On Energy and Geometric Progression

The following video has been labeled “The Most Important Video You’ll Ever See.” Hyperbole? It’s just a lecture on math, given by a Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder. It explains how just a 7% annual growth in energy use equals a 100% growth in 10 years. After a few decades, you’ve got a really big number. And a tremendously enormous problem. Watch and learn, please.

[H/T Peter Hufnagel]

Reap the Wind, or Reap the Whirlwind

Way back in 2003, I visited The Netherlands, and was amazed at how incredibly modern everything seemed – at least in comparison to Middle America. The cab I took from Schiphol International was a black, late-model Mercedes E-Type with an awesome flat-screen t.v. on which I could watch Dutch MTV – just like every other cab in the Dutch fleet. The contemporary architecture was cutting-edge and electric trams skirted down the cobblestone streets.  Not to mention the rather avant-garde attitude the Dutch held with regard to cannabis and prostitution.

What impressed me more than anything else, though, was the sight I beheld as the cab rode up to the top of those famous berms and dikes which keep the North Sea at bay. There, glinting in the sunlight, white and pinwheeling above the deep blue sea, was a forest of wind turbines, ineluctably carving the air in graceful circles like the world’s most profound modern art installation. That’s the future, I thought, smiling, and it is beautiful.

A little later, I talked to some Dutch townspeople. “We hate those wind turbines,” they said. “We think they’re ugly.” I had to stifle a guffaw. This was Holland, Great Land of Windmills! I mean, okay, 400 years ago Don Quixote mistook one for a monster, but aren’t those wind turbines just magnificent technological updates of the very same quaint rickety sorts that are Dutch national symbols? Aren’t they even prettier than the originals, now that they’re not merely obsolete fodder for postcards – but symbols of the clean energy future?

Well, change is tough on everybody, I suppose, and it just goes to show you that if the Dutch, of all people, can go NIMBY on wind turbines, then it’s going to be quite a sell for Americans. And indeed it is, as The New York Times reported today. This week is post-time for Obama’s decision on the big wind farm off the Massachusetts coast – in the works now for more than a decade – and our objections are looking even stupider than the Dutch.

Opponents have argued that the venture is too expensive and would interfere with local fishermen, intrude on the sacred rituals and submerged burial grounds of two local Indian tribes and destroy the view.

Too expensive? True, it’s twice as expensive to develop offshore; but we’ve already seen T. Boone Pickens’ plans for a giant Texas windfarm deep-sixed when it became apparent that hooking up the grid to the farm made the whole plan go wildly over-budget. Offshore wind farms positioned near major population centers means no such problem.

Interfere with local fishermen? Okay, so wind turbines that are placed, on average, a half-mile apart interfere with large-scale trawling; but isn’t large-scale trawling the primary cause of extinction-level overfishing? The Masshole anglers might have issues, but over in Rhode Island, the Fishermen’s Energy Company is collaborating with local fishermen. After all, they know the ocean bottom better than anyone, and bringing them in not only reduces the costs and fishery impact of offshore wind farms, but gives the fishing companies a tidy consultancy fee, and investment in the project – not to mention the energy savings in their coastal towns.

Indian tribes? The Wampanoag tribe of Nantucket has important sunrise rituals that, apparently, depend upon an unbroken view of the horizon. Now, normally I’m all for Native American rights and think the idea of the ceremony is beautiful. But I also remember this PSA from the ’70s:

Finally, finally we’re getting off our asses and preventing pollution – and – and –– Hell. Give ’em stock. Give ’em casinos and tobacco-trading posts on the service gantries. Sorry for the callousness, folks, but this is a pretty classic example of not seeing the forest for the trees. Or rather, not seeing the protection of the environment from some pinwheels on the horizon. Eminent Domain has been used to such nefarious ends in our recent history, and we can’t use it to facilitate a clean-energy future? I am appalled by this nation’s past, but there should be limits to its limitations on our future.

I just wish people could see those wind turbines with my eyes, spinning gracefully in the brash winds, glinting the sunlight with melodious reflections, counterpointing the sunlight glinting off the bluerough steel waves – and in each turn, speaking: clean, clean energy; clean, clean energy; now, later, onward.

For Sale: 687 Giant Wind Turbines!

Let’s call this the old American way – it’s a failure that’s a problem that’s a challenge that’s an opportunity. According to the AP Wire, T. Boone Pickens has scrapped plans to build the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas panhandle. See, the problem isn’t whether wind power will, like, Save the Planet or anything; it’s that the Texas panhandle is a really vacant place, and it’s a long way to convey the power from the proposed site to a distribution center. Pickens wanted to build one, but claims there have been “technical problems.”

Now here’s the thing: those wind turbines? They’ve already been ordered.

Six hundred eighty-seven wind turbines, each standing 400 feet tall. He’s looking for smaller wind farms in the Midwest and Canada in which to invest. Got a couple acres? Ol’ T. Boone’s got a wind turbine for you.


Bright Ideas from Maine, #1

A couple of our WHA provocateurs are proud Mainers. Here’s a good reason for them to be proud: the Maine State Legislature just passed a law – the nation’s first! – requiring manufacturers of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) to set up recycling programs for the cool, energy-efficient doohickeys. By 2011, a system will be in place for the collection and recycling of CFLs, which is kind of awesome since CFLs have one serious nervous-making downside: they’re made with mercury, a heavy metal that’s way more dangerous to your kids’ mental health than Metallica. The law also requires limits on the amount of mercury that can be used in the light bulbs. Now, since we all know that mercury in the environment tends to find its way into fish, and the coast of Maine has a lot of fish – well, this is all rather sensible, isn’t it? Mainers have a reputation for that.

What a long, strange trip it’s been

Doesnt look green to me
Doesn't look green to me

Not too long ago, the trend du jour was being a locavore, which means “eating stuff that’s grown close to the source.” Why? Well, it’s because that sack of lettuce you’re picking up at the MegaMarket gets grown in Salinas, CA, say, and then gets driven to a packaging plant in, oh, Florida, then – eventually – finds its way to you. Meaning: you might be eating like a sparrow, but your carbon footprint looks like Bigfoot. (We’re not even counting the methane from your farts – pick up some Beano, boyo!)

Turns out, your Prius is produced the same way. Blame the very thing that makes it “green”: its nickel metal hydride battery.

The nickel is mined in Sudbury, Ontario, and smelted nearby, doing damage to the local environment. The smelted nickel is shipped to Wales, where it is refined. Then it is sent to China to be made into nickel foam. Then it goes to Japan, where it is made into a battery. Then it goes into cars, some of which are shipped to the United States and some of which go to Europe. All of that seaborne transport consumes a lot of fossil fuel.

Here’s where it gets embarrassing: CNW Marketing rates cars on the combined energy needed “to plan, build, sell, drive and dispose of a vehicle from initial concept to scrappage.” The Hummer H3 is rated at $2.07 per lifetime mile. The Prius? $2.87 per lifetime mile.

This isn’t to say you should drive a Hummer. It’s to remember that trendy marketing doesn’t necessarily equal an environmentally cool product. Don’t let your green thumb make your face red.

Quixote will need a longer joust…

…when Massachusetts receives its $25 million stimulus package for a wind-turbine testing center on Boston Harbor. The center will be the sole facility in the United States capable of testing 90-meter-long wind turbine blades. The largest blades currently in use in the world are 60 meters long, while the largest in domestic use are a paltry 50 meters long – though 75-meter blades are currently in the testing phase. The nation’s first wind farm is slated to be positioned off Cape Cod, an idea first proposed in 2007. Read more…

Top 10 Earth- and People-Friendly Buildings


Hi there. This is the Terry-Thomas Building in Seattle, Washington, and the American Institute of Architects just voted it one of the top 10 architectural projects marrying form and function for both human and environmental needs. When surveyed about what they hoped to get in a new office space, workers of the architecture firm that was one of the building’s first tenants asked for more natural light, improved ventilation and better open spaces. So the Weber Thompson firm in Seattle set out to bring all of these wishes to fruition, along with assuring that the building would stay in good financial standing to attract future rentals. (The total project cost came out to about $9.7 million.) The building also sits along a new streetcar line and includes showers for workers who opt to bike to work.

See the rest of the Top 10 at ScientificAmerican.com‘s slideshow.