal agency, an incredibly efficient and effective organization, the NPS will stand a much better chance of fighting for space in future budgets. And if I may offer a challenge: if the NPCA is truly dedicated to protecting and enhancing our national parks for future generations, it could take the lead in promoting the transformation of the NPS. The NPCA is a powerful and respected organization, but the days of lobbying for bigger and bigger park budgets are over. It’s time to change your gameplan, friends.

Putting a Price on Nature

A thought-provoking piece on Yale’s Environment360 blog about protecting nature by pricing ecosystem services for trade in the marketplace. The payment for ecosystem services (PES) concept is at once old fashioned and cutting edge. It’s old fashioned because we long ago commodified the products of nature – lumber, salmon, water – for trade in the marketplace. But PES also seeks to attach market values to ecosystem services, such as the value wetlands provide by filtering pollutants from urban run-off, forests by purifying the headwaters of municipal water supplies, and native prairies by sequestering carbon. Conservationists first placed market values on ecosystem services to communicate the value of nature in terms politicians, corporations, and the public could understand. But PES is evolving into the idea that allowing ecosystem services to be valued, bought, and sold in a global marketplace just might save the environment.

The Yale360 piece points to a number of criticisms of the PES concept, and I know that readers of Free the Commons! could outline several concerns based on discussions we’ve had about the economics of nature, beginning with questioning how these “values” are derived, and when exactly did we agree that the Commons were privatized for trade? Those arguments being known, I’d like to offer a few of my own thoughts on why PES might not be the right idea.

First, the entire concept of buying and selling nature tells me that society (or at least parts of society) still consider nature as a commodity to be used, degraded, and potentially destroyed. Why else create a market if not to purchase the right to dispose of something the way you see fit? The idea of valuing, say, a wetland that is then traded in a market ensures only that the going market price is paid for the wetland before it is degraded or destroyed. That wetland has not been protected; that wetland is gone.

Second, consider this argument from the article in support of PES:

PES proponents can also point to early success stories: Vittel-Nestlé Waters recognized a few years ago that its aquifer in northern France was being polluted by nitrate fertilizers and pesticides from nearby farms. It devised a scheme to pay farmers to change their methods and deliver the ecosystem service of unpolluted water.

I think the first question to ask is why are individuals being allowed to pollute the aquifer? Now, let me make a point that PES supporters should understand: Nestle’s payment to these farmers represents a double loss for Nestle: the first loss is the cost associated with paying farmers to stop engaging in harmful activities – something they probably shouldn’t be doing anyway; the second loss is the foregone opportunity costs associated with using scarce financial resources to pay off the farmers. In what other ways could that money ($31.4 million according to the article) have been used? This is a tremendous waste of resources.

Third, I’ve seen something very similar to PES play out before, in Kansas. As a boy I could always find a place to hunt birds by asking my classmates if I could hunt their farms, or by hunting a neighbor’s land. We usually found some small way to pay the farmer for his kindness. But this practice began to change when, in an effort to sell farmers on the benefits of conservation, our federal farm agencies promoted the economic value of pheasants and quail: Protect some of your farmland, they said – we’ll show you how – and look at the money to be made by selling hunting rights. Now I do not criticize the farmers – it is their land and they have a right to its revenue. But the unintended consequences of this idea, to create a market where none existed before, has resulted in the loss of a hunting heritage that was far more open, neighborly, and communally beneficial than the network of high-cost hunting services that have replaced it.

I don’t know how PES will play out, but I will watch with interest as this debate unfolds. From a positive perspective, I am pleased that we recognize the need to protect the environment, even if I don’t think we’ve yet hit upon the right way to do it. We should always encourage new ideas and the dialogue that follows. All this requires is the willingness to listen to others, to engage their ideas with respect, and to proceed with a bit of humility. That’s why we’re here at Free the Commons! We aren’t certain we have the answers, but we hope to find the future of environmental protection and, with any luck and a lot of work, be a productive part of the dialogue.

Can British Engineers Produce Petrol from Air?

Via the ever-reliable Instapundit, I was awakened from my Friday cubicle-induced stupor by a report in The Telegraph that some blokes may have invented a technology that uses carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere to create petrol, or fuel if you’re on the downwind side of the pond.

A small company in the north of England has developed the “air capture” technology to create synthetic petrol using only air and electricity.

Experts tonight hailed the astonishing breakthrough as a potential “game-changer” in the battle against climate change and a saviour for the world’s energy crisis.

If true, this would be a game-changer; a technology that represents a leap forward in a current pattern of behavior. In this instance, a technology like the one described here could render obsolete our reliance on unstable and unfriendly oil regimes, overcome our stalled efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and turn politics on its head (never underestimate how wedded politicians and bureaucrats are to the status quo).

Now, if you will indulge my soapbox for a moment please, I want to point out the following passages:

The £1.1m project, in development for the past two years, is being funded by a group of unnamed philanthropists who believe the technology could prove to be a lucrative way of creating renewable energy.

While the technology has the backing of Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, it has yet to capture the interest of major oil companies. (bold mine)

I want to make three political arguments: first, profit motivation is a powerful incentive for challenging the status quo, and can (and often does) lead to socially desireable outcomes; second, a free and open market-based economy is the only means of overcoming stale, state-protected, dominant industries; and third, the importance of allowing the investing class (the “evil rich”) to speculate in innovative technologies/industries without fear of suffering punitive taxation is essential to our shared desires for a better world.  The state will never be more efficient or effective at supporting new technologies than the free market.

Rooftop Revolution: Book Review

My first Free the Commons! book review is the Kindle edition of Danny Kennedy’s “Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save our Economy – and Our Planet – From Dirty Energy.” Rooftop Revolution’s author, Danny Kennedy, is the founder of Sungevity, a solar company that I consider to be innovative and unique. Mr. Kennedy is a social entrepreneur and clean energy activist and, being just about my age, I was very interested in what he had to say about rooftop solar.

Unfortunately, I found that Kennedy’s book failed on two big levels.

First, the positive: Kennedy does offer a lot of support for rooftop solar. Beyond the success of his own company – which he is not shy about promoting – he provided some solid fodder about the successful growth of the solar industry in general, and made a good effort to convince the reader that solar is competitive with other forms of energy. He offers some hope by describing the success of solar in Germany and Spain, where solar accounts for 25 and 35 percent (respectively, according to Kennedy) of total power consumption. If I were considering a business in the solar industry, I would take some encouragement from Kennedy’s book.

However, his failure as an author begins with what is notably absent from his book: any attempt to outline a real solution. Kennedy is a successful solar entrepreneur, and I approached his work looking for solutions to our solar problem. I had hoped, first and foremost, that Kennedy would offer some answers to arguably the biggest question about solar: how do we afford it?

I bought this book hoping to find a few new ideas about how we make rooftop solar widely affordable and therefore widely adopted. If solar is to become a major player in the energy market and ultimately replace our reliance on coal-based power, we need the cold-hearted truth about how much it will cost, and more importantly, how we make those costs palatable to the individual homeowner, the taxpayers, and society. My belief is that our current model for solar adoption – the one where we lazily provide a few tax credits and hope homeowners adopt rooftop solar due to home resale value or out of altruism – requires dramatic and revolutionary reconsideration. I wanted to read about that revolutionary model for putting solar on every house, and I didn’t get that from Rooftop Revolution.

My second big criticism of Kennedy’s book is that while I generally found the tone of his writing encouraging (hey, I’m about to open that business!), he counterbalanced any positive message with an antagonistic tale that I found discouraging, almost counter-productive, to the intent of his work.

Read the subtitle of his book to get an idea of what the content is like: Kennedy spends waaaayyy too much time in activist mode, leading a chorus of cheers against “dirty energy” and “King CONG,” (coal, oil, nukes and gas). His Greenpeace persona is out in full force not just in one chapter, which I could handle, but throughout his book. Demonizing the opposition, as Kennedy views the traditional energy industries and all their supporters, is a very poor way to advance your views and win converts. I found myself questioning some of his claims about subsidies and tax breaks for big energy, claims that should have had little to do with the book’s message but seemed to overwhelm all other content. His tone certainly interfered with any positive message the book did present.

My response to Kennedy and others is simple: We do not lack choir preachers; we need someone who can preach to the masses. The masses cast the votes, own the homes, spend the money, and ultimately are responsible for any rooftop revolution we hopefully experience. If what you’re after is making a big change, a big societal impact – if you are serious about planning a revolution – then you need to make a more compelling case for converting to solar. Kennedy failed to make this case, and because of that, I find that his book fails to advance the rooftop solar cause.

Bicycle Helmet Scofflaw, or Sophisticated European?

Ann Althouse, a daily read for me, links to this New York Times story by Elisabeth Rosenthal, a reporter and blogger on environmental issues, who seems surprised to find that not everyone in the world has gotten the memo that they must, really really ought to, wear a helmet when bicycling.

Visiting Paris, Ms. Rosenthal hops on a public bike-sharing bicycle for a jaunty ride, but not first without making this realization:

Then I did something extraordinary, something I’ve not done in a quarter-century of regular bike riding in the United States: I rode off without a helmet.


I don’t wear a bicycle helmet on my daily work commute. There is a bicycle helmet hanging right above my bike, in my garage, which I’ll don the next time I go mountain biking. But I don’t wear it on my daily commute. Some people find this really upsetting.

Ms. Sloan explores this controversy in her NY Times story on helmets, helmet science, and the popularity of bicycle commuting and public bike-share programs in Europe and America. Sharing what I gather are her personal experiences from travels abroad, and citing bicycling/safety experts along the way, she notes the vast gulf between bicycling habits at home and abroad.

In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke. Cities are aggressive in helmet promotion.

On the other hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule.

I spent some time exploring the safety literature and found that – surprise – there is no clear consensus on the costs and benefits of wearing bike helmets. I doubt anyway that the Dutch are leaving their helmets at home due to the latest peer-reviewed helmet safety study.

What I did discover is that a lot of the differences between America and European bicycle friendliness can be attributed to commuting behavior, urban layout, and traffic design. In America, we’re addicted to our automobiles, and will hop in one to drive around the block to the Quickie-mart. Of course, part of the reason we do this is because our communities are street- and vehicle-centric.

In Europe, there is a history of commuting by human power. The Dutch, for instance, have been getting around on bicycles for at least a century. Add to that that many European communities are designed to favor the pedestrian and bicyclist. Some of this is because these communities are much older than their American counterparts. You see this in the very narrow cobble-stoned lanes in Europe. In America, we’re all about the big two-lane boulevards, even in our residential areas. In Europe, you find things like the Woonerf – living streets where pedestrians and cyclists have the right of way and priority over the automobile-bound commuter. And imagine an American community doing away with traffic lanes and street signs to enhance the balance of interests between drivers and pedestrians. And for some reason, America, frankly, has a much more aggressive nanny state when it comes to helmet laws. We can’t seem to relax even for a moment, ever vigilant against the slightest chance that someone may injure him or herself in the pursuit of happiness, or life, or going out for a gallon of milk.

I am convinced the only way to make bicycling a widely accepted form of commuting here at home is to have its popularity grow and spread, until it becomes common to encounter people going to and from work, church, school, errands, restaurants and bars, and so on, on their bicycles. Once it’s no longer viewed as some aberrant behavior, but a thing that any sane, normal, non-tour-de-france freak may do, then finally we may make some progress in this ongoing conflict between bikes and cars, and who owns what portion of the roadway, and whether or not we can go about our business without threat of ridicule from the self-appointed helmet police.

Using CO2 to Light our Streets!

I’ll be the first to tell you – I despise street lamps. Please don’t babysit me! I want to see the stars at night! But then comes along a concept I love. Futuristic. Sci-Fi. Visually stunning. The kind of thinking we need more of (of which we need more?). If we have street lamps, let them look and work like this! I Stumbled Upon this page just now, and I love it:

Carbon dioxide comes from seemingly everywhere. It is emitted from the exhaust pipes of vehicles, the generation of electricity, and even the exhale of every living creature on the planet.

It’s not all evil, however. Without CO2, plants would not generate oxygen for us to breathe.

Borrowing a page from plant-life’s book, Peter Horvath, a Hungarian Designer, has come up with the BioLamp street lamp concept.

FutureTech says,

“The Biolamp consists of a liquid, alga combined with water that transforms CO2 into O2­. This street lamp called Biolamp is also completed with a pump for sucking the smog.”

Here’s a visual representation, which I really like. Natural, earthy, organic; no more metal light posts!

Cool. Just cool.