Terraform Earth

Biochar: Cheap Fuel Plus CO2 Sequestering

I found a clip that shows the essential process in making biochar, a cheap way to generate heat while sequestering some of the carbon in agricultural waste.

It would be terrific if agriculture became carbon negative while still generating revenue. And biochar puts this within reach of not just wealthier nations, but developing countries as well.

The biochar process involves heating organic waste products, like manure or plant clippings, in a low oxygen container to a high enough temperature that the combustible molecules break their chemical bonds, releasing gasses that can be burned as fuel. The remaining biochar, which is essentially charcoal, can then be used as fertilizer. This increases soil fertility while trapping carbon in the ground for a net reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere.

By the way, those of you inspired to experiment with burying regular charcoal as a fertilizer and carbon sink, please use the charcoals that don’t have the easy start additives.

Wikipedia has a great article on the process.

Posted via web from Dan’s EcoGeekery

How du get ze Humans du taek ze stairz

Green Roofs for Container Housing

I have been contemplating a very sustainable desert community. They could save lots of money and time if they built dwellings out of used cargo shipping containers. But how to keep them cool in the desert? Green Roofs.

The shipping containers would be cheap. They could be cleaned and refurbished to become modular housing components. And by putting a green roof on top, they could keep the dwelling in the cool shade. The containers would have the structural strength to support a green roof since they were designed to be stacked like blocks.

Building soil filled planter boxes on the sides would provide further shade, some insulation, and even thermal mass effects. That last aspect is where the sheer volume of dirt would keep the dwelling cooler during the hottest part of the day and warmer at night.

Posted via web from Dan’s EcoGeekery

Coal on the Decline

Articles out of Florida say that the next planned coal fired power plant has been cancelled. This markes a milestone of sorts, since it was partially an economic decision. The Seminole Electric Cooperative has cited…

Uncertainty – there might be new fees on carbon intensive fuels or coal in particular
Lower cost Natural Gas – the cleaner fuel seems more abundant with less risk of carbon tariffs
Energy efficiency measures (from a scaled back economy and from Federal incentives) reduce demand
Alerternative Power, especially solar, is cheaper and in greater demand from power consumers

To my thinking, the cost of coal must now suffer with the additional cost of uncertainty in regulation when competing with the other energy sources.

Most alternative energies don’t face the kind of minimum start-up size issues that coal and gas face. Installing a ten megawatt facility of wind or solar one megawatt at a time isn’t much more expensive than installing it all at once. This allows a utility more financial flexibility in a fiscal landscape with less freely flowing capital. There might even be additional savings from falling wind & solar prices during an extended project. And there are no fuel costs with wind or solar, which brings in a owning vs. renting calculation.

It is analogous to weighing whether one should rent an entire home, or, for just a little bit more per room, buy that home one room at a time as your budget allows, while being able to fully utilize each of the rooms one has purchased. What resident wouldn’t prefer the second option? I think the owning vs. renting model will be a major motivator for the more fiscally astute companies and landowners to chose wind & solar.

Posted via web from Dan’s EcoGeekery

More Efficient Carbon Fiber Airplanes

Boeing has just done a test flight for their new 787 Dreamliner. I usually don’t fawn over a big corporation’s newest product launch, but this one is a highlight for efficiency. It is mostly made from carbon fiber composites and titanium, uses more efficient engines and should save an airline 20% on fuel costs.These fuel savings will constitute huge reductions on greenhouse gas emissions since flight is one of the most CO2 intensive activities one can pursue. A couple percent savings with the largest wasters can have a bigger effect than a huge savings in less wasteful sectors.

Amory Lovins of RMI has presented evidence linking energy efficiency with improved profits at some major corporations. There are now sustainability MBA programs at institutions like the Presidio College that are training the next generation of managers and executives. This profit oriented demographic will uses their newly acquired efficiency paradigms to drive the more forward thinking corporations towards sustainability as a competitive strategy. And being less competitive will quickly drive the other corporations towards efficiency. As Lovins says, “We will change their minds or their managers.”

Companies like FiberForge will be cranking out the new ultra-light, ultra-strong materials to meet an ever rising demand. A concept I would find conceptually appealing would be generating some of those carbon fibers from CO2 emissions. To sequester carbon within the industrial materials that will reduce the CO2 emissions has a kind of intellectual symmetry that is very satisfying.

Posted via web from Dan’s EcoGeekery

Governor Schwarzenegger Signed Two Solar Bills

Our solar-advocating governor has signed in two bills that will add monetary incentives for installing more solar. AB 920 will mean that solar on your home won't just reduce your electric bill; you might actually get paid by the utility for producing more than you consume. And SB 32 means that the utilities have to buy energy at above-wholesale prices from producers between 1.5 and 3 megawatts. So we might see more big installations on large roofs and large parking lots.

LA Times

Posted via email from Dan’s EcoGeekery

Industries of Inefficiency?

Efficiency Effects

Perhaps, in a small way, efficiency has contributed to our recent economic downturn.

There has been a kind of split personality amongst managers and executives for quite some time. They have been of two minds regarding their internal operations and their external financial entanglements. Borrowing Rushkoff's paradigm of the corporation as fundamentally a manager of debt, the decisions made have been less than ideal because of the different standards used when managing 'external' vs. 'internal' debt.

By internal, I mean that when a company purchases equipment, it doesn't expect to instantly regain the value of that equipment at the flip of the 'on' switch. They plan the purchase with a Return On Investment (ROI) scheme. They predict how much the equipment will cost to purchase and to operate, balance that against how much revenue they expect to generate, and decide if the purchase is profitable enough.

And by external, I mean that the company will sell stocks, take loans from banks, purchase insurance, and make other financial arrangements with third parties to collect capital for operations and fiscal security. So Rushkoff's label of 'managers of debt' seems apt. But they are inconsistent in their management.

Per Amory Lovins, internal equipment is often purchased with very short ROIs requirements while the external fiscal deals can have an order of magnitude longer ROIs. That effectively makes the equipment look like a worse investment when compared to investing in stocks, for example. Which is not consistent with trying to maximize the profitability of the company, since both the external fiscal dealing and the internal operations contribute to the bottom line.

This bias did not arise from intentional neglect or outright stupidity on the part of executives and managers, but rather from a cultural bias amongst the major fiscal decision makers. The same way scientist and engineers as a community look down on mixing with end users, the executives and managers have difficulty seeing a more efficient tool as having the same capability for generating profits that a bit of market speculation might. So they skew their company's spending towards external financial ventures rather than internal investments that might pay off quicker with less risk.

Right now the smart investment money prefers US government bonds over stocks, since stocks are riskier. Which makes internal investments into efficiency much more attractive. The confidence is high, the returns are rapid, and the external fiscal environment favors trimming down.

Some major companies have been proving the soundness of these investments. Lovins' recent debate with an economist (with lots of actual numbers from actual firms) cited profitable efficiencies found at Dow, BP, IBM, GE and Dupont. They are teaching their competitors that going efficient is the best strategy for the near future. But someone is probably losing revenue somewhere along the line. At least part of the billions of dollars of profits he cited must have been a loss to some part of the economy.

An Industry of Inefficiency?

As glad as I am to hear of such wonderful efficiencies and reductions in the carbon footprints of major corporations, I have to consider further: Who is being hurt by this? With less electricity and water being consumed, with less materials entering the waste stream, there must be some companies that are getting less business. Could these companies be said to be part of an industry of inefficiency?

Here in California, we have been proven wise to have been tough on our utilities in the 1970's. We forced them, kicking and screaming, to work under rules that rewarded them for selling less energy to their customers. The power companies of other states work under the old model where they get more money for selling more power, and polluting more along the way. It is not very surprising that PG&E has become the greenest utility in the country, even to the point of lobbying for more efficiency and clean energy mandates.

Relative to PG&E, utilities that rely on coal, for example, seem to benefit when corporations and individual consumers are wasteful. They get more revenue from a wasteful, inefficient customer base than from an efficient one. So they have no interest in implementing new efficiency standards. In fact, their obligation to their shareholders that they maximize profits would seem to require them to discourage efficiency legislation and practices.

I am not saying that there are people who get up for work looking forward to creating some more waste for the sake of sheer malevolence. I am saying that there will be some who will rightly worry when the public thinking of the day turns towards efficiency. The insecurity they feel about their investments, their workplace, or their job will be quite justified as our consumer economy demands a higher MPG rating, as our health care reforms discourage unnecessary procedures, and as the shareholders demand better management techniques.

Amory Lovins used a wonderful phrase when talking about corporations being forced through competition to adopt efficiency practices: "… they will either change their minds or their managers." Maybe the manager whose training didn't include sustainable management techniques might want to educate himself on such methods as a hedge against getting fired some day soon.

And considering how many managers had efficiency low on the priority list, how few executives paid attention to something as lower management as the electric bill, how few employees are even asked to turn the light off in an empty room, one must wonder how much of our economy is based upon waste? As we find our society can't afford the wasteful practices in the face of global competition and global warming, how much of the old investments in the industries of inefficiency will evaporate? What will happen to those who owe at least part of their paycheck to waste?

We should feel some sympathy for those who will be displaced by the sustainability trends. But we should try to give them "a hand up, not a handout" when that demographic is large enough to warrant government expenditures. Let's retrain those coal workers to do efficiency retrofits, install solar panels, or process biofuels. Fewer people will suffer less if we adopt the green practices sooner rather than later. 

We should be expect some real resistance to change from those that invested heavily in the inefficiency industries. They will be willing to devote a significant portion of their investment capital towards preventing the loss of the rest of their investments. But ultimately, our capitalist system will seduce them back towards the industries of growth and profit.

One of my favorite aspects of Amory Lovins' lecture series was the discovery that the fundamental drives of capitalism might happily coincide with the need to reduce civilization's carbon footprint. Corporations and capitalism might be our most effective tools for getting us out of the mess that corporations and capitalism got us into. After all, they are terraforming the Earth without even really trying. Imagine what they can accomplish when they are deliberate and motivated.

– Amory Lovins debate on ForaTV
– Amory Lovins 4th of 5 lectures on energy efficiency at Stanford.
Doug Rushkoff's interview about his new book, Life Inc.

Posted via email from Dan’s EcoGeekery

Ridesharing for freight/packages

I was listening to a podcast about an Open Source group that is trying to build free services for improving the connectivity within cities at little or no cost. So I’ve posted a comment to the DIYCity.org site, and I thought I would copy that post here.

In this time of tightening belts, offering each other services outside of the normal range of commerce can allow individuals and small groups to prosper while spending less. So what if the ridesharing goes beyond people only?

I imagine needing to get a book/lamp/banner to a friend/colleague some distance away, but preferring to use something more appropriate/locally efficient/cheaper than UPS/FedEx/Post Office. Maybe I could look up a driver going to that location, and offer some gas money/bartered goods/bartered services for taking my object to its destination.

Apparently, a delivery ridesharing scheme already works amongst some grocery vendors, saving delivery costs when Brand A bread is going to the same place as Brand B coffee. As with that case, ridesharing for packages might require some small groups that limit membership so they can better collaborate and coordinate amongst themselves. But I expect the majority of traffic would come from one-by-one arrangements.

Ridesharing for stuff introduces new efficiencies:
– less delivery trucks are needed, reducing traffic and carbon footprint
– trade that would go to national/multinational corporations (UPS/FedEx) stays local
– this would add a neighborly networking social benefit that the standard delivery services don’t offer
– with a reduced cost barrier to the movement of goods, exchanges can happen that might not have otherwise, improving a city’s efficiency
– drivers can feel better about their personal carbon footprint
– this may be the first way to offer deliveries via electric or hybrid vehicles
– during disasters or movement restrictions from epidemics, this could offer additional robustness to a system for moving goods by remaining more localized

This notion has been nagging at me for a while. Driving a vehicle that doesn’t change cargo capacity to fit my needs of the moment had always seemed inefficient. This notion is a step towards an ideal efficiency, made more possible with the increase mobile connectivity and location tracking of today’s gadgets.

Of course, there would be some trust issues. These might be partially overcome by:
– establishing a reputation system like eBay’s
– posting the pickup and delivery to Twitter (a kind of tracking)
– posting camera phone pics of the exchanges to Flickr (a kind of documentation/advertising)
– keeping the typical value of the objects pretty low (implying less direct competition with the bog corporate services)

I would welcome suggestions, proofs of concept, or criticisms. I might include such a system in a story I’ve been working on, so I would prefer to make adjustments if the notion is fatally flawed.


Root Bridge

Root BridgeBridge Close-up


In Northeast India, there are beautiful strong bridges that are built by the roots of the Ficus elastica (an Indian Rubber Tree) guided by the Betel Nut Trunk to create its structure.  These bridges take 10 – 15 years to create.

Bridge Close-up

check out the article http://atlasobscura.com/places/root-bridges-cherrapungee

What do you get when you cross Skyscrapers with Parks?

Fora.tv recently posted a speech by Dan Winey, the Managing Principal for the Asia Pacific Region with Gensler, about another sustainable building design for a tower in Singapore. It uses an outer skin to relieve wind load and house 14 story atriums at multiple levels. It captures rainwater, graywater, and possibly blackwater for a water demand reduction of 40%. Wind turbines at the top and geothermal at the bottom. And a greatly reduced need for structural materials with less wind load.

I expect that this kind of design will happily accommodate the new materials technologies like fullerenes and carbon nanotubes, which have been tested at 60 to 100 time stronger than steel. [e.g. nanotube reinforced plastics, carbon nanotube reinforced aerospace materials]

One potential I don’t see discussed very much is that these stronger, lighter materials could also become smarter. CNTs (Carbon NanoTubes) and nanotubes of various other compositions have shown remarkable versatility. I am reading articles about nanotubes conducting electricity, acting as solar PV cells, photoreceptors, LEDs, peizeoelectrics, etc. So a CNT toughened plexiglass might also serve as a display, inform a building monitoring system of structural stress, and collect some electricity from sunlight.

Larry Niven long ago suggested the notion that our buildings might approach space ships in some design aspects. Right now we would like to see a building that can capture energy from its surroundings, operate a nearly closed environment within the building, and withstand the scale of threats on faces in space. The same way we want a shuttle to hold up against a micro-meteorite impact, we would also like our buildings to be less threatened by truck bombs, suicide planes, anthrax envelopes and food poisoning scares.

When I read articles about recycling greywater, I never read about water’s potential for slowing bullets & shrapnel. A biological waste water remediation system could also make the occupants safer from terrorist attacks. I think I would really appreciate an algal farm in between me and an explosion. How much is that worth in the ROI planning? Civil engineering and architecture need to adopt Amory Lovins’ approach of making the design challenges more inclusive, less myopic.

– ecogeekdan