Scottish waves and Texas wind

I made note of tidal power progress in Maine a while back, and now it’s Scotland’s turn. The Scottish government just released its green-lit plans to power as many as 42,000 homes with tidal energy—-the biggest of its kind in Europe. Good news for renewable energy fans. There are, unfortunately, possible negative ramifications for ocean ecology and human use of nearby areas—certain fish and ocean mammals could be disrupted, turbines can be noisy, etc. But in terms of reducing the carbon intensity of energy generation, this is another gratifying moment in the grand narrative of progress toward sustainability.

I’ll also take this opportunity to mention Texas again–cause Texas is still doing it right. Texas is way out in front of national rankings when it comes to generating wind energy. Coming in with more than 13 million kW from almost 8,000 turbines, #1 Texas leaves #2 Iowa with its 5.1 million kW in the proverbial dust. Gilbrath and Price are calling it “The Great Texas Wind Rush“—how a Big Wind has become part of a Big Oil culture.

Keep it up Texas and Scotland, y’all are makin’ me proud.

To frack or not to frack? That is the question

After a year’s work between Texas and New York studying the science, politics, and ideology of natural gas development–my Master’s thesis is complete. The full text is available through the Bard Center for Environmental Policy and forthcoming for publication. In the meantime, here is the abstract:

To Frack or Not to Frack: The Ideological Roots of Support for and Resistance to Natural Gas Development


The modern vision of the Good Life—indistinguishable from the idea of progress—is energy intensive. We go to extreme lengths to harness energy resources, conducting vast technological socio-environmental experiments to satiate the human demand for energy. But energy development is risk-laden, and people approach the risks of progress differently, which manifests as political contention.

Bookending the continuum of risk-related ideology, the precautionary and proactionary principles have become pillars of philosophic and political debate. Natural gas development—hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or “fracking”—is particularly risky and, in turn, the politics of fracking have become correspondingly controversial. On one hand, precautionaries about natural gas development spurn fracking as guaranteed disaster, while on the other, proactionaries hail natural gas development as an ideal energy opportunity.

But why are people precautionary and proactionary about natural gas development? To Frack or Not to Frack explores this question using an international survey instrument and statistical causal analysis. Evidence indicates that precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences about natural gas development are a function of relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs.

Precautionaries about natural gas development tend to be knowledgeable of the risk-related scientific literature on fracking and to especially value environmental stewardship and public health and safety. Proactionaries, on the other hand, tend to principally value economic growth, believe that technology is generally trustworthy, and believe that either plenty of scientific research has already been
done on natural gas development orthat more science is still needed.

When determining specific permitting and operating requirements for natural gas development, policymakers should directly engage the relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs that drive the precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences of their constituents via regular, open participatory policymaking procedures and statistical analysis of risk-related preference data gathered through public polling. Natural gas development policy should reflect the moral nuances of its constituency. Natural gas development policy should also reflect that developers are morally responsible for researching and internalizing the risks of harm related to development, including literal physical or environmental harm and exposure to risk of harm.

Texas is doing it right

If the modern idea of the Good Life is an energy intensive one, life in Texas is the best. Environmental protection and enforcement can be spotty at the state regulatory level, but there’s no denying that Texas is paradisical for developing energy. Oil and natural gas are obvious heavyweights. Texas is a national leader in wind energy development, and has its fair share of jobs in coal, employing just over 2,200 in 2006. Most exciting of all, Texas is 8th in the country for solar power.

Our relationship with the Sun is a special one. It is also an opportunity. Whether in fossil form, biomass, or direct from the source, the Sun enables but does not dictate the purposes we create that make life worth living. Clearly Texas understands this.

Eventually, solar will overtake fossils fuels as they become more expensive to extract–whether by regulation, scarcity, or inaccessibility–answering not only the energy enthusiast’s call, but also the environmentalist’s. While the precautionary and proactionary principles seem dogmatically opposed at a theoretical level, being proactionary about solar and precautionary about the environment go hand in hand. The same resonates about wind power. But the wind only blows because the sun heats the air.

To the sun god!


Does being anti-fossil fuels mean being anti-modern?

To be adamantly anti-fossil fuels and then go home to happily relax in luxuries enabled by fossil fuels is an exercise of hypocrisy. But it is not hypocritical to be anti-fossil fuels and still be modernistic. Being anti-fossil fuels is not the same as being anti-modern. Exxon Mobil’s CEO thinks precautionary greens may as well curl up in a cave, but I don’t think the Fossil Fuel Resistance’s motivation is anti-modern at all. On the contrary, it’s hyper-modern. Perhaps even unrealistically so. Greens nurture a futuristic techno-utopian vision where society abandons fossil fuels entirely, renewable energy is dirt cheap, super efficient, infallibly reliable, and everybody in the world enjoys an extremely high standard of living while we coexist in perfect harmony with the ecosphere and ride bikes built from recycled bits of Al Gore to our well-paying jobs knitting organic sweaters out of diplomacy and human rights.

That last bit is obviously a joke, but unless you live on a commune far removed from society, you just can’t speak out against modernity and simultaneously live in the modern world without a profound level of cognitive dissonance–and people naturally avoid cognitive dissonance. Which is why the Fossil Fuel Resistance can’t be protesting modernity. They’re protesting the continuation of what they see as an obsolete model of modernity.

In fact, most greens would probably turn it around and argue that fossil fuels are anti-modern because we’ve been burning them for nearly two centuries now, they’ve served their purpose, and its time to progress to renewable alternatives because they’re having unintended yet still unethical ramifications for people and the planet as a whole. I’ll admit, it does come off as unappreciative and hypocritical, perhaps ignorant, to virulently demonize and criticize fossil fuels when they are undeniably the cornerstone of modernity and we all take their pervasive benefits for granted. But the Fossil Fuel Resistance isn’t protesting Keystone, fracking, and mountain top removal coal mining because they want humans to live like the stone ages. They’re being driven to the streets by their optimistic hopes for the future, their eco-egalitarian values, and their beliefs about how human beings should interact with the rest of the natural world.

But we could all do a better job of showing appreciation for the hard work and good intentions of others–greens, fossil fuelers, everyone. Partisanship and adversarial politics have become so ordinary that we forget the lives we’re so privileged to enjoy today are the result of centuries of collaborative innovation and cooperation. Modernity would not be possible without people working together, without amiable and constructive competition, without idea sharing, and without constantly and actively trying to grasp, appreciate, and respect the perspectives of those who think and see the world differently than ourselves.

Fossil fuels probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon–and no amount of protesting will change the basic infrastructure of society instantaneously. But there is a place in this world for radical idealism. And in the face of catastrophic climate change, there is a need for it. Revolutionaries don’t earn that title by pursuing the indisputably realistic, but by challenging the status quo with dreams of what’s to come—of what should come. But no less, we need the realists, the traditionalists, and the pragmatists to remind us of our origins and keep our wheels turning in the here and now.

With a little mutual understanding and effort, there are commonalities to be found even between greens and fossil fuelers. In fact, they may not be so different at some deeper philosophical levels. Both sides believe human beings are bound for greatness, moving purposively through history toward our grand cosmic destiny. Both are interested in alleviating global poverty and human suffering through the perpetuation and dissemination of a modern standard of living, for which all agree energy is vital. Both are confident that advances in science and technology will deliver humanity to these new eras of prosperity. And both believe in the importance of democracy, liberty, fairness, and free expression in the political process. We may see reiterations of the customary story of obdurate politics like the protest on February 17th, but the differences between the poles, fundamentally, are rather superficial.

Being anti-fossil fuels does not mean being anti-modern—it means being anti-fossil fuels. The vast majority of people support modernity as a worthy end, greens and fossil fuelers simply envision different means for accomplishing that end. But there’s often dramatic miscommunication when conveying their respective positions to each other. People get dismissive, conversations breakdown acrimoniously, and the full senses of both perspectives are lost. But if greens can keep a realistic handle on hypocrisy about their own fossil fuel use, and fossil fuelers don’t pretend that coal, oil, and natural gas are just innocent, misunderstood miracle substances, then maybe we can talk constructively. Just maybe we’ll circuitously arrive at mutually agreeable policies to combat climate change, develop renewables, and mitigate the negative externalities of resource extraction without unfairly disadvantaging or appearing unappreciative of the hard work that fossil fuel developers have done for society since the industrial revolution.

Optimistic? Naïve? Sophomoric? Perhaps. But someone needs to think through a middle way.


Mars in 30 days? Solar powered space flight

Here I thought the Solar Impulse was a breakthrough in solar powered flight, but NASA, the University of Washington, and Elon Musk of SpaceX (among others) have turned it to 11. With a new Fusion Driven Rocket (FDR) design, engineers may be able to cut the trip to Mars from 8 months to somewhere between 30 and 90 days. And what’s more: the engine operates via “magnetic inertial confinement fusion,” which, thankfully its designers explain, means that the rocket’s fusion reactor could be run by solar power alone–200 KW to be exact (an extremely feasible number). If flying from California to New York on solar energy as the Impulse team intends is impressive (and it is), then the FDR team’s plan for solar powered space flight is out of this world.

Colonizing Mars–part of Musk’s plan for making life multi-planetary to ensure that “the light of consciousness is not extinguished”–is undoubtedly among the more fantastical utopian visions of the future of humanity. Moreover, the team hopes to eventually make interplanetary travel so efficient that it’s commonplace. Skeptics and detractors (myself sometimes among them) may question the endeavor on “realist” or ethical grounds, claiming that either resource scarcity or social collapse is likely to preclude any significant opportunities for interplanetary migration, or that leaving the Earth behind is a defeatist reaction to socio-ethical challenges here at home, like stabilizing the modern ecological crisis. Indeed, I still think these points have some validity.

But Julian Simon’s infinite resource of human innovation again rears its head. The FDR is already in the pipeline, so to speak. And I’ll be the first to champion the triumphs of solar technology–especially when space travel is involved. Like so many others I’m sure, the prospect of an interstellar humanity speaks volumes to my inner Lewis and Clark–the passion for adventure and discovery too often squelched by the pervasive impact of human activity on and ubiquitous presence in what remains of natural world.

Interplanetary exploration and colonization promise new environments, mysteries, challenges, and questions–philosophical and otherwise. Should we leave Earth in the first place? What is the purpose of colonizing another planet? What would “environmental philosophy” mean if/when we depart from our environment of origin? What new responsibilities do we have to the non-human if and when we undertake massive martian geo-engineering projects like terraforming? If human beings create a living ecosphere on Mars, should we see ourselves as eco-constituents subsumed by a greater natural cycle as we are here on Earth, or, in a sense, should we regard ourselves as semi-gods, directly responsible for the martian natural cycle’s very existence? How should we organize a new society on Mars? Do Earthly political philosophies still apply? Once society on Mars is established, what responsibility will Martian humans have to their Earth-dwelling counterparts, and vice versa, if any? And should we today move further into the final frontier by small precautionary steps or giant proactionary leaps? Barring any unforeseen fatal design flaws or socio-political roadblocks, we could soon have our generation’s Neil Armstrong moment on the red planet. And we’d get there on solar power no less. To the sun god!



The Solar Impulse! Flight without fossil fuels

Perusing NPR this morning I stumbled across a report about this solar tech gem. The Solar Impulse, an aircraft powered entirely by solar power (with storage tech sufficient to keep it airborne day and night), stands poised to change the very face of aviation: to enable us to travel the world “without fuel or pollution.” Now, needless to say, there is work to be done. The plane itself is still in R&D, as its engineers have yet to pressurize, oxygenate, or heat the cabin–and its top speed is still comparable to a sluggish car (40-50 mph). But the Impulse successfully completed its inaugural flight over Switzerland and plans to fly California to New York in 2015.

Its creators, with Faustian enthusiasm, aim to challenge the impossible; to overturn conventional wisdom about sustainable development and clean energy technology. To be certain, taking to the sky without the help of fossil fuels does exactly that (albiet, I’m sure fossil fuels were used somewhere along the process of engineering the Impulse). In the words of aviation pioneer and Impulse designer Bertrand Piccard, the plane carries not passengers, but a message: one of inspiration for the quality of future of humanity, and our relationship with the Earth and its resources.

I maintain that our relationship with the sun is a special one. Life–energy–the escalation of biological complexity despite the second law of thermodynamics–the sun makes it all possible. And here again we are reminded that with dedication and ingenuity, we need not revert to burning its multi-million year old fossil energy reserves to perpetuate our quality of life. After all, whether we’re talking about coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, or wind–these are all indirect manifestations of solar power: biomass through photosynthesis; coal, oil, and natural gas through the fossilization of biomass; wind through atmospheric temperature and pressure changes as the sun heats the air. Logically, to channel solar power directly to the human energy demand is more efficient and therefore more sustainable than waiting for its conversion into fossilized organic material (or even wind, though the turn around in the case of wind is tremendously shorter than FFs)–we simply need the proper technology to take our consumption to the original source. The Solar Impulse is a strong step in that direction.

Despite being optimistic, I still struggle with my own skepticism about technoscientific utopian progressivism and techno-cornucopianism–that with enough time and technology human beings can overcome the paradox of progress–because it’s not obvious to me that the rare Earth resources we need to continue the flow of technological innovation will be recoverable indefinitely, or that organized civil society will remain stable for long enough to foster such technological advancement. But such skepticism is more of nagging intuition, substantiated by the provocation of John Gray and participants in the Dark Mountain Project, than an empirical problem. Malthus, as we’ve seen, was not correct (at least not yet)–and while I am confident that eventually the Earth’s human carrying capacity will be upon us, we may be able to stay off a painful population negative feedback cycle through (relatively) cheap and emerging energy (shale gas, wind, solar, nuclear) and intentional (e.g. – birth control distribution, family-limit policies, etc. ) and indirect (e.g. – women’s education, resource scarcity affecting reproductive instincts, etc.) population management methods long enough to smoothly and comfortably reach the point of sustainability (sustainable consumption & sustainable population). Human beings, as Lovelock predicts, will find a way to muddle through.

As Gray makes clear, to believe in a human future of technoscientific progress is a matter of faith. Even more so, to believe in progress as sustainability is an even bolder exercise of optimism. Whether such faith is hopelessly naive will be revealed in due course. But in the meantime, advances in solar tech like the Solar Impulse give me reason to keep believing. Or at least to be excited about the future.

Cheers, jmk


I think it’s fair to say that the adverse environmental impacts of fossil fuel development, while in some cases are inherent (e.g. – you can’t do mountain top removal coal mining without removing the top of a mountain), ultimately depend on the care exercised by particular operators — and, even more so, the individuals who manage their operations. Though sometimes it’s tempting, we shouldn’t castigate entire industries because of the conduct of a few. Some operators voluntarily dedicate extensive resources to ensure the progressive responsibility of their activities, such as partners in EPA’s Natural Gas STAR program. That being said, some operators are sloppier than others — sloperators.

In the wake of BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico, reminiscent of Prince Edward Sound, some may have found the Obama Administration’s decision to open the Arctic for oil exploration a bit hasty — though the President did promise an “all of the above” energy policy. No less, however, Shell, in an almost immediate blunder, managed to beach a tanker full of diesel on the Alaskan coast, releasing hundreds of gallons of fuel into the sensitive and protected wildlife habitat — a real sloperation. Chevron’s recent attempt at dodging the court-ordered, $19 billion settlement to remediate the Ecuadorian Amazon after spilling billions of gallons of toxic waste between 1964 and 1992 also comes to mind — earning ChevTex a place amongst presently mentioned sloperators. What’s more, just today, two barges full of light crude and a tugboat (owned by Third Coast Towing and Nature’s Way Marine, respectively) crashed into a bridge on the Mississippi River, spilling a yet unknown amount of oil into the waterway. Another sloperation.

One only hopes that, whatever the Obama Administration decides on Keystone XL, TransCanada will operate with the utmost care. Whether the Canadian tar sands end up in American or Chinese refineries, power plants, and fuel tanks, TransCanada must be aware that slop is unacceptable.

While the continued human reliance on fossil fuels is regrettable, it is also somewhat inevitable, at least for the time being, if we intend to quickly raise billions out of poverty while sustaining our own standard of living. The least we can do is proceed with accountability. In the meantime, small scale sustainable development projects will burn the candle at the other end, promising modern alternatives to utility-scale, fossil fuel driven electrical grids. Let’s get it together, humans.


Solar panels for all, precautionary or proactionary?

I think Crane and Kennedy have a point here – relying on solar energy, specifically putting solar paneling on residential roofs, are a good way to reduce the risk of relying on an antiquated electrical grid system that’s highly vulnerable to storms and natural disasters (like Sandy). The traditional grid, knitted together by a bucolic web of wooden poles and copper wires, leaves society exposed should part of its fragile infrastructure fail.

So, switching to residential, distributive solar can be seen a precautionary move — it’s too risky to keep depending on a grid that falls apart if power lines go down with a tree limb. Independent, “off-grid” home power systems would strengthen each link of the social chain mail so that when nature throws us a curve ball we aren’t left in the dark for days or weeks on end. For the risk-averse, these are worthy concerns. Not to mention that solar energy doesn’t carry the bouquet of environmental and human health risks that accompany the extreme ways that we extract fossil fuels these days (horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, deep water drilling for oil, and mountaintop removal mining for coal).

Often we’ll hear opponents of renewables frame alternative energy as being too risky. The wind and sun are intermitted, the technology is inefficient, and the costs are uncompetitive — or so they say. But with better battery technology, dramatic improvements in solar cell efficiency, and expectations of lower home installation costs these arguments against renewables won’t hold water in public for much longer. Soon, in fact, this framing will probably reverse itself and renewables will be understood as safe, sensible, and reliable, while fossil fuels will be seen as dangerous, costly, and anachronistic.

But should we understand support for solar energy as precautionary or proactionary?

On one hand,  using residential and distributive solar power is a precautionary move away from the risks of depending on fossil fuels and the outmoded electrical grid. In this sense, the switch to solar is less about the goodness of solar energy in particular, but rather about the consequence of mitigating the risks of fossil fuel use. To put it another way, to precautionary supporters of solar, it’s likely that any alternative energy source would be satisfactory since the shift is more about getting away from the risks of fossil fuels than it is about shifting to a particular kind of renewable energy.

On the other hand, proactionary supporters of solar might emphasize the goodness of solar energy itself over and above its consequence of replacing fossil fuels alone. Solar energy is good not simply because we need to mitigate the risks of fossil fuel use, but because solar energy represents progress. Fossil fuels remind us of primitive industrialism, while solar power speaks to our progressive refinement toward symbiosis with each other and the environment. Indeed, for proactionaries to put such immense trust in new solar technology despite its relative nascence is somewhat risky, but switching to solar is a matter of moral obligation; it is our duty to ourselves, to future generations, and to the non-human to make the change.

So, should we be proactionary or precautionary about solar power? I’m not convinced we have to choose — I support solar technology for precautionary and proactionary purposes. I am deeply concerned with mitigating the risks of our continued reliance on fossil fuels because they are inherently finite, unsustainable, environmentally damaging to extract, and pose threats to human health during development and when burned. Simultaneously, I believe that our relationship with the Sun is a special one and that it makes sense on ethical, axiological, and existential levels that the source of life should also be the source of high quality living.

Today, our visions of the Good Life are intimately intertwined with energy. High quality living means energy intensive living (with the exception of a few rogue primitivists out there). So the progressive challenge is making such a lifestyle sustainable. Progress, in this sense, is sustainability. But solar energy is not all about progress in the long-term. It’s also about human and environmental safety in the short-term.

Usually we find ourselves in a conundrum when it comes to the precautionary v. proactionary distinction: either we accept some risk as the price of progress, or we sacrifice some progress in order to mitigate risk. The difficulty arises when people make divergent value judgments about the proper balance of risk and progress — and also when we assume that the two routes are mutually exclusive.

Solar energy technology, however, defeats the idea that we can only reduce risk at the cost of progress. Making the gradual switch to solar constitutes progress toward sustainability and reduces the risks of using fossil fuels. We can be proactionary and precautionary at the same timeNow that’s progress.



Ultra-thin high-efficiency organic solar cells from Princeton

Fresh out of a first round of experiments at Princeton’s NanoStructure Laboratory, Dr. Steven Chou and Dr. Wei Ding released this report on the progress of their “plasmonic cavity with subwavelength hole-array” solar cell (PlaCSH). Using 30 nanometer-thick gold mesh instead of the indium-tin-oxide (ITO) layer that photovoltaic solar cells usually make use of, the Princeton team has managed to make PlaCSH solar cells 175% more efficient than traditional PV technology.

The gold nano-mesh is more efficient in several ways, thinking about the life cycle of solar cells. Indeed, gold is a rare metal (one that’s ever-increasing in value) but actually ends up being more cost effective than continuing to use the indium-tin-oxide compound we’ve been using thus far. Gold itself may not be cheap, but we’re talking about nano scale technology here — a nanometer, measuring in at one billionth of a meter, is usually used to scale dimensions at the atomic level. We use micrometers (a mere millionth of a meter) to measure human hair, just to give you an idea of how thin these gold nano-mesh layers are — the gold nano-mesh just doesn’t require that much material, especially considering the efficiency of Dr. Chou’s invented nanofabrication method. Price is a real measure of real resources, so getting the cost of manufacturing these solar cells down makes sense from an environmental sustainability perspective too, not just economic practicality.

Most importantly, however, the PlaCSH solar cells lose far less energy to reflection than traditional PV cells. Once light energy passes through the nano-mesh, it’s incredibly difficult for it to escape. The points in the nano-mesh through which light would usually be reflected back out are actually smaller than the photons themselves, so these otherwise rogue photons stick around to lend us their energy after all. The PlaCSH cells are significantly more efficient under cloud-cover, too, for those concerned with intermittency.

This innovative technology has the potential to revolutionize the solar energy industry and loosen the grip of fossil fuel dependency. Once the upfront costs of solar cells become competitive with the overall costs of fossil fuel production, it will make more economic sense to invest in solar technology over natural gas, e.g., because the pay-back period will be much shorter. The solar energy route offers reasonable (and decreasing) upfront costs and little to no maintenance costs — and, most obviously, we have more solar energy than we know what to do with. We may have to mine the gold to produce the nano-mesh, so it’s not totally benign, but it’s far less invasive than, say, Mountaintop Removal Mining.

Here to another step toward our sustainable energy future!



PS – This article by Grant Brunner of ExtremeTech has some nice diagrams depicting the way PlaCSH solar cells work in comparison to traditional ITO PV.