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[1THING] Blog: Archive for May, 2013

[ Green Fridays, Smart Lighting and More: How National Geographic Cuts Its Energy Use ]

On a recent late night at the office, I got a warning from the cleaning woman: “You know the lights all shut off at 10 o’clock, right?” Fortunately, I had never stayed at National Geographic late enough to learn that fact. But I had noticed before that at 8:00 p.m., my computer sends a message saying it is going into sleep mode unless I click a button to keep it on.

Those automatic shut-offs are one of many small measures that have added up to big energy savings for the National Geographic Society. In fact, the Society’s facilities department announced earlier this year that NG achieved a record for energy conservation last year, hitting its lowest-ever level of energy use at 13,947,932 kilowatt hours. That’s 25 percent less energy than the Society used at its peak in 2000. Frank Candore, chief engineer for NGS, says each kilowatt hour saved amounts to 15.5 cents — at that rate, the Society has shaved nearly $700,000 off its annual energy bill.

The lights across National Geographic’s LEED-certified headquarters here in Washington, D.C. are shut off anywhere between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on weekdays, depending on the location, and automatically come on at 7:15 a.m. The engineering staff also took one fluorescent bulb out of each fixture and replaced the remaining ones with higher-output bulbs, which cut the building’s lighting use almost in half, according to Candore.

Other ways NG cuts energy use:

– building temperature adjustments and improved heating/cooling systems

– smart printers that print only when you’re there to pick up the job, reducing paper waste

– Low-flow toilets and faucets in bathrooms

– Discounts and subsidies for Metro commuters and carpoolers

– Ample recycling and composting bins; compostable cups and containers in the cafeteria (and a discount on coffee if you bring your own mug)

– Green Fridays

What’s a Green Friday, you ask? For nine or ten days each year in warmer months, the Society shuts down most of its offices and cafeteria. If work needs to be done, employees do it remotely. According to Candore, every Green Friday saves 15,000 kilowatt hours, and this year, Green Fridays will add up to $21,000 in energy savings.

“We used to be 100 percent customer-oriented,” Candore said of his department. “If you called me and said, ‘I’m going to come in Saturday. Could you turn the air on for me?’ No problem.” Because of the way the building operated, that meant turning on the air conditioning for several floors on half of a whole building all day for one person—who may or may not have ended up coming to the office after all.

“About 10 years ago, we started saying, you know, we can’t keep running the equipment for one or two or three or four people. So we get people fans now if they want to come in on a Saturday or off hours,” he said.

Operators of large buildings like National Geographic have a significant role to play in increasing energy efficiency, and it’s clear to anyone who has passed a fully lit, empty office building at night that there is widespread room for improvement. Buildings account for about 40 percent of domestic energy use, and commercial buildings account for nearly half of that amount. As part of a larger effort to boost American energy efficiency, President Obama created the Better Buildings Initiative two years ago with the goal of making commercial buildings 20 percent more efficient by 2020.

Making such an improvement, however, isn’t as simple as just shutting off more lights. National Geographic’s progress is the product of several smaller changes that add up to large savings, and it’s countered somewhat by the cost associated with testing different approaches and new-to-market equipment.

“A lot of it’s all educating us, too,” Candore said. “We’re on the cutting edge of this, and not everything we do is a success.” He says, for example, that it took time to recognize energy savings from new, smaller boilers that were installed a couple of years ago. “We were thinking maybe we had a flop there,” he said. Changes to the way the boilers were being operated eventually resulted in improved performance.

The Society continues to look for improvements on energy use, and the engineering department is evaluating smart panels that would help fine-tune control over the building systems. As efforts to lower the Society’s carbon footprint continue internally, the new goal for 2015 is to achieve  a 10 percent reduction in electrical use, 10 percent reduction in water use, 25 percent reduction in landfill waste, and 5 percent reduction in greenhouse gases for NG’s vendors and suppliers.

Many of the Society’s efforts at sustainability are also powered by a “green team” of employees who volunteer their time to help put ideas into practice and to bolster energy awareness across divisions. Candore said that citing the environment, rather than savings, as the impetus for occasionally jarring changes tends to elicit support from coworkers. But, he said, “We’d rather not even call it the green initiative. We’d rather just call it best building business practices, because that’s what it is.”

 

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[ Save the Wetlands! ]

Entercom’s 1Thing Charity for June 2013 is:
Gulf Restoration Network
http://healthygulf.org/our-work/wetlands/wetland-importance
The GRN’s vision is that the Gulf of Mexico will continue to be a natural, economic, and recreational resource that is central to the culture and heritage of five states and three nations. The people of the region will be stewards of this vital but imperiled treasure, and they will assume the responsibility of returning the Gulf to its previous splendor.
Wetlands are extremely valuable to society. Wetlands can decrease flooding, remove pollutants from water, recharge groundwater, protect shorelines, provide habitat for wildlife, and serve important recreational and cultural functions. If the wetlands are lost, the cost of replacing them can be extremely expensive, if at all possible. Lost wetlands can result in a city having to invest more money in drinking water treatment or higher costs to citizens for flood insurance.

About Louisiana’s Coastline
A growing human presence interrupts the natural beauty and vastness of Louisiana’s coastline. Beyond the wetlands and outside the bayous are oil platforms and it seems everywhere there are warning markers of underground oil pipes. Still, the most dramatic change these wetlands are undergoing is the inundation of saltwater and the loss of land. Since the early 1930s, it is estimated that Louisiana has lost almost 5,000 square kilometers of wetlands. In fact, some say an area the size of a tennis court disappears every thirteen seconds. The wetlands are turning into water.

wetland 1

According to the United States Geological Survey and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Louisiana has about 3,560 square kilometers of fresh water wetland and 6,600 square kilometers of tidal (salt water) wetland. That’s an area equivalent to two states of Rhode Island. Wetlands include landscape features you are familiar with such as marshes, bogs, and swamps.

wetland 2

Beauty-wise, Louisiana’s coast rivals the icecaps of the Antarctic, the rolling waves of the Pacific and the tropical beaches of the Caribbean. But protecting these wetlands is about more than preserving a magnificent landscape. We should all feel a great sense of urgency to guard a culture, an economy, and a natural wonder teeming with life…
For a greater understanding visit The Institute for Coastal Ecology and Engineering’s website from the University of Louisiana, Lafayette http://icee.louisiana.edu/
Presented by Entercom New Orleans

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[ Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty ]

The countries that have made the most progress still have far to go to bring electricity and clean energy to their populations, a World Bank-led report details.

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[ Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty ]

The countries that have made the most progress still have far to go to bring electricity and clean energy to their populations, a World Bank-led report details.

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[ Story of A Tweet: The Vitally Important Bully Pulpit for Protecting the Planet ]

U.S. Department of State photo

U.S. Department of State photo

We generally complain that action on climate change is mired in polarized partisan politics and thus nothing can be done.  True to an extent, but let’s hold on a bit.

In terms of generating important discussion about the clarity that exists around the conclusion that the scientific debate over climate change as an anthropogenic process is over, the political bully pulpit can be incredibly powerful.

A case in point is the paper published last week in Environmental Research Letters, where I am the Editor-in-Chief: “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature” John Cook, of the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, Australia, was lead author of the paper, which begins with this abstract:

 We analyze the evolution of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, examining 11,944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics “global climate change” or “global warming.” We find that 66.4 percent of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6 percent endorsed AGW, 0.7 percent rejected AGW and 0.3 percent were uncertain about the cause of global warming. Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1 percent endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. In a second phase of this study, we invited authors to rate their own papers. Compared to abstract ratings, a smaller percentage of self-rated papers expressed no position on AGW (35.5 percent.) Among self-rated papers expressing a position on AGW, 97.2 percent endorsed the consensus. For both abstract ratings and authors’ self-ratings, the percentage of endorsements among papers expressing a position on AGW marginally increased over time. Our analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.

The paper came out, and President Barack Obama’s Twitter account weighed in:

That high-profile tweet (not directly from the president, but like all his tweets, from the campaign group formed to support his political agenda) drove a wave of attention to the research. Follow-on tweets came from Vice-President Al Gore and U. S. Congressman Henry Waxman.  Television coverage followed in: ABC Lateline, Al Jazeera (Inside Story), CNN International, Democracy Now, and NRK. At last count there were over 200 newspaper and magazine pieces, and a number of radio segments.  At last count there were several hundred blog posts on the findings of this paper and the Obama Tweet.  A link to the ever-growing set of media coverage is: http://sks.to/tcpmedia.

The article has been downloaded over 21,600 article downloads in just a few days of having the paper published online.

What this story highlights – beyond the excellent data collection, analysis and scholarship in the paper itself – is the value of thoughtful comments and recognition of these findings.

Daniel M. Kammen is the Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he founded and directs the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (http://rael.berkeley.edu).   Kammen is a Coordinating Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.  Kammen the Lead Scholar for the Fulbright NEXUS program in energy and climate for the U. S. Department of State.

 

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[ Monterey Shale Shakes Up California’s Energy Future ]

In the valley that once lured gold seekers, oil prospectors are converging on the Monterey shale—a sharp new twist in California’s path to cleaner energy.

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[ Monterey Shale Shakes Up California’s Energy Future ]

In the valley that once lured gold seekers, oil prospectors are converging on the Monterey shale—a sharp new twist in California’s path to cleaner energy.

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[ Forests Fuel Hydropower in Brazil ]

In the Amazon you don’t need to burn wood for a forest to contribute to energy production.

Once Upon a Time…

People thought the worth of a forest was determined by the value of its timber. We now know that leads to a gross undervaluation. Forests, like most ecosystems, provide a host of services whose value can far exceed the simple worth of the trees. Services like clean water and air, soil retention, stormwater control, habitat, and even increasing groundwater supply. Cut down a forest and you need to replace all the things the forest provides, and that can be quite expensive.

New York’s Water Story

A case in point – the riparian forests in upstate New York provide clean drinking water to the residents of the Big Apple. In the early 1990s the U.S. EPA mandated that the city build a filtration plant at a cost of ~$7 billion. But New York came up with a better plan at a savings of about $6 billion: rehabilitate the riparian forests in the Catskills where the water comes from and allow the trees, at a greatly reduced cost, to provide the needed filtration. The system works so well that New York City is one of the few major metropolitan areas in the U.S. that gets away with minimal filtering for its drinking water.

Is There an Energy Story?

Ok, forests providing clean water – that’s easy to understand. But what about energy? One way to generate energy from a forest is to cut it down and burn the wood – but that destroys most of the other services as well.

Is there a way to use forests to enhance energy production without burning them? Yes, say Claudia Stickler of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute and co-authors in a paper published May 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Interestingly like the New York story this one involves water as well.

Hydropower Reigns Supreme in Brazil

You’ve heard of king coal? Well, in Brazil, hydropower is king. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a whopping 79 percent of Brazil’s electricity came from hydropower in 2010. (In the U.S. that drops to about 7 percent.)

But Brazil wants even more hydropower, which brings us to the next chapter in our story.

Way Down Upon the Xingu River

You can find the Xingu River on a map in the northeastern corner of Brazil. It runs south to north for about 1,200 miles and drains into the Amazon River. (See related pictures: “A River People Awaits an Amazon Dam.”)

Brazil has big plans for the Xingu River — more specifically, on the Xingu about 100 miles south of where it meets up with the Amazon. That is the construction site of the Belo Monte Dam, slated to be the third largest hydropower facility in the world behind China’s Three Gorges Dam and the Itaipu Dam operated jointly by Brazil and Paraguay. When completed, the Belo Monte Dam will have the capacity to produce up to 11 million kilowatts.

Environmentalists Cheer… and Hiss

If you’re a fan of the environment, all that hydropower can seem like a good thing – energy without burning fossil fuels and so no air pollution, no greenhouse gas emissions. Right? Not quite.

First of all it’s not clear that “no greenhouse gas emissions” holds for hydropower in all settings, especially tropical rainforests. The carbon that is liberated from the forests to make way for the dam and the methane generated from the submerged organic matter can significantly tip the carbon footprint scale for hydroelectric facilities in the direction of new global warming.

And then there’s deforestation. Building a dam in the Amazon almost invariably means cutting down large swaths of trees. And there’s no way for an environmentalist to feel good about all that forest clearing. Blocking up the river with a dam is not so great either.

(Protests against the dam have focused primarily on concerns about deforestation and the displacement of indigenous peoples.)

But that’s a problem for environmentalists. If you’re someone in the Brazilian government looking for a dependable and domestic source of energy, hydropower probably still looks like a good thing despite the environmental drawbacks. And if you’re in business to sell energy, hydropower also looks like a good investment. Right? Again, not quite. That’s where the Stickler et al paper comes in. But first…

An Aside on Hydropower 101

If you want to generate power from a river you have to have flowing water to drive the turbines. How much electricity you can generate depends upon the amount of water flowing. You can have the largest (or the third largest) dam in the world, but if the river is dry you’re not going to generate any power. If the river is raging, you’ll probably be able to operate the facility at or near to capacity. And as the river flow drops so does electricity generation. For example, take the two largest dams in the world. The Three Gorges Dam has a 22.5 million kilowatt operating capacity and dwarfs the second largest dam (Itaipu Dam) by almost 40 percent, and yet due to differences in seasonal river flow they generated the same amount of power—about 98 billion kilowatthours–in 2012.

Ok, now back to the story.

The Two Faces of Deforestation

The Stickler et al connection starts with cutting down trees. Cutting down trees, clearing forests, can change the rate of river flow as well as electricity generation.

The accepted wisdom has been that cutting down forests increases the river flow. With the trees gone, there is far less evapotranspiration and that leaves more water to flow off and out of the land into the river; hence more electricity generation – chalk one up for the dam builders.

But when you cut down a forest, you also alter the local hydrological cycle. There is, for example, less water vapor put into the atmosphere, and that can lead to less rainfall. Less rainfall means less water in the river and thus less electricity generation – the dam builders lose on that one.

So Which Is It?

The net result of deforestation on electricity generation depends upon the relative strength of these two competing effects. To determine which one would dominate for the case of the Belo Monte Dam, Stickler et al. carried out a series of model calculations simulating the hydrologic cycle over the Xingu River Basin for various scenarios of net deforestation in the region. Their results indicated that the effect from reduced precipitation would outweigh the effect of decreased evapotranspiration and as a result deforestation is expected to decrease the dam’s ability to generate electricity. If forest destruction proceeds as currently projected (with 40 percent less forests in the region by 2050) the authors estimate that the Belo Monte Dam will produce about 40% less electricity than the industry projects.*

There is a school of thought that you can’t think of energy devoid of the environment; that energy issues are really about energy and the environment. If Stickler et al are correct, the folks building the massive dam along the Xingu River are about to learn that lesson.
_______________

End Note

*Stickler et al’s result are location dependent and almost certainly do not apply everywhere. A study out last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Silvio Simonit and Charles Perrings of Arizona State University found that for the region surrounding the Panama Canal, retaining forest and reforesting other lands near the canal would not increase precipitation sufficiently to compensate for increased water needs from widening the canal.

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[ Iraq’s Green Zone Gets Greener With Biogas and Other Clean Energy Solutions ]

Culhane shows off a high-efficiency LED-powered street lamp at an energy workshop in Iraq.

Culhane shows off a high-efficiency LED-powered street lamp at an energy workshop in Iraq.

Iraq is longing for renewable and sustainable energy solutions, National Geographic Explorer Thomas H. Culhane found out. It just takes a little extra time to don body armor and get through security when you’re packing food-waste grinders, solar panels, water pumps, and bio-gas systems. Culhane filed this report from his travels to Iraq, a place with personal meaning for him as the homeland of his maternal grandfather:

Earth Day is special for me. I celebrated the first one, on April 22, 1970, by organizing all the children in my Dobbs Ferry, New York neighborhood and leading a cleanup of the Mercy College woods and streams that were in my backyard. At that time, they were a dumping ground for garbage and phosphates that came from our apartment complex and made their way downstream to contaminate the nearby Hudson River. I now teach environmental science as a visiting professor at Mercy College in my former home town, and the Hudson River watershed is now much cleaner thanks to U.S. environmental laws enacted beginning with the Earth Day Movement.

I spent this Earth Day, and in fact, the whole “Earth Month” of April overseas in the Middle East where the benefits of environmental thinking are now becoming a priority, where the problems have been recognized, and where I was invited to share in “solution celebrations.

Culhane demonstrates a machine that generates energy when you crank or pedal it.

Culhane demonstrates a machine that generates energy when you crank or pedal it.

My trip involved a “Renewable Energy and Sustainability Road Show” sponsored by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Iraq and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, by Eco-Gas Israel in Mikhmoret Beach on the Mediterranean, and by National Geographic Society, Fox TV International, and Bosch Corporation in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir in Turkey. This geographic whirlwind tour took me to nearly a dozen universities, ministries, embassies and missions. They included the United Nations and U.S. Embassy compounds, Iraq’s Ministry of Science and Technology, and Marmara Üniversitesi in Turkey, where we built six functioning bio-digesters in hands-on workshops. As a bonus, the trip started and ended with a stop-over trip to see my family in Germany, and cook organic food for them on clean fuel produced from kitchen wastes by our home biogas system. The road-show gave me a chance to share technologies and practices that I research in our college laboratory and use at home; I’ve found that any family and household can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Thanks to the U.S. Embassy I was able to purchase and bring on the road a wide variety of home-scale environmental technologies, including my personal favorite: food-waste grinders donated by InSinkErator. (You call them “garbage disposals;” I call them “biogas feedstock preparation devices” that turn all kitchen wastes into clean fuel and fertilizer!) I also brought six kinds of solar cookers, two types of “Life Saver” water purification devices, foldable CIGS cell solar electric panels, 12-volt water pumps, micro-inverters, portable Chinook wind generators, micro-hydro and stream generators, bicycle generators, 30- and 100- watt hydrogen fuel cells, high-capacity LED lamps, and wood gasifiers. There were conversion kits to make electric generators run on biofuels, and Chinese biogas system molds that enable any community to easily and inexpensively create their own efficient biogas systems, to turn all toilet and food wastes into endless renewable energy and liquid compost, eliminating diseases caused by organic refuse.

We had to don body armor and helmets for our travels around Baghdad to talk about sustainable energy solutions.

We had to don body armor and helmets for our travels around Baghdad to talk about sustainable energy solutions.

It required both planning and cooperation to get the hands-on technology “to the people,” so they could see it and touch it rather than simply watch pictures on a screen. In Turkey, where we pared things down a bit,  it meant having a car and driver so we could transport the suitcases of goodies from lecture to lecture and from airport to airport so I could hand them out to the audience before each show and then engage them in “What do you think this thing is?” discussions.  Going through security so many times always provided fun occasions to answer questions about suspicious-looking items that raised eyebrows when viewed through the x-ray.  I’m accustomed to this, and for years have held impromptu lessons on environmental technologies at borders from Turkey to India to Nepal to Israel to Egypt.  It turns out the many border guards and security professionals I’ve been “interrogated” by have all been really interested in learning about the latest “green tech” and we always leave as friends, with the usual “Welcome to our country, professor, may God bless you and your work.”

Only in a couple of cases have we had to ship certain items separately that couldn’t be carried on the plane or in the luggage.  In Iraq, we got the same warm welcome and enthusiasm, but of course, the logistics of moving both the technology and the professor for the road show was a different story altogether.

For one thing, each venue (ministries and schools) had to be coordinated well in advance, but in secret. Nobody outside the embassy except the coordinators among our Iraqi counterparts could know where we were going in advance or what route we were taking. This was to prevent possible kidnappers or insurgents from targeting us. Then we had to wear body armor and helmets (called “PPE” — Personal Protection Equipment, see picture) and travel in an armored vehicle.  Our vehicle, containing me and Frank Finver, our embassy spokesman and cultural affairs officer, and Victoria Reppert, the media coordinator, and occasional folks from the economics division, had to travel in a convoy with two heavily armored support vehicles in front and two in back, all sporting massive antennas broadcasting frequency-jamming signals to disrupt any radio signals intended to detonate an IED (Improvised Explosive Device).

All the vehicles were staffed with alert and highly trained armed soldiers or security professionals, wonderful guys who would put their lives on the line for me if anything happened, and who kept us focused on maintaining vigilance and safety as we moved into the “red zone” (greater Baghdad) and  out of the “international zone.” (It’s also known as the “green zone,” and it’s getting greener by the day thanks to the solar hot water vacuum tubes on the new embassy housing building, and the new biological water treatment plant and the bio-digesters we built in the garden at both our embassy and at the U.N. compound!)

Once we were inside our venue (such as the Iraqi Ministry of Science and Technology), I had a security professional, wearing an “FBI-style” earpiece and sporting a loaded weapon, standing next to me at all times while two others continually scanned the horizon for trouble.  If I so much as moved more than a meter he would gently but firmly remind me to maintain my position, state where I wanted to move and wait for clearance before moving my feet.  This included going to the bathroom. It was surreal, but necessary: on April 15th, the day we were supposed to travel to the Baghdad University of Technology Sustainable Development Center, as we were donning our body armor and the convoy being prepared, we got a report that a string of bombs had gone off all over the city as insurgents tried to scare the Iraqi people from going to the upcoming elections.  We were told to abort the mission, and the television monitors started showing carnage and awful statistics of the scores of dead and injured. In the end, we had to conduct the lecture via live video conference, but sadly, we couldn’t do anything hands on!

A brighter spot was the visit to the Iraq Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). After we built a family-sized biodigester on the grounds with their engineers, they surprised us by unveiling a host of great technologies that they are working with: solar vacuum tube-assisted air conditioning, super bright LED street lights, Iraqi-manufactured photovoltaic panels, a different type of biogas system to the ones we had built and purchased. Best of all was a 10-kilowatt wood gasifier power pallette that the female scientists, in their hijab head coverings and white lab coats, demonstrated by filling with wood chips from the carpentry floor and firing up an engine that burned so clean we couldn’t smell anything at the exhaust.

This wood-fired gasifier at the Iraq Ministry of Science and Technology burned so clean we could smell no emissions at the exhaust.

This wood-fired gasifier at the Iraq Ministry of Science and Technology burned so clean we could smell no emissions at the exhaust.

We also met for several days with Iraqi businessmen in the renewable energy sector and with the ministers of electricity who showed me data from 15 new large-scale solar and wind farms throughout the country and showed me maps of their new micro-hydro power installations.  “We have an obligation to get our traditional fuel infrastructure working well, but at the same time we are pursuing a wide variety of renewables,” they said. “We just need greater awareness from our public, and that is why we appreciate so much what you are doing here, and the small-scale technology gifts your embassy has provided us.  Our goal now, said Dhia Baiee from MOST, is to get a “travelling sustainability road show truck” to reach communities with word of these technologies. Once they have seen these things working and put their hands on them, we will go the next step, he said.

That next step, according to my colleague Dr. Mukdad Al Khateeb from the Baghdad University of Technology Sustainable Development Center, is to pick locations where the communities are enthusiastic about what they see on the road show and then commit funding and expertise to help them develop what Mukdad calls “sustainable neighborhoods” — living, breathing, functional eco-neighborhoods where best practice model technologies are put into place not for demonstration, but for daily living. All the Iraqis we met, being practical-minded survivors struggling through continued hardship with power outages and loss of municipal services, conveyed the message: “Seeing is believing. We don’t just want to talk about these solutions, we want to try them out, live with them, see how much we can rely on them.” That is what the road show and the sustainable neighborhood initiative is about.

Culhane and others at Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology work on a biodigester for converting waste into energy.

Culhane, Taha Majeed, and others at Iraq’s Ministry of Science and Technology work on a biodigester for converting waste into energy.

On April 16th and 17th, I went to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq to give workshops for  staff and an assessment of the energy, water, and waste challenges facing the entire compound. The aim was to help them with a “Greening the Blue” initiative which is spreading to other U.N. missions around the world, the result of the hard work of U.N. humanitarian affairs officer Karin Mayer. They agreed that turning wastes into energy and fertilizer was the best core approach to making the compound safer and more sustainable, and we set about building two 2-cubic-meter bio-digesters, the first in Baghdad, after determining the huge volumes of food and cafeteria waste their kitchens generate, how much irrigation water they use and how much space is available for growing food.

These are just the beginning, because one of their head engineers, Noel Park, used to build farm bio-digesters in his native Philippines. “After these workshops we can take it from here,” he said. “As you’ve explained and demonstrated, this urban bio-digester solution is easy stuff. We just didn’t know that food waste was the best feedstock, and that we can grind it up easily with an InSinkErator and feed it to a simple digester made from local water tanks, and now we know.”

I was invited to present all the “road show solutions” in a gala dinner event in the U.N. garden where ambassadors and dignitaries from Iraq and Europe and the United States came to discuss the “greening of the U.N.” and the greening of Iraq.  Thanks to the hard work of Humanitarian Affairs Officer Karin Mayer, our biogas solution was put front and center and the rest of the pieces of the development puzzle (solar, wind, LED lights, water reclamation) simply fell into place for everyone in the audience, freed from the problems of “intermittency” and price by the constant of transformation of free and problematic garbage into baseline energy and fertilizer whose cost is covered by the need to deal with wastes in the first place.  This was the watershed moment for our tour, when it became obvious that the first step toward sustainability is simply turning all wastes into value-added products. The rest then becomes easy. (Imagine a world where it is so clean and efficient that you begin looking toward other energy and fertilizer sources because you’ve run out of garbage!)

On the evening of April 18th, I was conducting a live video class from Baghdad online with my environmental science students at Mercy College, when I was informed that within the hour I had to evacuate Baghdad and get to Kurdistan, where I would be doing three more days of workshops, before the last helicopter left the Green Zone and Iraq shut down all airspace. I had 20 minutes to get packed and to the airfield. The reason: to prevent more suicide bombings and attacks before the Saturday elections, the government felt it had no choice but to impose a sudden surprise, no-travel curfew so insurgents couldn’t set up booby traps and explosive devices in the day before the elections. So I had to drop everything and race back to my room (taking careful note of each labeled missile attack shelter as I had been instructed to do in my security briefing), throw everything together and get to the helipad to be flown in a military transport copter to a special secured part of the airport where they then put me on an embassy jet to Kurdistan.  The security checks in these moves were interesting. I found myself declaring my various devices alongside security folks surrendering loaded weapons for inspection as we went through the metal detector.

Culhane demonstrates one version of a solar cooker at a workshop in Iraq.

Culhane demonstrates one version of a solar cooker at a workshop in Iraq.

In Kurdistan, the situation was safer, but I still had to travel in an armored vehicle (but with no convoy) and remain within a heavily secured cement and steel T-wall defended compound that, like the compound in Baghdad, felt a lot like being in the movie, The Truman Show. We did get out to a private home as well as to the government buildings and schools so we had a bit more latitude than Baghdad, where it was just the ministries and universities we visited. Since I arrived a day early, I decided to use the extra time to see if I could schedule a hands-on biogas-building workshop.  Unfortunately, getting anything done spontaneously in such a security environment is an anathema. Getting materials for our local bio-digester build would have been impossible except that two soldiers, Bryant Ellis (a.k.a. “animal”)  and David Marshall,  took a liking to the idea of teaching folks how to turn kitchen garbage into clean reliable energy and introduced me to an Iraqi contractor onsite, Mu’ayyid Shakir,  who was a buddy of theirs who builds the security walls. He could freely leave the compound and shop for materials on the local market (normally we had to go through a long and difficult procurement process that Frank took care of long in advance for Baghdad).

This wonderful man, Mu’ayyid,  said excitedly: “I know  about biogas. I built a small demonstration system years ago when all of our gas and electricity was cut by the war, and I’ve kept the idea in my head that one day I want to build a bigger and more useful one!” I said to him, “This is your chance! I’ll pay for the materials if you will get them.”  And so, this was a special opportunity after all my presentations to electric and energy  ministers and officials and engineers and governors and  planners from Erbil to Kirkuk.The soldiers and Mu’ayyid and I, working by flashlight until midnight, built the first family-size bio-digester in Kurdistan.

To celebrate I took some of the ashes of my maternal grandfather, Iraqi lawyer Noel Rassam, who had died in a nursing home in New York during the war as a refugee, and spread them not only on the land he called home but into the bio-digester we built. My hope is that his spirit can mingle with the microbiome that turns waste into fuel and fertilizer, helping transform his  beloved Iraq into a symbol of sustainability, a symbol of hope for civilization, rising from the ashes like a green phoenix.

T.H. Culhane is the co-founder of Solar CITIES and is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (Class of 2009.) He is a visiting faculty research at Mercy College in New York.

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[ On Science, Politics and Climate Change ]

U.S. Representative Lamar Smith’s strutting his science cred.

Smith, a Republican, represents the 21st District of Texas, which includes his hometown of San Antonio, and chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. I met him a few weeks ago at a hearing on climate held by the Subcommittee on the Environment. He was the consummate gentleman. Despite the fact that I was testifying as a witness for the Democratic Party, he was cordial and gentle in his questions. I thought, Now there’s a reasonable man.

That impression of reasonableness was soon undercut when I learned that Smith is leading the charge in new legislation that would mandate a new layer of political review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) before granting funding for research projects. This is a bad and radical idea for any number of reasons, including its violation of a tried-and-true conservative maxim: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The U.S. R&D program is the envy of the world. The United States receives more patents than any other country, and families from all over the globe spend huge sums of money to send their sons and daughters to American universities to study with our researchers and work in our labs. Much of that effort is grounded in the funding of grants by the NSF. Smith’s legislation would undermine all that. 

Another reason you don’t want to have politicians mucking around in the nuts and bolts of science is that they often have a shaky grasp of the science at best. A case in point, Rep. Smith’s understanding of the state of climate science. 

Lamar Smith’s Take on Climate Science

On Sunday the Washington Post published an op-ed written by Congressman Smith entitled “Overheated rhetoric on climate change doesn’t make good politics.” Can’t argue with that premise. Nor can one argue with his conclusion that we “think critically about the challenge before … [d]esigning an appropriate public policy response” to climate change.

What one can argue with is the spin he puts on climate science to justify his conclusion that there is no urgency to begin that response. How so? Here are three examples.

No Recent Warming

Rep. Smith rolls out the well-worn — but factually incorrect — meme floating out there that “global temperatures have held steady over the past 15 years.” It is true that the rate of warming in the 2000s has slowed, but concluding that global warming has halted would be a misread of the evidence. While warming in the atmosphere has slowed, the oceans continue to absorb heat, and some of that heat will undoubtedly eventually find its way into the atmosphere.

Secondly, the statement that temperatures have held steady is not strictly true. As illustrated below, a simple linear regression of average global temperatures running from 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 or 2000 to 2012 all produce a positive trend — that is, the temperatures have not held “steady” but have tended to increase over time. Depending upon whether you start the regression on a relatively warm or cool year, the trend is smaller or larger, but they are all positive.

global temp trends

Temperature data from the HadCRUT4 annual global dataset.

However, there is a problem. The time period used to calculate the trends is quite short (< 20 years), while the natural variability from year to year is quite large. As a result, it is not possible to establish the statistical significance of these trends. And so, we cannot statistically eliminate the possibility that there has been no temperature change. This is very different from saying there has been no temperature increase. A subtle point that a politician might miss, but significant nonetheless.

So what’s going on? A lot of the slowdown in warming is likely related to the changing cycles of La Ninas and El Ninos. For a nice explanation of this, check out this Skeptical Science post.

U.S. Emissions Irrelevant

Then there’s the argument that the United States is simply not a player in the global carbon emissions game and thus doesn’t need to be a contributor to lowering global emissions. Hard to swallow given that the United States is one) the second largest emitter of carbon, accounting for about 17 percent of global emissions, and two) the largest contributor to the current stock of global warming carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.

How hard to swallow? Well, open wide — here’s how Smith makes the argument. U.S. emissions in the coming decade are projected to be relatively flat while emissions from developing countries, and especially China, are projected to increase significantly. It’s those other countries, the argument goes, that will be responsible for most of the future global warming, and so there’s no need for countries like the United States to do anything.

To bolster such an argument, Rep. Smith refers to a white paper [pdf] published by Paul Knappenberger of the Science and Public Policy Institute, a nonprofit that discounts the role of humans in and challenges the scientific consensus on climate change.

Using model simulations (which Smith himself discounts as unreliable), Knappenberger concludes that “If the U.S. as a whole stopped emitting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions immediately, the ultimate impact on projected global temperature rise would be … approximately 0.08°C by the year 2050.” Yikes, only 0.08 degrees Celsius! That’s tiny! Great news, Americans, the United States is off the hook, right? Well, that’s what Smith would have you believe.

The problem is that such calculations focusing on a single country are misleading. Global warming is a global problem requiring participation of all major emitters. No single country can do it alone. And from the opposite point of view, any country can justify not participating by looking only at its contribution to global warming. For example, take the big bad carbon emitter China. Extrapolating from Knappenberger‘s calculations and emissions projections for China from a report [pdf] by the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, I estimate that if China completely stopped its emissions in 2050, global warming would decrease in 2050 by about 0.1 to 0.2 degrees Celsius depending on the emissions scenario.*

That’s larger than the U.S. contribution but not by all that much. One could imagine a Chinese official, perhaps even one who chairs the Politburo’s version of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, using this argument to similarly argue that there is no need for China to lower its emissions.

As I have previously written:

“As long as individual countries focus on their own little contribution, nothing will ever happen. It’s sort of like this:

You’re at a party with 29 other revelers. The beer just ran out and $30 is needed to get more beer. The hat is passed around for contributions, but each person thinks, ‘If I put in a dollar all it will add is 1/30th or 3 percent of what is needed. That’s a tiny amount, too small to worry about … I think I’ll just pass.’ And no one adds to the hat, and no beer gets bought.”

IPCC Says No Severe Weather Effect?

Finally there’s Rep. Smith’s statement that “last year’s IPCC report stat[es] that there is ‘high agreement’ among leading experts that trends in weather disasters, floods, tornados and storms cannot be attributed to climate change.” I presume by last year’s IPCC report, Smith is referring to: “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.”

While it’s true that the report discusses a number of weather-related trends in which scientists have yet to see a global warming signature — such as hail, tornadoes and river flooding — there are others — including temperature and extreme precipitation — where they noted high or medium confidence that the impact of global warming was already visible. Looks like Rep. Smith got that one wrong as well.

In summary I’m all for avoiding “overheated rhetoric,” but how about we include misstatements about and misrepresentations of science in that category? And oh yeah, leave NSF out of politics.

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End Note

* China’s avoided contribution was calculated to a first approximation by using the maximum and minimum emissions scenarios in the Lawrence Berkeley Lab report [pdf] between 2015 and 2050. The avoided temperature rise stemming from eliminating that estimate of cumulative CO2 emissions was calculated using a metric developed in a paper by H. Damon Matthews and co-authors discussed here.

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