Category Archives: Alternative energy

Earthships

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On the flat sweep of highway between Chaco Canyon and Taos, New Mexico, you may not expect to see much except desert and a few a scrub bushes under a pastel blue sky. You certainly don’t expect to see Hobbit like homes all bending toward the sun, like minarets awaiting their muezzins. They are spectacular against the endless sky, but the real surprise comes when you stop by to investigate. You realize something important: these singularly humble ‘Hobbit’ homes –also known as Earthships –may be a glimpse of our future.

Mike Reynolds, the founder of Earthships, first came up with the idea for these self-sufficient dwellings when Hurricane Marilyn roared through the Caribbean, destroying a quarter of the homes on St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin islands. Full restoration of power took several months. Three thousand miles away, in Taos, New Mexico, Reynolds, read the news and saw a demand for a self-sustaining housing systems—what would later evolve into Earthships.

Traditionally, Mike Reynolds notes, most houses were built from whatever material was plentiful and fast at hand–trees, clay, grass (on the plains). In modern urban culture our most plentiful material is our non-biodegradable waste. Thus, he decided to use tires which will spend three times or more of a human life time making an eyesore of a valley or mountainside as the building blocks for his new-fangled Earthship.

The basic Earthship design is a U. The U design is based on three tire walls, built on the North, East and West sides while the South side is glazed and slightly angled to receive maximum sunlight. The concept is surprisingly simple and efficient: using the building walls and windows to collect solar energy during the day. The walls of an Earthship give back the energy later in the day when the outside air cools. Earthships are built from old car tires full of rammed earth, these are the load-bearing walls (that create the thermal mass). The walls that aren’t as structurally important get interesting aesthetic treatments; the most common of which is the use of “glass bricks”, which is a “brick” made out of two glass bottles, cut in half and duct taped together.
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On to this mud, cement or adobe plaster is added. In addition, Earthship roofs can catch water when it rains and store it for later use in a cistern. Recycled greywater (from showers, dirty dishes, etc…) and blackwater (septic waste) are carefully separated. The grey water is fed into toilets for flushing and gardens where the waste is welcomed as nutrients to plants, and acts as a filter. The black water is broken down in an external solar septic tank which accelerates the anaerobic process by heating the waste with solar energy. The solids break down and travels through filtering layers of gravel, pumice, soil and roots where it is absorbed by plants and cleaned. Energy is provided by solar panels and/or wind generators stored in batteries. Methane gas from the breakdown of black waste can be stored for emergency energy needs.

The interior is comfortable and spacious. The rounded walls indeed give it a Hobbit feel, but this is a plus not a minus. One senses a return to a natural order living in the Earth, as this Earthship does, rather than on top of it.
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Earthships also have extensive gardening beds to reduce the need to rely on grocery stores for food. There are raised beds, roof top plots and indoor greens. All this, and the most expensive of all Earth ships is a mere $70,000 (excluding labor costs). The average pricing works out to about $120 per square foot. If you provide your own labor, of course, it’s less.

In The Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Limerick writes of the western pilgrims leaving great heaps of tin cans outside their little shacks. “Living out of cans,” she notes, with a bit of irony, “the Montana Ranchers were typical Westerners, celebrating independence while relying on a vital connection to the outside world.” Not unlike the ‘independent westerners’ of today, who take to the Rockies in their SUVs, powered by a web of connections that reaches all the way across the oceans to cluster bombs in Iraq.

“The [modern housing] systems give us power on one hand and poison on the other,” Mike Reynolds notes, “Acid rain, radioactive waste, spider webs of power lines, polluted rivers and oceans, vanishing wildlife are all part of the ‘price’ for the life support systems necessary to make the current concept of housing functional. A person on life support in a hospital has to always be within reach and ‘plugged in’ to the various systems that keep him/her alive. So it is with our current concept of housing.”

Earthships incorporate systems that are external to most traditional house designs. Thus, they are self-sustaining.

There are Earthship colonies in climates ranging from the deserts of New Mexico to the high humidity of the United Kingdom, Brighton and Edinburgh. There are also Earthship enclaves near the tropics in Honduras, in Bolivia and Mexico.

For those who can’t feature themselves as over cautious environmentalists, and like, instead, to consider themselves ‘rugged individualists’, consider this: Earthships are the ultimate in an individual’s great goodbye to the systems that would otherwise keep them enslaved. Much more rugged and individualist than certain Montana Ranchers who ‘conquered’ the West while leaving behind their ‘externalities’: waste trails of empty tin cans.

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Thanks to Stefan Reed, APV’s Deputy Director of Environment and Clean Energy Task Force, and Jack Johnson who visited the Earthships in New Mexico and also took the photos.

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Advancing Virginia in the Age of Renewables ~by Stefan Reed

Red kites fly past wind turbines. Photograph: Alamy

Renewable Energy is making slow but concrete progress as an alternative to conventional fuels for our energy dependence. It comes from sources that are always present (wind, solar and water powered generators) or constantly renewing themselves (biomass). Biomass is a form of energy created from burning plant waste (grass clippings, leaves, wood). All of these alternative energies are being produced at higher capacities than ever before. We can buy alternative energy here in Virginia from Dominion Resources, Inc.. This helps to support the perpetuation of the renewable industry in the Commonwealth, but how much of that renewable energy is actually coming from Virginia?

As of 2010, we were producing 101.5 trillion Btu (British Thermal Units) and consuming 146.7 Btu (eia.gov). That means that from somewhere outside of Virginia, we are importing renewable energy to meet the demands here in our own state. Keep in mind, this renewable production and consumption is for all of Virginia and not just Dominion power. Interestingly enough, Dominion currently sells their renewable energy on Green-E Energy, an organization that helps to connect renewable energy producers and consumers anywhere in the United States. Purchase of this energy from Dominion is available to all, so both residential customers and business owners can choose this option. The energy is acquired from a long list of alternative options from producers all across the country. Dominion is not an actual member of this program though, as they only sell their electricity in VA.

So, we in the state of Virginia can actually purchase electricity from other states. Dominion just powers our house per usual, and the energy company you purchase the energy from sends Dominion electrical power, which Dominion runs through its network just like the power from any of its production locations. Dominion gets our money just like normal, and presumably a commission on top for allowing the power companies to use their infrastructure to “deliver” the renewable energy. Dominion doesn’t even need to create renewable energy sources to make a profit from it!

We shouldn’t let Dominion make us out-of-state renewable dependent! Virginia needs to not only create enough renewable energy to meet our own demands, but we need to expand our renewable energy portfolio to meet the demand in other states as well.

Our non-renewable resources will run out and our country and the world will need to satisfy our need for energy with another source; a source that can provide the same energy generated from the astronomical amounts of coal, petroleum, and natural gas used globally.

A new reservoir of energy must be created to provide the globe with energy. Nevada and Colorado battle with a handful of other states to hold the title of the largest renewable energy exporters in the United States. Virginia needs to catch up and become a player in this game. Dominion, based in Richmond, has an 83 MW Biomass plant here in Virginia. Biomass, although an alternative, is not a zero emission renewable source because the burning of plant material inevitably releases all the stored carbon in the form of climate change intensifying carbon emissions. In addition to Dominion’s unfortunately small biomass effort, they are evaluating wind power opportunities. Despite their menial efforts to create renewable energy here in Virginia, Dominion has a 50% interest in all of the following:

264 MW wind farm in West Virginia
300 MW wind farm in Indiana
220 MW hydro station in North Carolina

As you see, Dominion has significantly more renewable energy being produced in other states than it has in its home state of Virginia. This trend is unacceptable. We need for Dominion to invest in local renewable energy resources now! And they need to commit to future development that will position Virginia as a national leader in safe energy production alternatives.

Considering the options available to our state, which now include the federally designated wind-development area off our coast, Virginia can and should play an integral part in advancing America to the world’s largest producer of renewable energy.

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Stefan Reed is APV’s Deputy Director of Environment and Clean Energy Task Force.

False Summit -by George Monbiot

“We were wrong about peak oil: there’s enough in the ground to deep-fry the planet.”

From: False Summit, by George Monbiot, Mon 2 Jul 2012:

“The facts have changed, now we must change too. For the past 10 years an unlikely coalition of geologists, oil drillers, bankers, military strategists and environmentalists has been warning that peak oil – the decline of global supplies – is just around the corner. We had some strong reasons for doing so: production had slowed, the price had risen sharply, depletion was widespread and appeared to be escalating. The first of the great resource crunches seemed about to strike.
Among environmentalists it was never clear, even to ourselves, whether or not we wanted it to happen. It had the potential both to shock the world into economic transformation, averting future catastrophes, and to generate catastrophes of its own, including a shift into even more damaging technologies, such as biofuels and petrol made from coal. Even so, peak oil was a powerful lever. Governments, businesses and voters who seemed impervious to the moral case for cutting the use of fossil fuels might, we hoped, respond to the economic case.
Some of us made vague predictions, others were more specific. In all cases we were wrong. In 1975 MK Hubbert, a geoscientist working for Shell who had correctly predicted the decline in US oil production, suggested that global supplies could peak in 1995. In 1997 the petroleum geologist Colin Campbell estimated that it would happen before 2010. In 2003 the geophysicist Kenneth Deffeyes said he was “99% confident” that peak oil would occur in 2004. In 2004, the Texas tycoon T Boone Pickens predicted that “never again will we pump more than 82m barrels” per day of liquid fuels. (Average daily supply in May 2012 was 91m.) In 2005 the investment banker Matthew Simmons maintained that “Saudi Arabia … cannot materially grow its oil production”. (Since then its output has risen from 9m barrels a day to 10m, and it has another 1.5m in spare capacity.)
Peak oil hasn’t happened, and it’s unlikely to happen for a very long time.
A report by the oil executive Leonardo Maugeri, published by Harvard University, provides compelling evidence that a new oil boom has begun. The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that.
Maugeri’s analysis of projects in 23 countries suggests that global oil supplies are likely to rise by a net 17m barrels per day (to 110m) by 2020. This, he says, is “the largest potential addition to the world’s oil supply capacity since the 1980s”. The investments required to make this boom happen depend on a long-term price of $70 a barrel – the current cost of Brent crude is $95. Money is now flooding into new oil: a trillion dollars has been spent in the past two years; a record $600bn is lined up for 2012.
The country in which production is likely to rise most is Iraq, into which multinational companies are now sinking their money, and their claws. But the bigger surprise is that the other great boom is likely to happen in the US. Hubbert’s peak, the famous bell-shaped graph depicting the rise and fall of American oil, is set to become Hubbert’s Rollercoaster.
Investment there will concentrate on unconventional oil, especially shale oil (which, confusingly, is not the same as oil shale). Shale oil is high-quality crude trapped in rocks through which it doesn’t flow naturally.
There are, we now know, monstrous deposits in the United States: one estimate suggests that the Bakken shales in North Dakota contain almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia (though less of it is extractable). And this is one of 20 such formations in the US. Extracting shale oil requires horizontal drilling and fracking: a combination of high prices and technological refinements has made them economically viable. Already production in North Dakota has risen from 100,000 barrels a day in 2005 to 550,000 in January.
So this is where we are. The automatic correction – resource depletion destroying the machine that was driving it – that many environmentalists foresaw is not going to happen. The problem we face is not that there is too little oil, but that there is too much.
We have confused threats to the living planet with threats to industrial civilisation. They are not, in the first instance, the same thing. Industry and consumer capitalism, powered by abundant oil supplies, are more resilient than many of the natural systems they threaten. The great profusion of life in the past – fossilised in the form of flammable carbon – now jeopardises the great profusion of life in the present.
There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground. Twenty years of efforts to prevent climate breakdown through moral persuasion have failed, with the collapse of the multilateral process at Rio de Janeiro last month. The world’s most powerful nation is again becoming an oil state, and if the political transformation of its northern neighbour is anything to go by, the results will not be pretty.
Humanity seems to be like the girl in Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth: she knows that if she eats the exquisite feast laid out in front of her, she too will be consumed, but she cannot help herself. I don’t like raising problems when I cannot see a solution. But right now I’m not sure how I can look my children in the eyes.”
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“Here are some of the things I try to fight: undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, environmental destruction, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency.”
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Unveiling nuclear safety

Energy news can be really exciting these days, or frustrating and scary. But as the ole’ mother of invention kicks in, people around the world are creating solutions and designing power options to help us shake rattle and roll off our addiction to dangerous, destructive sources and practices we’ve been stuck with for too long. Some ideas are better than others, but as we brainstorm through this process it gets clearer all the time that we’re making good headway. We’re doing it! Maybe the trick is to stay focused on the beauty and benefits of a green future. Check this out!

On the other hand, we’re still facing critical safety and environmental issues that surround fossil fuel, including the acquisition of oil, the obvious dangers associated with fracking, and destructive coal mining practices. With all the information available on the down side, I can’t even imagine voting to reelect a representative who isn’t working to help end our national obsession with filthy dangerous energy sources. Obviously, the Keystone pipeline project and ending bans on uranium mining would lead us in the wrong direction.

One of our most imminent threats, as the people of Japan know well, is the safety and regulation needed to continue nuclear power production until it can be effectively phased out.

In that vein, this should be an interesting meeting this morning. The operators of our nuclear power plants have a deal for us: They’ll do what they want to improve safety, and that’s the end of it.

The industry is seeking assurances from the NRC that it won’t face additional requirements on the same safety issues later if it moves forward voluntarily now.

“This is just something that we believe we should be doing,” said Adrian Heymer, who is in charge of the Institute’s Fukushima regulatory response team. “But we want to get some credit for it.”

Credit? They’ve known all along what could happen to us if the power goes out like it did in Japan, and they’ve done nothing to solve that problem for decades. They’ve been playing the odds, gambling with our safety – and now they want credit for being proactive?

“Heymer said the new backup systems could keep nuclear fuel cool for three days or more.”

A key feature, yes. But understanding that without this feature “the plants can only cope for 4 to 8 hours” means that they have been ignoring a key feature – a feature standing between life and death to the people and environments surrounding 104 U.S. reactors.

“The proposal is likely to face scrutiny from nuclear watchdogs, in part because it involves portable equipment that wouldn’t be subject to the strictest NRC standards and wouldn’t be installed as part of a mandatory NRC rule.”

That’s true for now, but the NRC is getting ready to impose new regulations on nuclear facilities because the industry operators have failed to do it. If these operators are seeking to show us how proactively they improve safety – they’re too late. They’ve already shown us that until the NRC is on the verge of regulating, they don’t invest in the people’s safety.

The equipment used for severe accident mitigation after 9/11, – guidelines “which had been adopted voluntarily by the nuclear industry and thus not subject to commission rules”, were found to be problematic in nearly a third of our nations reactors.

So, here we go again with a new safety plan being unveiled today, voluntarily, just before they get hit with regulations they have to abide by, subject to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“Heymer said the industry’s proposal would be implemented by 2015, but predicted a formal rule would take longer to finalize.

So what’s the deal? We’ll know more after the meeting, but so far it looks like we’re supposed to let these operators dawdle around for three more years developing their own safety requirements and quality controls, only allowing us to set standards and inspect equipment. In exchange for this magnanimous offer, they want us to agree that we won’t require anything else of them regarding these safety issues – that’s what they’re calling “credit”.

That’s not a deal; it’s another attempt to avoid NRC regulations that have teeth, cost more money, make the people safer and operators accountable.

We will continue to pay for their liability insurance until 2025 via the Price-Anderson Act. It’s high-dollar insurance paid for by taxpayers but given “free” to for-profit nuclear plant operators. Of course, it’s not adequate enough to cover victims of accidents, but it indemnifies the operators for accidents even if they cause one by willful misconduct or gross negligence. It’s socialism for the rich. So, I say we should crack down on the NRC, get the regulations finalized tout suite, and let these operators know who’s boss.

They should spend all the money it takes to implement reasonable, preventative safety features and to have supplies and procedures in place to protect and evacuate the public affected by a nuclear event, and not just within a pat 50 mile radius, but also downwind as far as the scientists estimate the affected public resides. And they shouldn’t be allowed to pass the cost on to us. This is one industry that won’t shut down and go elsewhere for cheap labor. They’re completely dependent on the American consumer, and they should show some appreciation for us while they’re still around.

We’ll see what happens. The meeting is from 9 -12, and I hope the NRC, not at all known for their vicious bite, can find the gumption to work in the interest of safety instead of placating the corporations.
DCKennedy