Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Retrofitting Suburbia

I've only seen the first few minutes of Ellen Dunham-Jones' Ted Talk Retrofitting Suburbia, so I can't comment on it too much. My first reaction to the concept of trying to urbanize suburban settings is that the result would be pretty compromised. The idea is to make existing suburbs into more complete communities instead of separate working and living zones. I fear though, is that it is really hard to reclaim land set aside for cars. I would guess that it's nearly impossible to reduce the number of car lanes on most roads to put in sidewalks and a bike path.

One of the saving graces, it seems, might be that suburban office parks and retail areas are notoriously inefficient users of space. The roads may be set in stone, so to speak, but when one of these facilities gets repurposed, there is lots of space for adding walking paths, green spaces, and run-off management features.

Right now, I need to get back to work, but I plan to watch the full talk next chance I get.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

More random links on sustainability

Evolution strikes another blow to industrialized farming as round-up resistant weeds proliferate:


The article ties in Monsanto's "RoundUp Ready" GMO crops and speculates that GMOs in general will take a hit. That's probably taking it a bit too far. The problem is not the GMOs, but the proliferation of a single pesticide which these particular GMOs aided. On the plus side, the weeds are a more easily handled side-effect than a virulent pest specific to some RoundUp Ready crop would have been. 90% of a single year's crop of soybeans could have been destroyed in such a nightmare scenario.

Meanwhile, Target and Walmart are fighting to be (among other things) the most eco-friendly big-box store:


Walmart seems to have the edge, but the encouraging point is that big-box chains, long time foes of environmentalists, are doing more than green-washing a few products.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Giant batteries


The unpredictability and non-uniformity of wind is one of the largest technical problems facing wind farms. A company in Britain thinks it has figured out how to use argon gas and 200ft barrels of gravel to store electricity in a high volume, low loss, low cost manner. If it works, the devices would capture excess energy in windy times for use when the skies are calm.

Their pilot project is only 23 feet tall. This is still too big for a house, but a large apartment block or shopping center could have some solar panels and small wind turbines hooked into something like this. They could also be useful in a smart grid set up accepting extra energy if a broken link causes a surge. Rather than cascading surges and blowouts, the batteries could absorb the extra energy and return it once the grid is stabilized.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Yet another dimension to sustainability

The hysteria over global warming continues to obscure the broader issue of sustainability. Though, in a 'rising tide lifts all boats' sort of way, it may still be a good thing, I still worry that the broader point is getting missed as most people try to sort out the global warming debate.

Since I haven't posted in a while, let me summarize my view of climate change. Adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in at the current rate (or anything like it) will cause the planet to keep more of the sun's energy than it radiates. The temperature of the planet WILL rise. This is pretty basic physics and thermodynamics. In the short term, the dynamic systems of the biosphere will adjust (and have been doing so for 100 years), and we won't see many effects. However, virtually every biological system that has been stressed in a similar manner has snapped at some point. We see this in small systems as well as the climate record in response to other changes. What happens next is unclear, it may start snowing more for all we know, but it will probably cause a global crisis.

My bigger point is that we need to take some action and move on. Carbon dioxide emissions are not the only environmental threat that has the potential to cause global instability. There are more out there. Fresh water is a big one you here about. Simply running out of fossil fuels is an issue that will get solved by alternative energy solutions. Environmental contamination may not cause a singular crisis, but it may be a severe burden that opens the door for something else like the next pandemic.

Sustainability is broad philosophy that will help curb the effects of most of these. If every process can account for every input and output, then most of these problems are solved and we can get back to dealing with the political and social issues.

I bring this up again because I just read an article about an issue I hadn't thought of that fall right into this line of thinking: peak phosphorous.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Micro hydro?

With all this rain, we bought ourselves a rain barrel. For a few bucks at Ocean State Job Lot, we got a 150 gallon barrel and set it up in time for the latest deluge. It was full by noon the next day.

All the water flowing off our roof got me thinking about how much energy could be produced if you funneled it all through a turbine. It seems like it should be a lot (picture the energy involved in dropping a full 150 gallon barrel off of a two story building). My rough calculations for a 1000 square foot roof, two story building, with 50 inches of rain annually (Worcester county) is 1 3/4 kWh.

A Google search turned up some patent applications, but nothing concrete...

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cool recycled house

Sorry for the lack of updates and content lately. Here's a peace offering: