Uncategorized Archive

The military's clean-energy mission

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

By Michael Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director, reprinted from SFGate:

The military's clean-energy mission

Someday, in the not-too-distant future, our country will be getting more than half of its power from energy that is safe, secure, and sustainable. We’re not there now, and in fact we have a long way to go in many sectors of the economy. But it’s clear to anyone who is paying attention that the countries that lead in the race to implement clean-energy technologies will be more resilient and more prosperous in the years ahead.

When I studied history in school, and in learning about successful social movements of the 20th century, I’ve always been fascinated with turning points. What was it that finally helped women’s suffragists to prevail? When was it clear that apartheid would certainly crumble? What will finally “bend the arc of history” to help our country end its dependence on dirty energy?

The U.S. military is likely to play a key role. More than just about any other U.S. organization — public or private — the U.S. Armed Forces are pushing the envelope when it comes to clean-energy technologies. That’s thanks in part to the leadership of people like Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. His goals include cutting oil use by the Navy’s commercial vehicles in half by 2015 and procuring half of its energy from alternative sources by 2020. But it’s not just about goals. Results matter even more.

As a recent Sierra magazine article noted, “The Air Force and the Navy are taking the lead in developing biofuels for aircraft (vehicles, ships, and generators are next in line) from nonfood crops such as the camelina seed and algae.” Ever wondered how we can get off oil and still fly jet airplanes? The military is already on it, with tough regulations that ban biofuel sources that would displace food crops. At the recent Blue Angels air show in Maryland, the jets were running on 50 percent biofuels.

And just last week, the Department of Energy announced that it was backing plans — with a loan guarantee — to put solar panels on as many as 160,000 military-housing rooftops. In the heat of the day, when air conditioners are on high, these solar arrays will collectively produce as much power as a small coal plant.

In August, Army Secretary John M. McHugh said, “We think we’ve made a great start,” referring to the 126 existing Army-led renewable projects. “But to meet our longer-term objectives,” he added, “we have to do better.” Part of doing better means working with private businesses in the clean-tech industry — and that means lots of good jobs for civilians.

The Air Force isn’t lagging either. The Los Angeles Air Force Base just announced that it will be “the first federal facility to replace 100 percent of its general purpose fleet with plug-in electric vehicles.” Where will the electricity for those vehicles come from? The base already uses solar power, and it’s expanding that infrastructure, too. So they’re not just cutting out oil, they’re also avoiding dirty energy from coal-fired power.

And in June, the Pentagon unveiled its comprehensive “Operational Energy Strategy,” which includes plans to reduce the military’s reliance on oil across the board. The strategy is a giant step forward for an organization that can push Americans toward a clean-energy future.

Are you surprised that the military is taking the lead in adopting clean and renewable energy technologies? I’m not. The military operates in a world where relying on dogma rather than facts can result in casualties. As the Sierra article noted, being forced to rely on dirty, 19th-century fuels like oil puts our soldiers in danger — and that’s something no one wants.

This isn’t the first time the military has been on the forefront of change. In 1948, President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 paved the way for a desegregated military, six years before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Now, as then, the military is basing decisions on common sense, not ideology. It’s time for the rest of society to catch up.

Link: http://blog.sfgate.com/mbrune/2011/09/15/the-militarys-clean-energy-mission/

The Real Economy

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Our real wealth comes from our resources, not from stocks, bonds, or financial derivatives. It's no wonder investors "flee" to gold at times like these. As the economy re-balances, other valuable and scarce commodities (oil, phosphate, copper, even food) also have nowhere to go but up in price. If clean rivers, songbirds, and polar bears had the economic value they deserve, I'm sure investors would be buying up these rarities as well. Behind the volatility on Wall Street is a very real sense in many peoples' minds that our economic system (not just our economy) has gotten off track. For example, a recent survey showed that the vast majority of Americans (including Republicans) are very concerned about our lack of a manufacturing base and feel that we need to re-build it. Having outsourced manufacturing and pumped all of the affordable oil, we now face a world where it costs a great deal more to import everything we need.

What we see happening is the beginning of a painful transition back toward a slow-growth (or zero growth) economy where people are learning to value what is real. Gone are the days when people could upgrade their SUVs and big screen TVs every six months, financing both on credit cards. Gone are the days when investors could expect dependable 5% growth in developed economies. It was all based on the exploitation of cheap, easily available resources, which fed rampant consumption and a spiraling pool of debt. Since the 2008 downturn, the only U.S. growth has come in the financial sector and is directly attributable to the additional money (more zeroes on computer screens) that the government has printed for the banks so they'll lend it to finance people' debts. But now we are realizing that debt is NOT a resource and the economy is contracting as the most egregious examples of this debt are devalued and squeezed out of the system.

There will be financial ups and downs as this economy transitions away from the meaningless wealth of stocks and bonds, and towards an economy where value is measured by resources. I am not naive enough to believe polar bears will become valuable commodities; this new economy still will be based on exploiting valuable hard assets. People still want to make money; it's capitalism. But the dollar itself is meaning less, and if it's measured against the Yen and the Euro, those will be even worse off at times. In coming years, we will see serious inflation, tempered by periods of deflation, where these pieces of paper and computer zeroes no longer hold their value. If you want to protect your money, convert as much as possible to useful equipment that will last for many years, hard assets, and anything you can use, sell, or barter now and into the future. If that means going on a buying spree, then maybe you can single-handedly help boost the pro-growth economy for one more precious spurt before oil prices rise and hit us over the head again!

Today, we harvested chicken eggs, zucchini squash, green beans, chard, potatoes, and plums. That's real. I saw the smiles on my kids' faces at dinner. There were more smiles as we used the hand grain mill to grind some grains for tomorrow morning's cereal. Those smiles are real, too. I enjoy my pro-growth living standard, financed by a day job. But even for the most fortunate among us, it's going to be a rough ride ahead. We all need to become better at living poor in an economy where chard grows faster than dollars. For me, that downsizing transition started at home, in the garden and in the kitchen. It continues, sometimes joyfully and sometimes painfully, into other parts of life. I hope you'll begin your transition as well. While I've always hated this expression…keep it real.

DuPont, the EPA, and golfers apparently have tree blood on their hands

Friday, July 15th, 2011

DuPont's new "environmentally friendly" herbicide called Imprelis is the likely culprit behind a whole bunch of sudden tree deaths and injuries on golf courses around the country. The U.S. Composting Council came out against Imprelis earlier this year, warning that grass clippings treated with this chemical should not be composted. Now it seems to have killed off and sickened a huge number of Eastern White Pine, Norway Spruce, and other trees. I love what this is going to do to our waterways, drinking water supplies, and animal and soil health as well, though Imprelis is supposed to be less toxic than other chemicals (though this story shows just how much they didn't know about it). Nice going DuPont, nice going United States E.P.A. for approving this, and nice going to all you who support golf courses around the country, some of the largest consumers of herbicides and generators of crystal clear runoff for our streams, lakes, rivers, oceans, and aquifers. Why exactly do people need to have acres of manicured lawns to play an overpriced and addictive game? Start a garden instead, grow some of your own food while you enjoy the greenery, save some money, and help slow down the planet's destruction while you're at it. Welcome to a highly rewarding, productive, and (yes) addictive pursuit…

Link to news story: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43763096/ns/us_news-the_new_york_times/

Nobel Prize Winner Opens One Eye

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

At first glance, last week's New York Times Op-Ed piece by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman looked like a slam dunk. His column entitled "The Finite World" seemed to be the latest admission by yet another mover & shaker that peak oil and resource scarcity will control our economic destiny for the foreseeable future. Here was someone whose opinion really counts in policy-making circles, joining the chorus of recent "Houston, we have a problem" realizations from a wide range of sources, including mainstream geologists, Wall Street investors, the US Armed Forces, Lloyd's of London, the International Energy Agency, and anyone else who can read the writing on this wall that we're barreling into. All of them are telling us that our earth's supply for key resources (oil, phosphorus, copper, other metals) can no longer keep up with worldwide demand. So whether you believe that there is a physical peak at hand in terms of oil extraction and production, the supply-and-demand equation will put a damper on worldwide economic activity anyway. (*Note: if you need a primer on this, please read some of my previous blogs.)

But whoa, not so fast. Our Nobel Prize-winning economist failed to fully grasp the implications of this simple supply-and-demand scenario. More likely, he's partly on his way towards realizing the full implications of this catastrophe, but is still partly in denial about what it will mean for humanity and our economics. Krugman's column in last week's Times began really well, but finished quite poorly. Here was somebody standing up at an addiction group meeting, saying "I have a problem" and then adding "but I don't need to do anything about it now" as he walked out the door.

Here is what he wrote. After recognizing that world commodity prices (oil, copper, cotton, wheat, corn) are up 25% in the last six months, he explained that finite supplies (and not price speculators) are the culprit. He cited growth and demand from China and other emerging economies, changing weather patterns from climate change, and flattening oil production (peak oil, anyone?) as major factors in driving up commodity prices. So far, so good. And then his big cop-out: "we’re living in a finite world, one in which resource constraints are becoming increasingly binding. This won’t bring an end to economic growth, let alone a descent into Mad Max-style collapse. It will require that we gradually change the way we live…But that’s for the future. Rising commodity prices… have no bearing, one way or another, on U.S. monetary policy. For this is a global story…it’s not about us."

The implication is that we should forget about this trouble and hope it goes away, even though he just finished explaining why it WAS a fundamental problem. If the peak and supply-demand imbalance in key global resources has "no bearing (on) monetary policy", then fine, tell the Federal Reserve to keep sleeping. But as far as I can tell, the impact on monetary policy wasn't the focus of this article until he mentioned it in that sentence. And when the United States economy, and the entire world, is clearly driving 90 miles per hour towards a cliff (as he's just told us, identifying both the severity and imminent nature of the problem), then the statements "but that (need to adapt) is in the future" and "it's not about us" are tantamount to ongoing denial of this problem that should eclipse all others on every policy-maker's agenda. Coming from someone with Krugman's intelligence and pedigree, this is irresponsible. But I'll give him credit for having one eye open and hopefully he'll join the party soon enough.

I don't have a Nobel, but here's my Econ 101 version: when something gets scarce (supply), it becomes more expensive. When someone badly needs it (demand), it also becomes more expensive. Put these two together and you have big trouble. Oil prices stand at $90/barrel right now, even when the economy is still mired in a deep recession with nearly 20% of the U.S. population either unemployed or severely underemployed. Last time there was a recession, oil prices hovered around $50/barrel, but look how high they are even in this time of supposedly lackluster demand. As Krugman pointed out, conventional oil supplies have not increased in four years and oil from less conventional sources (like oil sands or deepwater wells) are more expensive to produce. Many believe we simply cannot produce any more oil on any given day or in any future year than the world is producing now. But soon enough, this debate will be irrelevant; even if we can produce a little more, demand from developing countries is fast increasing and set to overtake the world's supply capacity. So as the economy begins to improve even a bit, those oil prices will shoot up again, and once oil hits about $120/barrel again (which is much closer now than it was before the Summer 2008 price spike) then it should have the same effect on the world economy as the 2008 price spike did: killing it, sparking this last big recession.

Simply put, our economic system is driven by affordable resources and with oil, copper, phosphorus and other elements of the industrial lifeblood, we have reached that point in history where the world's supplies are beginning to fade (they are "finite" as Krugman indicates) and where global supply is overtaken by global demand anyway. Our economies probably will never be able to grow at the same pace again without hitting the roadblock of insanely high prices that stifle demand. That is, of course, unless we adapt and develop some alternatives really quickly. This problem is here, is now, is ours, and we need to face it squarely. Anyone who suggests otherwise is still in denial, but hopefully those folks will wake up and become part of the solution. We're all in this together and we need to work on some alternatives and transitions in a big hurry. Happy New Year, everyone!!!

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/27/opinion/27krugman.html

Food prices are set to explode, so start your garden now!

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

I'm all for renewable energy, but we're facing a critical shortage of food in the coming years as the world's population continues to increase while there is less arable land, dramatically higher fertilizer prices, and shifting agricultural zones due to climate change. In this climate, it is madness to use our good land and fertilizer to grow corn for our gas tanks. I would rather see these giant tracts of agribusiness land divided up into smaller farms where real people can improve the soil and grow food (for themselves or the rest of us). Therefore, I am opposed to the ongoing ethanol subsidy being discussed in Congress, and I am in favor of smaller-scale, locally grown foods. The best local foods are the ones grown at home, and if you are not gardening on your patio, rooftop, walkway, doorstep or balcony (yes, you can grow food there), then now is a great time to get started. If it's too cold outside, then use this winter to read, learn, and plan so that you can hit the ground running and have a successful garden in the spring.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) just released a report in which they forecast that corn prices could double in the coming years with rice prices not far behind (increasing 31.2%) as rice starts to be substituted as animal feedstock, etc. The group mainly blames ethanol and climate change for the coming increases.

But I'm sorry to say that I disagree with this group's conclusions, because as far as I can see, they are not factoring in some much bigger sources of impact upon food prices: the coming peaks in the production of oil, phosphorus, copper, and a number of other commodities. A scarcity of one of these alone would drive food prices dramatically higher, but the fact that demand will shortly exceed supply for all of them is truly frightening. The entire economy and food web depends upon their affordability and availability, and we've done precious little to prepare or transition from this dependence.

Does anyone still believe that industrial-scale agriculture can weather these storms and keep food prices anywhere close to where they are now? Let me tell you, if grain prices in 2-3 years from now are only 2-3 times higher than now, that will have triggered food riots all over the world between now and then, but it will still be a bargain. This could get much worse, so get set for a bumpy ride. And grow or produce as much of your own food as you can, wherever you live, so you can save your pennies for whatever else cannot be obtained as easily or affordably. I always hope I'm wrong, but I believe the days of cheap food are nearly over.

UK Energy Secretary: Oil price may double; shocks on the way

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

With every passing day, another official or major institution comes out with a prediction of imminent peak oil and price shocks. Here's another to add to this growing list. It just confirms what many of us have been preaching about: get ready for a rougher ride ahead. Now is the time to work on your gardening and homesteading skills (yes, even if you live in an apartment or townhouse!). Soon enough, it may be harder to obtain the things we need as readily as we can now, including fresh food. So consider starting a fall or winter garden now: grow some of your own food and source the rest locally!

From the Telegraph: UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has ordered his officials to look at the impact of a 1970s-style oil price spike on the British economy. Mr. Huhne said the UK was having to prepare itself for "lots of shocks", forcing the price of a barrel of oil to double, mirroring the volatility last seen in the 1970s.

Read the complete article here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/liberaldemocrats/8016774/Liberal-Democrat-Conference-Oil-price-could-double-in-return-to-1970s-style-shocks.html

What to do with extra zucchini (hit a bear!)

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

If you're lucky enough to have some zucchini (summer squash) plants, you know they can provide months worth of fresh vegetables for you, your family, and maybe most of the neighborhood. The challenge quickly becomes what to do with all those zukes. Entire cookbooks have been devoted to this subject. Inevitably, you forget to pick them during a couple of hot days, and somewhere under that jungle of leaves and stems, a giant baseball bat or bowling pin awaits. At my house this summer, less traditional uses included drying, freezing, and pickling zucchini, plus feeding some to the chickens. But in Montana, according to the AP article below, zucchini bowling pins have found a new use for repelling bears. I do not condone animal cruelty, but perhaps in cases of self-defense, it's not a bad idea to have a zucchini handy.


Montana Woman fends off bear with zucchini

FRENCHTOWN, Mont. — Police say a Montana woman used an unlikely weapon to fend off a
charging bear — a zucchini.

Missoula County Sheriff's Lt. Rich Maricelli says a 200-pound black bear attacked the
woman's 12-year-old collie just after midnight Wednesday on the back porch of her home about 15 miles west of Missoula.

When the woman, whom police did not name, screamed to draw the bear's attention, it charged her and swiped at her leg.

Maricelli says the woman jumped back into the doorway and reached for the nearest object
on her kitchen counter — a 12-inch zucchini from her garden.

The woman flung the vegetable at the bear, striking it on top of the head and causing it to

Maricelli says the woman did not need medical attention. Wildlife officials were trying to locatethe bear on Thursday.

Link: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39325889/ns/us_news-weird_news/#

Raise your own chickens and beat salmonella

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

At my house, we have eaten eggs every day this week. Unfortunately, because of the salmonella outbreak that's taken a few million eggs off the market, most Americans cannot make a similar statement. My family feels perfectly safe eating eggs because they do not come from hundreds or thousands of miles away and are not produced in some factory farming warehouse. Our eggs are produced about thirty feet from the kitchen by happy hens who have plenty of space to thrive and are free to eat a balanced, organic diet. Transportation, packing, and handling? Listen for the clucking, go out and pick up an egg, and walk it to the refrigerator or crack it right onto the fry pan.

Chickens do not need much coop and run space to be raised humanely; they are descendants of wild jungle fowl which do not roam but customarily keep to a very small patch of forest. If kept in appropriate conditions, chickens are not loud or smelly. They are low-maintenance pets and prolific producers of nutritious food. There is no reason chickens should not be kept in every backyard. And no person should have to eat the eggs, meat, or dairy products that come from factory farms. Let's grow our own food and put those barbaric crooks out of business. If you're like me and do not have the space for cows or goats, then buy (what you cannot produce) locally from a smaller, trusted dairy. Either way, the risk of salmonella is practically nil, whereas numerous studies have shown that factory farms increase its risk exponentially. It is time to reject the "quantity" paradigm that the USDA and mega-corporations have pushed on us for too long at the risk of quality and food safety. Let's go back to "quality" (and reality) even if it costs a few cents more. And if you have your own chickens, or goats, or honeybees, or carrots, or beans, or pears, etc…then it costs a whole lot less anyway, and both the taste and nutrition are far greater than anything in the stores.

Disappearing Oil: The REAL Story (You Need to Read)

Monday, July 26th, 2010

[Note to reader: The REAL Story begins in Paragraph 2.]

A giant sucking sound was heard and with it went the Gulf Oil Spill (or so they would like us to believe). As you've no doubt been reading, one of the major stories this week is: Where did all the oil go? Apparently no one can find most of it. It evaporated, it dispersed, it was eaten by petroleum-crazed microorganisms; many theories are espoused. So they lead us to believe the worst oil spill in this nation's history was not so bad after all? What a nice, corporate feel-good story, and BP shares are up again today (BP even had the guts to announce that it will probably drill into that same deep water reservoir again). So all is well. Did they bother to mention that a huge quantity of oil ended up on the ocean floor and in the coastal marshes, which will pretty well wreck that ecosystem and its fisheries for decades, maybe generations, to come?

Three times this week, I've seen basically the same headline online about "Disappearing oil" and each time this story continues to be much the same. I have to admit I was disappointed each time, because I long for the day when mainstream media will report on THE REAL DISAPPEARING OIL STORY. I'm interested in the story that tells us the world's oil supply is disappearing through our exhaust pipes. The U.S. military's Central Command and the Dept. of Energy have admitted it, the British government has formally studied and acknowledged the problem, Lloyd's of London issued an AMAZING report on it, and it seems that not a day has gone by this summer without a major investment bank or big financial poo-bah issuing opinions on it. All of them agree: the world's oil supply can no longer keep up with demand, the easily available (affordable) oil is just about gone, there are no readily available alternatives that even come close to addressing the shortfall, and the crunch is coming somewhere between 2011 and 2015. This week, Weeden & Co., a private broker serving institutional investors, issued a report saying that oil will reach $150 a barrel by 2015. Lately, even that one seems a conservative forecast.

Can we handle $10/gallon gasoline? Of course not. It will throw the economy into chaos, if not ruin. What we've seen so far is a picnic. With a complete absence of planning at the higher levels of government, it is left to states and local communities to develop their own peak oil transition plans and, ultimately, fend for themselves. Unfortunately, the states are bankrupt and in even worse shape than the federal government, which can always print more money and pretend it was borrowed from one of the banks we bailed out. So local communities have been the major centers of action on peak oil planning, at least those communities that are a little more enlightened than others.

I would like regions and communities to conduct more assessment and planning along the lines mentioned in this article from the Vancouver Sun (link below). The province of British Columbia tends to be fairly forward-thinking, and indeed, the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture commissioned a study on the province's food supply during peak oil (even if they tried to hide these results from the public, as the article suggests). What the B.C. report found was frightening. First of all, in case you don't know, B.C. is a land of milk and honey; it has some of the best soil in Canada (sadly, much of the Fraser River delta is paved over) and grows some of the best fruit and produce in North America. Also, the modest population is fairly concentrated into relatively few square miles around Vancouver and Victoria. This report found that B.C. produces 48% of the meat, dairy, and produce that it consumes. I do not have the figures with which to compare this, but I would guess very few American states would be able to boast that they approach 48%. It would not surprise me if many states are in the single digits.

With rising fossil fuel prices, peak oil's effect on food prices will be astronomical as irrigation, processing, harvesting, refrigerating, transporting, and fertilization become impossible to mass-produce. The only alternative is smaller, more localized, regional systems of food production, which will still be viable once factory farming becomes impossible. So what did B.C.'s report find? That in order to provide a healthy diet for all residents of the province, it would have to increase the area of available farmland by nearly 50% by 2025. OUCH! How is this going to be possible, in B.C. or anywhere else? And if this is a monumental challenge in a province with fabulous land and natural resources, a reasonably moderate climate, and less than 4.5 million people (a smaller population than half the states in the U.S.), then how in the heck can other states and regions accomplish this fundamental transition to self-sufficiency?

The only way to get close is to do more ourselves. Remember the # above, stating that B.C. produces 48% of its own food? And my suggestion that many U.S. states probably produce less than 10% of what their residents eat? Well, my BACKYARD produces double digits for our family. I spent this evening expanding our chicken coop, creating space to add more egg-laying hens as the need arises. And I realized that my power drill has become such an indispensable tool for maintenance/expansion of my raised beds, fence, worm bin, and chicken coop, that I would not want to be without it. So I ordered a well-made hand drill on the Internet, which I will try as an off-the-grid backup. I also have a hand grain mill, a machete for brush trimming, and other manual tools that I'll be comfortable using if there is no electricity for extended periods. In case you guessed it, I don't watch much TV; my spare time is spent learning, growing, creating, preparing.

You can't do everything yourself, but you can do a lot. Even if you live in an apartment or small home, there are things you can do to meaningfully increase your food production and your self-sufficiency. My book covers much of this, including an introductory overview of small space gardening, sprouting, fermentation, mushrooming, chicken-raising, and beekeeping. You really don't need much space for any of these at a basic level, but of course the more space you do have, the more independent you can be. If you live in a small home, this book is a good place to begin your voyage toward greater self-sufficiency. Beyond it, there is much, much more. I'm getting into cheese making right now. If only I had the space for a couple of goats….

Link: http://communities.canada.com/VANCOUVERSUN/blogs/greenman/archive/2010/08/03/government-report-says-food-supply-threatened-by-peak-oil.aspx

Corn Demand Exceeding Supply

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Farmers in the U.S. are unable to meet demand for corn, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, despite the probability of a record crop once again (so says Earthy Report, link below). Methinks too much of this corn is going in peoples' gas tanks; what a waste of good food, land, and water, not to mention fertilizers and pesticides. Thanks to biofuels and all the meat people eat, we are burning through the world's supplies of phosphorus at a voracious pace. As I've written before on this blog, peak phosphorus makes peak oil look like a picnic. I don't relish having to live in the era of peak anything, but peak phosphorus is the one that scares me the most. The best things we can do now are to reject this biofuel lunacy, grow more of our own food locally and at home, and use greater quantities of composts, manures, and mulches. In this way, at least some of the nutrients are recycled back into the growing system, and there is much less runoff as water and fertilizers are held in. Nevertheless, the era of peak resources will be a bumpy road. If you have not planted a summer vegetable garden, now's a great time to start thinking about a fall garden!

Corn Demand Exceeding Supply, link: http://www.earthyreport.com/site/corn-demand-exceeding-supply