Category Archives: Energy

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Massachusetts wind resource map.

Massachusetts wind resource map.

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Opponents of the wind turbines in Lowell, VT, led by groups like Energize Vermont, say that Vermont ridges are far too precious to have wind turbines put on them. There are MUCH better places, according to them, and they whip out maps like the one above. “What could be better than this?”, they say. Huge areas offshore with mean wind speeds above 8 meters/second, all within easy undersea-cable reach of major cities like Boston. All readily doable with off-the-shelf technology. So, save the pristine mountains, and just put the turbines where they make more sense, miles from shore in some of the windiest places in America. I agree that they should be there (along with turbines in Vermont)—I think we need ALL the wind turbines (see post “The Magic-Wand Question“), and putting turbines off-shore seems like a no-brainer.

Well, not so fast. As you may have heard, many people there (and more than a few of them quite-wealthy property owners in Martha’s Vineyard, Hyannis, and Nantucket) don’t want the towers, either, even if they’re five miles offshore. The main project being proposed, a 454-megawatt installation called Cape Wind, has been trying to overcome regulatory hurdles and legal opposition for over a decade (great Huffington Post article about the project). The good news—it’s nearly fully funded and has indeed managed to clear most of the hurdles, though at great cost, and the project is still pushing forward. I won’t wade into the details of the mess around this, but it’s enough of a circus that two books and at least one feature film have been made about the struggle. Watch this trailer for “Cape Spin” below; it’ll give you a sense of what I’m talking about—

This opposition is clearly a huge case of Not-In-My-Backyard, as even the likes of Robert Kennedy Jr., an ardent opponent of Appalachian mountaintop removal mining and supporter of the Coal River Wind project in West Virginia, opposes Cape Wind. Not incidentally, the towers would be visible on the horizon from the Kennedy compound.

Then, in New Hampshire, people have lined up left and right to support a moratorium on wind development, because they don’t want any project in their “backyard”. (The measure was recently defeated, and wind development will go forward).

Meanwhile, in the midst of much inaction, the real devastation, like the removal on entire mountains in Appalachia for the coal that powers our intransigent lifestyles, continues.

Oh, for a bit of perspective; we might be fiddling while Rome burns.

 Image Credit:

A Beautiful Thing

DSCN8311 bigThis morning I was standing on a mountain, with trees and grass all around, feeling the fresh breeze in my face, and above me, almost silently except for a slight hum and whoosh, millions of watts of clean, renewable power were being created. And, they will continue to be created, hour after hour, day after day, for decades and decades. No air pollution, no water pollution, no fossil-fuel use, no mining, no waste, no noise to speak of. This is a beautiful thing. The access road is well-designed with water catchments and swales, the gravel pads are clearly permeable, and hardwoods are already sprouting on the new embankments. I have pondered both sides of this, and have concluded that we need more of these, even on beautiful Vermont ridges. As long as the energy is being used carefully and not wasted, the price is worth it.

Blog note: I don’t like the blog running my life, but I don’t like not blogging, either. I think the topic is important. So, I’m going to resume posting, but will try to achieve a middle ground in terms of time input. As such, posts might come at odd intervals from time to time. If checking back regularly for new material is bothersome, put your email address in the notification box on the sidebar; it works really well.

A few of the twenty-one towers.

A few of the twenty-one towers.

A damaged blade, now used as a display. 170 feet in length.

A damaged blade, now used as a display. 170 feet in length.

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Intellectual Honesty

Out of oil?

Out of oil?

Mr. X has been chastising me again, this time about writing the statement “though it’s only been three or four decades since we’ve truly realized it, the carbon emissions in the second graph are going to wreck the planet”, in my post “A Matter of Limits“. He says that it isn’t a fact that carbon emissions will wreck the planet, only a possibility. He’s right—I generally treat this statement as a given, an a priori assumption, and use it as a starting point for many arguments. The physics, the bulk of the evidence, and the majority of climate scientists concur. BUT—predicting the future is a hazardous thing, and Mr. X, I believe, is correct on this one.

This has also made me think because I’ve seen two lines of thought in the last week that have given me pause, and I want to be intellectually honest in my mental pursuits, and don’t want to be one of those people who is so committed to their own viewpoint that they become ossified in their thinking (see my post from early last month, “Half-Truths“).

So, line-of-thinking #1—I stumbled across a blog the other day, “Do the Math“, which is written by a professor at UC San Diego, Tom Murphy, and deals, generally, with the math and physics behind energy. I found it quite fascinating.The man is a real-life PhD-level astrophysicist, seems thoughtful and reasoned, and is a good writer. His opening statement to his blog, apart from the technical accomplishments, seems like a compilation of things I have written myself. So, finally back from Boston, and with my wife now out of town, I sat down the other day and started reading what he’s written. I read until almost 2 a.m., and then more yesterday; perhaps half of all the material on his website. Fascinating stuff. His general take—we live on a finite planet, economic growth must level off, there are real mathematical and thermodynamic reasons why our energy use can’t continue to grow exponentially, oil is peaking, we might get caught in a predicament as energy becomes more scarce, and there are no great energy alternatives out there. Because of all of this, we need to voluntarily slow down, conserve, and begin to adjust to a future of level population, zero economic growth, and constrained energy. Liquid fuels will be the first to diminish, and will have ripple effects on the whole economy, he writes, and the potential for efficiency improvement is limited in many areas.

So, I agree, completely, with most of that. The part that gave me pause—for all his concern about switching to renewable sources of power, the driving force behind his viewpoint is “peak oil”, and not global warming. I was, and remain, skeptical. Five or more years ago, I would have agreed—peak oil seemed like a rock-solid case as I pondered it. But I fairly quickly began to think of more and more avenues that would make “peak oil”, if not a non-issue, at least not a civilization-crasher. Likewise, five years ago I gave quite a bit of credence to those who felt the U.S. financial system was due to go off the rails, and I’ve also decided that this is far less than likely. Tom Murphy, for all his brilliance, and for all his very-useful articles about renewable power, and despite his 12.5 million website hits, might not be correct as to the things he emphasizes.

But, back to the part-that-gave-me-pause—one reason he is concerned about peak oil seems to be that he doesn’t think that global warming will be an issue (and peak oil is clearly inevitable, I’m just not sure that it will be a show-stopper. I might expound on that, but perhaps not in this post). And, reason to stop and take note—this isn’t some ideologue on the street parroting back something he heard on Rush Limbaugh about global warming ideas being a sham, this is a guy that can actually do, and has done, much of the math. Interestingly, he doesn’t deny global warming in any way, in fact, he claims that the physics behind it are rock-solid. He just doesn’t seem to think that a warming planet will be a show-stopper (read his post “Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps“). So, I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about the part about it not being a serious matter, but it’s something to think about.

The ocean-- a source of disparity.

The ocean– a source of disparity.

Reason-to-pause #2—Mr. X pointed out an article about recent warming data that shows that the planet isn’t warming quite like most models predicted. There seems to be much recent discussion of this. Bottom line—no one really thinks that warming has stopped, but it seems that something isn’t quite right with the computer models, likely in the algorithms that pertain to the thermal capacity of ocean water at depths deeper than 700 feet. The result is that the average temperature of the planet has remained somewhat flat for the last decade. Here’s a more complete reading list in case you’re interested, all recent articles: The Economist “A Cooling Consensus”, New Republic “Explaining the Global Warming Hiatus”, The Economist “Apocalypse Perhaps A Little Later”, The Economist “A Sensitive Matter”, and The Washington Post “Global Warming Appears to Have Slowed Lately: That’s No Reason to Celebrate”.

Climate science is notoriously complex, and this situation just shows that we might not know as much as we think we do. Again, no one thinks that warming isn’t happening or isn’t going to continue, and none of these articles argues with the idea that the burning of fossil fuels is the culprit, but the argument is over the speed at which this will happen. If it turns out that due to some heretofore unknown factor that warming is going to proceed slower than expected, then yay for the planet; it will give humanity a bit more time to adjust. In fact, it might shift the ball into Tom Murphy’s court, and back to concerns about peak oil (though I doubt it).

But the fact that models are still being perfected is reason enough to be a bit more careful with the dire predictions. Now, all that being said—the whole “global warming/peak oil/energy” ball of wax is only part of humanity’s problems. Trend lines are heading in the wrong direction in just about every arena (post- “It’s the Trend Lines that are Scary“). And, within the energy debate, it is interesting to note that in most cases, the potential downsides to business-as-usual, whether from global warming, or climate change, or peak oil, are potentially quite serious, or even disastrous. So, while Mr. X is correct, and these aren’t sure things, they are well within the realm of possibility (or even likely), and the safest course of action, in nearly all cases, is to begin to shift away from fossil fuels. And, in the vein of being intellectually honest, the risk of an all-out effort is that it may slow the economy in ways that might impact the world’s poor. But, I think this risk is vastly overshadowed by the risks of not acting in response to the potential downsides of continued profligate fossil fuel consumption.

So, despite all these pauses, my basic tenets remain—business-as-usual is a dangerous game, and we need to veer away from that course.

 Image credit: sgv / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: andreyst / 123RF Stock Photo

A Matter of Limits

I’ve written repeatedly about the incredible, almost staggering amount of energy in fossil fuels. Here’s why this is a problem—watch this amazing few minutes of video about how economic growth has lifted the world from sickness and poverty since the industrial revolution–

Wonderful, right? Hans Rosling is optimistic, and ends by excitedly saying “…everyone can make it to this healthy, wealthy world.” But, play this similar animated graph about world carbon emissions during that same time period, at Hans Rosling’s Gapminder site. In case you didn’t notice, they track together nearly exactly (and just look at China’s emissions on the rise toward the end—that’s the energy use that is powering China’s growth). Most readers probably know this already, but in case you haven’t thought about it recently—what our economy does, and is very good at, is turning energy into stuff. And, nearly all of our energy comes from fossil fuels. So, without exaggerating much at all, we turn fossil fuels into food, into belongings, into transportation and lifestyle. It is fossil fuels, nearly completely, that have powered humanity upward in the first video.

But herein lies the problem—though it’s only been three or four decades since we’ve truly realized it, the carbon emissions in the second graph are going to wreck the planet. So, thus the conundrum. We need economic growth to continue to lift the poorest billions out of poverty. BUT, the growth comes from energy, and the energy comes from fossil fuels, and we have to quit burning them so that we don’t commit planetary suicide. Continue reading

Urban Rooftops

On top of those skyscrapers...

On top of those skyscrapers…

First, I don’t want anyone to think I have been disparaging distributed, rooftop solar in some of my recent posts. Having solar on every roof would be a fantastic thing, and I think it’s a logical first step toward carbon-free power. PV panels are affordable, roof space is already present, and photovoltaic arrays don’t lose efficiency when they’re installed in smaller arrangements. But my point, every time distributed solar comes up, is that even if every rooftop were covered, this wouldn’t produce the amount of renewable power that we will need, and there isn’t enough rooftop space in cities to even begin to produce enough power to meet the demand of the people there. But, this doesn’t doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worth doing—rooftop space in the sun is rooftop space in the sun. However, in cities, photovoltaics might not be the best use of this valuable real estate.

So, to back up a bit, let me sing some praises for solar hot water. In terms of efficiency, solar hot water collectors dramatically outperform solar photovoltaic panels. Capturing heat from solar insolation is just a fairly efficient process, compared to converting light into electricity. And, until just recently it didn’t make any sense, in terms of price, to install photovoltaics to make electricity that would then used to heat water. In recent years, however, heat pumps have become efficient enough, and PV systems have become cheap enough, that in many situations it might be a better choice to use photovoltaics and a heat pump to make hot water, instead of thermal collectors. (Good article here.)

Evacuated tube collectors for solar hot water.

Evacuated tube collectors for solar hot water.

However, regardless of the price of photovoltaics, it is likely that the best use of rooftops on large, tall buildings in the city will be thermal solar hot water, at least in any building where hot water or space heating is required. Though prices between the two systems are close to equitable today, the higher efficiencies of solar hot water make the physical footprints of such systems much smaller than that of  PV panels. My rough estimate is that the PV panels required to run heat pumps would take up four times the area of modern, evacuated-tube solar hot water collectors.

So, I suppose I have a rather small point to all of this—that down the road, we might need to use rooftops in cities for solar hot water. The footprints of such systems are smaller, and we could maximize gain from that limited rooftop real estate. Electricity can be produced remotely and then brought in on transmission lines; such a task with hot water would be fairly unworkable.

My second point might be that for some people in some situations, that advances in PV systems and heat pumps have made it less of a clear choice whether installing thermal solar hot water systems is the best way to use solar to heat water. But, as I was walking through small-town Vermont last week and pondering the fact that many people in town have quite-limited roof space with appropriate southern exposure, it could be that thermal systems, due to their smaller footprints, might remain a pretty good choice for many, whether they live in the city or not.

Blog note: Welcome, Australia, Canada, and Great Britain! My post about perennial agriculture seems to have been spread all over facebook, and I have been getting hundreds of views from all over the world, with clear groupings from these places. I write about my corner of the United States sometimes, but my focus is always on ideas and systems for the whole world, so it’s great to have you on-board. We’ve got a whole planet to fix, and we’re going to need people from every corner of it to get it done.

Image credit: ssuaphoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: packshot / 123RF Stock Photo

Good Job, Boston

Boston at night.

Boston at night.

Boston is beautiful. I’m here attending a conference about the economics behind the downfall of the Soviet Union. But, while here, I’ve also been thinking about the energy economics of big cities. The amount of energy being used here, on the face of it, is absolutely tremendous. Thousands and thousands of lights, vehicles, trains, ships, and all manner of other human activity, all involving power. BUT—per capita energy use and environmental impact, in cities, actually tends to run lower than that of people in rural areas. It’s not too hard to see why. My wife and I were just in a packed bar and restaurant, with all manner of lights blazing away. But, there might have been a hundred people in the room, and perhaps a hundred lights. That’s one light per person—a rate about five times better than the Bruhl family probably does on a typical evening at home. Likewise, the density of people in cities makes all sorts of activity less energy-intensive, when viewed on a per-capita basis. People commute less distance to work, or they walk or ride bicycles (the bike-sharing racks here seem to be doing a thriving business—good job, Boston), or take public transportation; all less energy intensive than driving a passenger car longer distances. I’ve seen ZipCars, too, and data from these programs show that people drive them quite efficiently. Because people are so close together, deliveries of goods happen more efficiently, as does the removal of garbage or recycling. (And, HUGE piles of recycling out in front of businesses in the historic district this evening, again, good job, Boston). Large buildings have proportionally fewer outside walls per square foot of space, and are dramatically easier to heat and cool than, say, single-family homes.

Worldwide, more and more people are moving to urban areas like this, and, as counter-intuitive as it would seem, this is good for the planet, because of these very reasons—it is easier to live with a reduced environmental footprint in an urban setting. Today, more than half of the world’s people live in urban areas (link). I’m not sure these huge growing cities qualify as “progress”, but it appears that the situation could be worse.

Another very important fact can be garnered from a walk through the city—there isn’t enough room here to create the amount of renewable power that the city needs. Everyone’s darling, distributed rooftop solar, might only be able to serve a fraction of a percent of the people here, and this is true of cites everywhere. People are close together; and there just isn’t enough roof-top space, or enough space of any sort, for that matter, for enough solar panels to supply the population. So here we have a huge city, where people are living close together in a way that is actually good for the planet, a city that will have to greatly increase their dependence on renewable electricity in the future as we move away from fossil fuel, that won’t be able to make their own power. It will have to come from the countryside, just as food and materials come from areas outside of cities. This will become a source of political conflict in the future, I’m afraid, as rural places balk at the solar farms and wind towers and hydroelectric projects that will be required.

Both of these aspects—the better efficiency of urban living, and the fact that their power will have to come from somewhere outside of cities—are both big-picture ideas that we need to keep in mind as we go forward. Personally, while I enjoy a short stay, I’ll choose to do my time in the least populated places I can find. But, I’m glad there are others who clearly prefer this. And if you choose to live in a city, Boston doesn’t appear to be a bad place to be.

Image credit: sepavo / 123RF Stock Phot

The Magic-Wand Question

turbine in field

Two of many required.

A number of you have responded to me, either on the blog or by email, about the wind issue, and the responses have run the gamut from strong support to strong opposition. I’m going to pause on the wind discussion, though, until after I go see the Lowell turbines, and even then I’m not sure I want to use this forum to get too deep into the specifics of a particular project. But I do want to think about the big picture, and I encourage everyone out there to do the same. In fact, particularly for those who find themselves in opposition to my position, I would like to know what your vision of a workable, realistic path forward is, using today’s technology (and I’m not being facetious when I write that). I often ask people, “If you had a magic wand and could rearrange the world, how would you fix it?”

With regard to energy, this is a tough question, even with a magic wand. When I wrote the other day that the amount of energy in fossil fuels is “staggering”, I wasn’t joking. Let’s just look at a very large wind turbine like the ones at Lowell. They generate a huge amount of power, over 3 megawatts per turbine at their maximum output. But, the actual amount of power generated by all wind projects fluctuates, because the wind doesn’t blow at full force all the time, and the total output is figured using a “capacity factor”, which is typically 20% to 40%. This is still a huge amount of power—let’s compare it with distributed roof-mounted solar arrays like the ones on my house. I have a 3kw system, but let’s just say for argument’s sake that I had a quite-large 10kw system. Solar installations have their own “capacity factor”. Just a back-of-the-envelope calculation—a 10 kw system in the Northeast, might only average 30 kwh of output a day over the course of a year, or, if you divide by 24, about 1.25 kw per hour, or a capacity factor of only 12%. It would take 720 such home installations to match the power generated by one turbine at Lowell.

But let’s compare a Lowell turbine to a coal-fired power plant. The average size of a coal-fired plant in the U.S. is 547mw. (Link to U.S. coal-plant data.) So although the Lowell turbines make a lot of power, it would take, in the real world, over 600 Lowell-sized turbines, to replace one coal-fired plant.

Brown coal plant in Germany.

Brown coal plant in Germany.

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All Actions Have Consequences

Lukas Snelling, of Energize Vermont, sent me some files, and here are some pictures of what it takes to install utility-scale wind turbines in mountainous terrain. In this case, the project in Sheffield, Vermont, which is now completed.

Sheffield Vermont wind project, during construction.

Blasting cut.

Clear-cut for pad.

Clear-cut for tower pad.


Completed pad.

Completed pad.

Access to hilltop pad.

Access to hilltop pad.


So take these images, and imagine access roads that are probably four times wider, cuts that are four times deeper, and infills that are four times more massive—that’s the project in Lowell, with its huge 3-megawatt turbines. I don’t have any images of the Lowell project that I have the rights to include, but look at the pictures at these links-

Lowell access road, Lowell pad, Lowell infill for access.

I respect Lukas and his opinions, but we happen to disagree on this particular project. Continue reading


“We are all complicit. Have we all asked ourselves—are we driving the most fuel-efficient car we can afford? Have we taken steps to halve our own carbon emissions?” -Dr. Alan Betts, at SolarFest.

Early morning SolarFest

Early morning SolarFest

Your live, on-the-spot reporting from SolarFest here—many dreadlocks, much protest-music playing, sandals, Reggae music and Prius driving, henna tattoos, sprinkled with an occasional dose of suspicion of the government (ha, just like the far right), all wrapped up with a layer of techno-pop-Woodstock ambiance. But a great many products and workshops; ideas that could carry us a long way forward if they were applied across the board, from savannah farming to

Henna tattoos.

Henna tattoos.

carbon-zero houses and all manner of solar and wind products. But also on display—the problem we have that I’ve been writing about all along—many, many cases of the right hand not talking to the left. No one seems to have a workable master plan. On one side of the SolarFest lot, we have groups that are adamantly opposed to nuclear power, and particularly want the closure of Vermont Yankee. I’m not sure what their plans are to replace the power from today’s nuclear plants. My guess would be “consume less”, which, unfortunately, is everyone’s answer (I spoke with them after I wrote this, but I’ll save all that for future posts). Then on another side we have groups that oppose the new solar fields on Route 7 in Vermont, referring to this as “solar sprawl”. Then we have, which seems to oppose everything, and still other groups that oppose utility-scale wind here in Vermont. I spent some time talking to Lukas Snelling of Energize Vermont, a group that opposes all utility-scale wind on Vermont’s ridges. He had stacks of huge photographic prints of blasting and road construction and the huge access roads that are being built in Lowell, VT, in order to get the parts of these towers up the mountains. I will readily admit that the impact of these roads is substantial. These roads do not match one’s mental picture of “access roads”, they look more like four-lane highways prior to paving, complete with huge infills and equally huge blasting cuts, all in formerly pristine mountain landscapes. But as bad as this is, I’m also pretty sure this is a case of a failure to see the whole picture.

So let’s step back. How exactly are we going to save the planet? What exactly are our plans with regard to energy? The very short consensus by those who have looked at this—we’re going to need to phase out fossil fuels, and use power more efficiently, and, even with this (here’s the kicker)—double the production of electricity. Somehow. This after phasing out electricity generation from coal and natural gas . The amount of energy in fossil fuels is tremendous, almost staggering, and to replace it, even with serious conservation and efficiency, is going to take a massive effort.

Part of this will, and should, come from the one thing that everyone does seem to agree on—distributed, roof-mounted solar. I agree as well, for every roof to have solar on it would be a great start. But it wouldn’t be enough. The sun doesn’t shine at night, and, here in the relative north, it doesn’t shine much in the winter months. So, something else is going to have to take up the slack, and it’s going to have to be big, and it’s going to have to be carbon-free. And there’s no doubt in my mind that a big chunk of that needs to be from wind. Small-scale solar works, but small-scale wind doesn’t work nearly as well—there are huge economies of scale and efficiencies inherent in the larger wind projects. I will even allow that nuclear power might need to stay, at least for a while.

peace wallSo, more on this topic soon—Lukas is going to send me the files for some of his photographs of the Lowell wind project, and I’d like to post them; they are thought-provoking, and there is much to this that needs discussing.

But back to Solarfest—many good ideas, many dedicated people, mixed in with a few loonies and a few earth-types who could stand to shower a bit more often. It was all a bit messy, with not many clear answers, but perhaps that in itself makes it a miniature version of the problems we face.

Until next year.

Until next year.


Don’t Like Coal? Don’t Buy It.

Surely we can do better.

We can do better.

I’m not a fan of coal or coal mining in general, but I save my real vitriol for mountaintop removal mining. I see it as a virtual crime against humanity, and find it unfathomable that it is legal in the U.S. If you aren’t familiar with this, it’s where companies use explosives to remove the tops of Appalachian ridges and scoop the coal out. It’s cheaper and less labor intensive than underground mining, but the environmental impacts are absolutely catastrophic. A short video that’s worth watching–


(Or, if you have more time—a whole documentary, “The Last Mountain“). The damage done by this type of mining is completely irreversible. In addition to all of the pollution and social costs, no power on earth will ever, in a thousand years, be able to recreate the mountains and valleys that are destroyed by this process. The industry’s attempts at reclamation are laughable; what they leave behind doesn’t resemble any rural terrain, let alone the grandeur of the landscapes they erase. And all coal-burning, whether from mountain-top mines or not, results in tremendous CO2 emissions, roughly double that of natural gas, in addition to other air pollutants (SO2) and ash-disposal problems. It’s just a dirty industry, despite their “Clean Coal” claims.

So my knee-jerk reaction—if you don’t like the coal industry, don’t buy their products. Continue reading