Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

Houston After Hurricane Harvey

Al Jazeera (2017)

Film Review

This documentary examines the plight of Houston’s poor and minority communities a month after Hurricane Harvey. As with Hurricane Katrina, they have fared much worse than Houston’s well-to-do. Many have been left homeless after flood waters contaminated with raw sewage, lead, arsenic and benzene rendered public housing facilities uninhabitable. Despite the 20 billion dollars of federal assistance Houston has received post-Harvey, former public housing residents are getting no help in being rehoused.

Houston’s environmental justice movement has spent years fighting the oil, gas and chemical plants adjacent to their schools and neighborhoods. Routine aerial emissions of benzene and other toxic chemical are already responsible for high rates of asthma and cancer. Located in a flood plain, oil/gas and chemical storage tanks and public housing facilities are subject to annual flooding.

Environmental justice activists are demanding a significant proportion of the $20 billion in disaster aid go to better flood protection. At present Houston’s sea walls only protect against a 15 foot surge. In 2008, Hurricane Ike produced a 25 foot surge. A surge of that size will flood multiple oil, gas and chemical storage tanks, releasing their toxic contents and producing the biggest environmental catastrophe in history.

According to Vancouver’s, University of British Columbia researchers have developed a type of earthquake-resistant concrete that enables builders to quake proof really cheaply by sprayed them with a 10 millimeter thick (a little over 1/4 inch) coating of seismic concrete. Preliminary tests reveal that eco-friendly ductile cementitious composite (EDCC) is strong enough to protect vulnerable buildings against seismic shocks as strong as the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit Tohoku, Japan, in 2011.

EDCC is described as a mixture of “cement with polymer-based fibres, flyash and other industrial additives, making it highly sustainable”.

According to UBC researchers, by replacing nearly 70 per cent of the cement in the concrete, with flyash,* it’s possible to greatly reduce the amount of carbon emissions released. Typically the production of one ton of cement releases almost a ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This new technology will be a great boon in earthquake prone New Zealand – where many communities are tearing down historic brick and stone buildings because conventional earthquake retrofitting is so expensive.


*Flyash is a byproduct from burning pulverized coal in electric power generating plant.

 According to Green Car Reports, Royal Dutch Shell is safeguarding future profits by acquiring NewMotion, a Dutch electric-car charging station firm with more than 30,000 electric-car charging stations across Europe. The company specializes in converting normal parking spaces into charging points for electric cars.

In the past year, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, and France have all laid out plans to phase out the internal-combustion engine by no later than 2040. The regulations hit home for European oil producers Shell and BP more than Exxon or Chevron, both U.S.-based companies.

Shell is predicting global oil demand could peak by 2020. This is consistent with most studies predicting it will peak sometime within the next 5-15 years.

Read more: Green Car Reports



Big Cities Cooperative Housing

KCET (2016)

Big Cities Cooperative Housing is a short documentary about co-housing experiments in Seoul South Korea and Lyons France.

In Seoul, where 70% of the population live in high rise apartment buildings, three families have pooled resources to buy a three story house. In addition to communal cooking and social space, each family has private living space. There is also a communal vegetable garden.

The “vertical village in Lyon was first build in 2005 by a group of families seeking a non-materialistic lifestyle – who found themselves priced out of the property market. The first housing cooperative in France, it’s been the inspiration for many similar co-housing projects in Europe and Quebec, as well as French legal framework to recognize cooperative ownership.

In France, removal of residential property from the speculation-ridden real estate market has been an important benefit of co-housing.

The video can be viewed for free at Big Cities Cooperative Housing

Guest Post by John Hawthorne

Remember when the idea of electric cars used to be a fantasy? Something from The Jetsons or Tron. I mean, who could imagine not needing to fill up a gas tank every 150 miles? The whole idea was ridiculous. Gas powered engines seemed like they would be the dominant force into the foreseeable future.

Even a few years ago, the concept that electric cars could be widely available seemed a bit far-fetched. Sure, Tesla was producing them, but who could afford one of those? Not most people. Electric cars seemed like an option only for rich, environmentally conscious individuals.


But the days of ubiquitous electric cars are here…or almost here, depending on where you live.

In fact, even the oil industry has the trend on its radar. As Tom Randall wrote:

…battery prices are dropping by about 20 percent a year, and automakers have been spending billions to electrify their fleets. Volkswagen AG is targeting 25 percent of its sales to be electric by 2025. Toyota Motor Corp. plans to phase out fossil fuels altogether by 2050.

Of course, this raises the question: why now? Why are electric vehicles in general so widely available and why are electric cars in particular on the rise?

Here are 6 reasons:

electric car plugged in

#1 – Increased Awareness of Electric Vehicles

In the last 5 years, electric vehicles have shifted from novelty to everywhere. Fifteen years ago, Razor Scooters were the hot item that kids had to have for Christmas, primarily because they were so different from the standard scooters. Now everyone wants a hoverboard. They’re cool. They’re different. They’re incredibly fun.

Also, you can do really fun tricks on them:



In addition to hoverboards, drones, electric skateboards, and other electric vehicles (EV) are now widely available to the public. Amazon is on the verge of implementing drone delivery. A human transport drone was recently introduced to the public. Frankly, electric vehicles are on everyone’s minds.

Additionally, the issue of burning fossil fuels has gained increasing air time over the last 20 years as it’s become increasingly evident that global warming is a real thing, and that fossil fuels are a big contributor. People have begun to realize that gasoline powered vehicles are problematic. They spew out greenhouse gases at an enormous rate, and it’s become pretty clear that if we don’t figure out a solution, things are only going to get worse.

And so the race to produce inexpensive electric cars has begun. Initially, we only had hybrids, which used a combination of gas and electricity, but we’re now to the point where we’re finally seeing cars able to run long distances solely on electricity.


#2 – Population Explosions

The population in China has exploded, putting a huge burden on the auto industry, which is already serving the world’s largest market. This population boom is forcing the country to speed up its production of electric vehicles.

As Jack Perkowski notes:

Why is China leading the way in embracing EV technology? The answer may simply be that China has no other choice. As a country, China has three fundamental paths it may follow. First, it can choose to live with a rapidly growing number of ICE [internal combustion engine] powered vehicles on its roads, with all that implies as far as air pollution and energy independence. Second, the government can restrict the transportation choices of its citizens in an effort to balance environmental concerns. Or third, the country can embrace EV technologies that enable its citizens to have their cars without jeopardizing air quality in its cities.

If China doesn’t adapt, their already terrible pollution problem is going to get worse. They are, in some ways, between a rock and a hard place. Do they want to cut down on transportation options, which is going to annoy their citizens, or simply go all in on the electric boom? It seems like they’ve decided to go all in.

gas station

#3 – Because They Can Save You Money

Remember when gas was up to over $4 per gallon? It was absurd. Filling up a gas tank could cost over $100. Thankfully, gas prices have fallen dramatically since then, lessening the sting every time drivers open their wallets. Nevertheless, electricity is cheaper than gas.

Right now, if your car gets 30 mpg (which it probably doesn’t), you’re going to spend around $1,000 per year on gas. If you purchased an electric car that ran equivalent to 105 mpg, you’d spend around $600 per year. Those are some pretty sweet savings given all the costs associated with driving and maintaining a car.

Plus, depending on when you charge your car, you can save additional cash. As How Stuff Works notes:

Most electric cars also let you save by choosing when they charge. You can set the Versa, as well as plug-in hybrids from Ford and other automakers, to charge only during off-peak hours, bringing down your electricity costs. And, though an in-home charging station for the Leaf costs about $2,000, the EPA estimates that a Nissan Versa will cost $1,359 per year in gas. So, in a little over 18 months, the savings on the Leaf should pay for the charging system.

As people look for ways to stretch their budgets, electric cars will certainly be on their radar. Additionally, as batteries become more efficient and the prices of cars drop, we should expect to see more people embrace the electric solution.

As one reviewer noted about her electric car:

The cost of ownership is so low, I will never go back to regular gas-fueled vehicles again if it can be helped. My Miev not only gets me back and forth on my daily commute to work with mileage to spare, but it is so quiet to drive and when I push the accelerator pedal down, it gives a satisfying response for the size engine it has.

1040 form

#4 – Because You Can Get Subsidized By The Government

The federal government and many state governments are trying to figure out how to cut down on greenhouse emissions, which is why they offer tax credits if you purchase an electric car.

Depending on a variety of factors, you can get a significant amount of cash for purchasing an electric car. For example, if you live in Colorado and meet the right conditions, you could get over $10,000 in subsidies from the federal and state government. This can make the decision to go all electric that much easier.

It’s not clear how long these subsidies will last, but for now, this presents a great opportunity for those who want to purchase an electric car.

Nissan Leaf for Sale

#5 – Because Used Ones Are Getting Really Cheap

Depending on the make and model, you can get some electric cars for under $10,000, which is absurdly cheap. While you’re certainly not going to find a Tesla for this price, you can find numerous less fancy cars to fit your price range.

This really is the ideal solution for the budget conscious person. You save on gas, you can get a government subsidy, and you’re not paying an exorbitant sticker price. This really is a win-win situation.

USA map with charging stations

#6 – Public Charging Stations Are Starting To Pop Up Everywhere

One of the big worries with electric cars is charging stations. It’s fine if you’re at home and can always charge it, or never plan on driving beyond the range of a single charge, but what about when you’re out and about and need a recharge? Will you be able to locate a charging station?

Thankfully, that’s becoming less and less of a problem. Electric charging stations are starting to show up in all sort of locations. In fact, the Alternative Fuels Data Center estimates that there are over 16,000 charging stations in the United States. While this is certainly minuscule compared to the number of gas stations, this number will only keep growing.

Additionally, stores like Walgreens are beginning to incorporate charging stations in the services they offer. The pharmacy chain now has them at over 400 different locations.

Yes, if you’re a road warrior constantly making long trips, it might be better to wait till there are more charging stations available to purchase an electric car, but otherwise, you’ll probably be safe.


Electric cars have not reached a saturation point yet. In some senses, they are still a minority. But this is rapidly changing as the technology improves, the price drops, and the environmental matters become more urgent.

And while you may not want to get an electric car now, there will come a point where the deal is too good to ignore. Hopefully, that day will come sooner rather than later.

Originally published in Choose Wheels

Did your power prices go up again this month? Mine have been going up two or three times a year for as long as I can remember.

According to the Australian Green Left Weekly, there is absolutely no reason Australia can’t have 100% renewable energy in less than a decade at sharply reduced prices.

The article refers to a May comment by the vice-president of Sempra Energy, one of the largest utility firms in the US – that there was no longer any technical obstacle to powering California with 100% renewables.  “We now have the ability to control the grid twenty times faster than you can blink your eye. The technology has been resolved. How fast do you want to get to 100%? That can be done today.”

The author Renfrey Clarke goes on to point out that most of Australia’s fossil-fueled generating infrastructure is past its design life. Prone to costly breakdowns, it’s extremely expensive to maintain and should be replaced.

According to a recent Australian National University study, it’s far cheaper to replace it with renewables.

Positing the future cost of solar photovoltaic and wind energy at $50 per megawatt-hour (MWh), the team concluded that the “levelised cost of energy” (LCOE) over the lifetime of a balanced, 100% renewable energy system (including storage) would be around $75/MWh. For comparison, the LCOE of electricity from new supercritical black coal plants was estimated last year at $80/MWh.

Clarke maintains the energy market is already outstripping these prediction. Recent unsubsidized price contracts for delivered renewable energy include $40/MWh for a wind farm in Morocco and $33.90/MWh for solar photovoltaic in Dubai.

For energy storage, the ANU study proposes the well-tested technology of “pumped hydro”. This is impressively cheap and its virtues are listed as including excellent inertial energy, spinning reserve, rapid start, black start capability, voltage regulation and frequency control. Australia has numerous good sites for off-river and seawater pumped hydro.

Still greater system security is provided by a combination of pumped hydro with battery storage. Using modern software, utility-scale batteries can be switched into the grid in milliseconds. A recent Bloomberg report states that lithium-ion batteries are expected to fall in price by more than 70% by 2030.


Source: Green Left Weekly

The Switch: How Solar, Storage and New Technology Means Cheap Power for All

Chris Goodall

Profile Books (2016)

Book Review

This book was enormously valuable in rectifying many of my prior misconceptions about renewable energy. First and foremost was my erroneous belief that high production costs would make renewable energy far more expensive than fossil fuels – that the renewable energy revolution would require either a) a major reduction in population or b) major sacrifice in terms of lifestyle choices.

Both turn out to be totally untrue. At this point renewable energy (mainly photo-voltaic solar energy) is already cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the world. By 2040 the cost of producing renewable energy will be so low, fossil fuels will be virtually obsolete.

The first section of Goodall’s book focuses on the mathematical explanation of what he refers to as the “experience curve.” Energy economists use these formulae to explain the rapid decrease in the cost of manufacturing PV cells, solar panels and solar batters. The same process can be used to predict future costs of manufacture. Which is one of the main reasons Wall Street financiers are refusing to invest in new coal and gas-fired power plants. They know the electricity they produce will never compete with the low cost and efficiency of renewable energy.

In the past two decades, the main purpose of new gas-fired power plants has been to address power outages during peak demand periods. Because they only power up 10-50 hours a year, they are extremely inefficient and expensive to operate. In a number of regions, power suppliers using smart technology and creative billing schemes are flattening out peak demand periods by encouraging large energy consumers to shift their energy usage to non-peak periods.

Goodall asserts that six billion of the world’s seven billion population could easily switch to 100% solar energy now because they live in hot sunny regions. The other one billion in Northern Europe and parts of the US (and New Zealand) will need to supplement PV solar with other forms of renewable energy (wind, hydro, biofuel, etc) and develop short and long term storage technology to meet their winter energy needs.

The cost of lithium ion storage batteries is also dropping rapidly, though it lags several years behind decreasing PV production costs. As more and more energy consumers invest in solar storage systems, grid-based energy will continue to increase rapidly – with the cost of maintaining energy transmission infrastructure falling on fewer and fewer shoulders. This will only hasten the switch to renewable technology.