Hello, Sunshine!

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Link suite overview on solar scale up: better tech, lower costs, variety, better batteries and bottle bulbs

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

The shades may have been drawn on Solyndra, but the sun still shines on solar. Despite Big Carbon’s industry front group-funded campaign to sell us on a fossil-fueled future, solar is going mainstream fast. Even heads deeply buried in tar sands can sense the shift.

There is no “one” solar answer. Solar comes in all shapes and sizes: from rooftop panels and peel-and-stick window film, to boats and backpacks, solar “ivy” and solar “leaves,”  giant concentrated solar arrays and recycled plastic bottles. Almost daily there is news of improved efficiency, better batteries and more products available off-the-shelf.

Costs are tumbling, too—and not just because the Chinese have heavily subsidized the manufacture of photovoltaic panels, undercutting everyone else in the market. Solar, finally, is enjoying the benefits of scaling up.

This year, the Department of Energy’s biannual Solar Decathlon saw home construction costs come in third cheaper than in 2009. The expense and learning curve of prototypes has  given way to the savings of lessons learned.

There are also more jobs—and better-paying local jobs, too—in installation than in manufacturing, lessening the sting of market share  loss to China. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, groups such as the Make It Right Foundation created “a teachable moment,” to train builders and appliance installers to work with greener technologies. Even the cleanest of coal (energy’s reigning oxymoron) cannot compete against a smartly designed solar home whose monthly electric bill comes in under $30.

It is that kind of bargain-happy free market decision-making that has Chevron—yes, Chevron—scrapping pricey natural gas in favor of a concentrated solar power (CSP) array to heat water for steam to to make heavy crude oil thin enough to pump: new sun to mine ancient sun. Beyond the obvious irony, this promises to quickly ramp up into a multi-billion dollar business.

Elsewhere, vast arrays of photo voltaic panels are sprouting everywhere, from  a capped garbage dump turned “energy park,” to a Victorian-era London bridge. Both are pilot projects, but expect many more to follow. There are an estimated 100,000 aging landfills in the US prime for PV.

Cutting right to the chase—no power generation required—in the Philippines, soda bottles are being recycled into 55 watt wireless lights through an ingenious design courtesy of MIT’s D-Lab. “Bottle bulbs” inserted into tin roofs bring free daylight into otherwise dark interiors, reducing the need—and expense—of air-fouling kerosene.

So let there be light! And power. And cheaper energy. And a cleaner planet, too.

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Hello, Sunshine ranks among one of the larger TrackerNews link suites, with more than 40 stories. Among the highlights:

(All links on the aggregator become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.)

The Days, Years After: Recovering from Bigger, Badder Disasters

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Link suite overview: on recovering from disasters; the lessons of Irene, Joplin, Fukushima, Pakistan flood, Queensland flood, Christchurch quakes, Haiti quakes, Katrina; collateral damage and eco-smart design as insurance

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It has been a banner year for disasters in the US with  a record-breaking 10 “billion-dollar-plus” knock-out punches, and still four months to go. So far: massive blizzards, epic floods, murderous tornadoes and one staggeringly large, coast-shredding hurricane. As  a grace note, an earthquake on an previously unknown fault in Virginia put cracks in the Washington monument—a wound as disturbing symbolically as structurally.

Globally, the news is no less jaw-dropping: Floods stretching to the horizon in Australia and Pakistan. Two devastating earthquakes each for New Zealand and Haiti. And a trifecta of tragedy in Japan where an earthquake triggered a tsunami that drowned a nuclear plant.

Droughts—comparatively stealthy as disasters go—only grab headlines when people start keeling over from starvation by the tens of thousands (Somalia), or crop losses are so large, sticker shock sets in at the grocery store, while global food security—which means global security—becomes notably less secure (Russia, US).

The only bright spot in this litany of gloomy news is that communication during and about disasters has improved markedly.  As Hurricane Irene buzz-sawed its way up the eastern seaboard, The Weather Channel went into overdrive, leading a media mob—both mainstream and “citizen”—reporting, tweeting, crowdmapping, photographing, making videos, texting donations, aggregating, blogging, facebooking, and sharing every last little nugget of awful news.

It made a difference. People got out of harm’s way. Although the death toll has now climbed into mid-forties, with likely a few thousand more injured, an estimated 65 million people felt some part of Irene’s fury. Most stayed safe, which is remarkable.

Yet for all the technical brilliance that made it possible to track a weather blip off the coast of Africa to its lethal landfall an ocean away, or to plan mass evacuations, share safety tips and keep track of loved ones, there was no stopping Irene. Financial losses may have been less than expected—mostly because property values are lower in Vermont than in New York City—but they are enormous and devastating. Homes have been torn apart, lives turned upside down.

The collateral damage has yet to be tallied from lost incomes, delayed school starts, exposure to toxic mold, toxic water, mosquito-borne illnesses and weakened infrastructure.

It becomes a vicious circle: Until businesses affected by the storm are up and running again, tax revenues will decline, making it that much more difficult to pay for repairs or proactive maintenance. In Japan and New Zealand, bonds and special taxes are now on the table to cope with recovery costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.

In fact, the high cost of these mega-disasters—often quoted a percentage of a country’s GDP—can itself become a cost. Insurance companies, faced with catastrophic losses, are hiking rates and cutting coverage. But the more businesses and home-owners are forced to spend on insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, the less money they have to expand businesses or make purchases.

There are also more people than ever in harm’s way. Much of the development in Queensland, Australia over the last 30 years, for example, was on a floodplain.

Although specific storms are difficult to link directly to climate change, our warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere than it did even just a few decades ago. That means there is more rain to to be rained, and more energy to interact and magnify well-known weather drivers such as El Nino / La Nina.

Whether or not this is the “new normal” remains to be seen. It certainly seems to be the “more frequent.”

IN RECOVERY

“The Days, Years After,” a new link suite story on the TrackerNews aggregator, looks at a half dozen disasters from the last few years, focusing on recovery efforts. Each disaster is tragic in its own way, but patterns emerge.

  • Political gridlock (Japan) can be just as devastating as corruption (Haiti) in slowing recovery
  • Good communications networks make a tangible difference (Joplin, New York)

On a more encouraging note, all sorts of new and better tools for  mapping, clean-up, construction and communication have emerged since Hurricane Katrina, all made accessible, and some made possible, by the web.

Many of the technologies are eco-smart, which turns out to be a good disaster defense strategy as well.

Imagine, for example, the difference it would have made if the electric grid in the Northeast had been based on a distributed power paradigm. Rather than large central power plants generating electricity transported over long distances on vulnerable wires, individual buildings and neighborhoods would generate their own, preferably green, power. Batteries capable of storing enough energy from solar panels and wind-turbines to power as many as 2,000 homes would be tied into local grid, which could, in turn, could be tied into a larger grid. A hurricane would still knock lights out, but not to millions of people.

Clean, green energy independence means energy insurance, too.

Additional highlights of the link suite include:

… and much more (all links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database)

RELATED

— @TrackerNews

Plastics: Eco-Comedy / Eco-Tragedy

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On the power of humor, one farmer’s stand, birds, bottle caps, better bottles, trash-tracking and why corporations need  to push politicians toward smarter recycling policy

Here at TrackerNews, where our unofficial tagline is “One Damn Thing After Another,” the focus tends to be on the grim. Floods, droughts, plagues, blights, quakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, climate change, pandemics, drug-resistance, fake drugs,  oil spills, nuclear accidents, dead bees, dead trees, melting ice, rising seas, acidic oceans, aging populations, e-waste… Lather, rinse, repeat.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a sense of humor. Indeed, sometimes humor is the only thing that keeps us going. So when a music video on the evils of single-use plastic bags came flying in through the email transom, we perked right up (thanks Chris Palmer!). “A Plastic State of Mind,” co-winner of  this year’s Eco-Comedy Video Competition (who knew “eco-comedy” was a genre?), blew us away while hitting a bull’s eye on mission: We promise—we really do—to bring our canvas bags into the store, rather than forget them with a means-well shrug in the car. Or this could happen:

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Talk about “ads worth spreading”…

FARM(STAND) POLICY

Taking a more direct approach, farmer Henry Brockman, whose bounty is the stuff delectable legend at the summer market in Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago, charges for recyclable plastic bags, encouraging customers to bring their own re-usable bags instead. Within a single season, he managed to reduce demand 90%, taking 27,000 bags out of the plastic pollution equation. One little farm-stand. One small weekly market. A start.

Still, as his writer sister Terra notes, “recyclable plastic” isn’t exactly a get-out-eco-jail-card–free, so that’s still 3,000 bags too many:

First, we learned there is considerable doubt that biodegradable bags really do degrade under the conditions they are supposed to—including water, sun, and underground (e.g. landfill). Second, the renewable resource used to make most biodegradable plastics is corn, the chemical-intensive production of which has its own set of negative environmental impacts. To add insult to injury, we learned that the corn used to make the bags we purchased was grown in China. Thus, our “green” bags were contributing to soil loss, polluted wells, damaged ecosystems, and food insecurity in China—not to mention all the fossil-fuel use and concomitant pollution that started in a field in China, continued in a bag factory there, and then went on with emissions from trucks, ships, planes, and trucks again to finally get into our hands.

The Seasons On  Henry’s Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm

FOR THE BIRDS

If that isn’t enough for you to give up your errant plastic ways, do it for the birds. Photographers Chris Jordan and Kris Krug are currently on Midway Island,  filming a documentary follow-up to Jordan’s disturbing 2009 photo-essay on albatross killed from feeding in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirl of plastic rubbish in the middle of the ocean. The birds have a fatal fondness for plastic bottle caps, which accumulate in their stomachs, leading to agonizing deaths. Smaller bits of near invisible plastic—some no doubt that started out as single-use bags—threaten the food web itself.

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A BETTER BOTTLE?

Back in the grocery store, cola giants Pepsi and Coke are battling it out for “green” bottle bragging rights. Coke made the first move last year, introducing a 30% bioplastic bottle. Pepsi matched that and then some, announcing a new 100% bioplastic container to be rolled out in pilot trials next year.

With the cost of oil ever-rising, it’s a smart move financially. By some estimates, 200,000 barrels of oil per day are used to create plastic packaging, just in the US. Finding a cheaper, abundant, locally sourced feedstock is double eco-smart: ecological and economic.

Yet unless the recycle rate is vastly improved, there is a limit to the good it will do. Less than a third of all the plastic bottles that could be recycled actually are. The rest? Near-eternal entombment in landfills or swirling for decades in a toxic “ocean patch” vortex of death (every ocean has one…). The task isn’t made any easier when budget-slashing politicians, such as Wisconsin’s Governor Walker, cut municipal recycling funds.

An handful of companies and grocery chains, such as Aveda and Whole Foods, have plastic recycling programs, but it is a drop in the garbage bucket. And, though good-hearted, they take work. Who really wants to collect and schlep bags of plastic bottle caps to the store?

This is an issue that goes well beyond an “Earth Hour” or even a whole “Earth Day,” which, for all the hype and raised awareness, haven’t managed to move the dial nearly far enough. Policy, political will and corporate support must match the technical advances that have been made in materials science. Closed loop design only works if the loop can, in fact, be closed.

In 2009, a team from MIT’s Senseable City lab tagged 3,000 pieces of garbage in Seattle with tracking chips. Then they charted the journeys of each item over a two-month span, creating a mesmerizing data visualization video set to Hayden’s “Farewell Symphony.” An impressive 75% + found its way to a recycling facility and 95% was processed near the metro area. Those encouraging  numbers, however, may reflect skews specific to Seattle’s garbage / recycling pick-up services, the 500 garbage-providing volunteers, or the types of garbage collected. E-waste, for example, traveled an an average of nearly a 1,000 miles, adding a sizable carbon footprint to the process.

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Imagine if every major metro area developed a “garbage profile” to help pinpoint areas for improvement? The “feel-good” of recycling coupled with hard data to drive innovation: “Farewell Symphony”? Meet “Hello Dolly”!

It’s either that or a more “Plastic State of Mind”:

LYRICS
Shoulda brought your own bag
Yeah but you forgot it though
You were busy dreamin of ice cream and
all that cookie dough

Your life is wrapped in plastic
Convenience is your motto
But plastic addiction’s worse
than they want you to know

BP’s oil spill
Almost like we did it –
We use one million grocery-bags
every single minute

Recycling them’s a joke yo
That baggie don’t go anywhere
It turns to little pieces
and then it spreads over everywhere

Into your food supply
Into your blood supply
Not to mention birds and fish and
Cuties you don’t wanna die

Just look at baby Sammy
Dioxins in its milky way,
cuz even her breast milk it’s got
PCB and BPA

OK now you get it
How you gonna stop it though
Banning Single Use Plastic Bags
is the way to go!

Join other states and cities
Kick the nasty habit
Tell your representatives
Ban single-use bags made from plastic…

RELATED ARTICLES / RESOURCES:

The Nuke Factor: How to Make Disasters Worse and the Implications for Humanitarian Aid

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On 400+ aging nuclear reactors, quake-prone countries, food chains, trade networks and what this means for first responders and social entrepreneurs

TrackerNews link suite on the Japanese nuclear disaster. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

Let’s get right to the point: What happens the next time a nuclear reactor goes rogue in the wake of a natural disaster? Japan is a worst case scenario in a best case place.

But what if the earth were to quake in Iran, China, Italy or Turkey—all of which are pursuing nuclear-fueled futures? Or Pakistan, where the IEAE  and US just gave their respective stamps of approval for two new Chinese-built plants? Each of those seismically-rocking countries floats precariously at (tectonic) plates’ edge. In fact, one of two reactors planned for Turkey is just a few miles from a major fault line.

The assurances of political leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are somehow less than reassuring: “I don’t think there will be any serious problem…The security standards there are the standards of today. We have to take into account that the Japanese nuclear plants were built 40 years ago with the standards of yesterday.”

Forty years may seem like an eternity to a politician, but is, in fact, a blink in a time-scale defined by nuclear radiation (see Chernobyl). Inspections have a way of getting missed (see Japan). Human error happens (see Three Mile Island).

In the meantime, major earthquakes striking all of these countries sometime over the projected lifespans of their reactors is a sure thing.

Beyond the issues of nuclear waste storage, the almost inevitable black market trade and surreptitious weapons programs, what happens when the “sure thing” meets the big risk? How does one keep radioactive fall-out from contaminating emergency food rations? Or find safe water? What happens when those best able to help are put in mortal danger if they try?

Is this the kind of border even doctors won’t cross?

No matter. The radiation will eventually come to them, traveling first through food chains, then trade networks. Some produce is already showing levels of radiation several times accepted limits, though authorities insist it is still safe. So far, the milk supply remains uncontaminated. But according the WHO, Japan is a big exporter of baby formula and powdered milk to China and the US. As the crisis drags on and radioactive particles work their way into cattle pastures, that could change.

In short, bad gets worse—much worse—once nuclear is part of the equation.

WAKE UP CALL

The tragedy in Japan should be a wake up call to NGOs, social entrepreneurs and all those working, as they say, “for positive change.” The nuclear issue is not an abstraction to be relegated to politicians, engineers and lobbyists. This threatens your work, potentially reversing years of hard-fought economic gains in poor countries and undoing decades-worth of global public health efforts. This isn’t just about regional clusters of radiation-related illnesses, but also of the loss of infrastructure for disease surveillance and drug distribution that would tip the balance in favor of infectious diseases outbreaks and pandemics.

Finally, the thorniest of ethical questions:  Who makes the call to send staff into disaster zones so dangerous that not only is personal health at risk, but that of future offspring as well? (As a 1950s military film put it: “the ultimate symptom, death itself”)

With more than 400 reactors spread across the globe—many now nearing their “sold-by” date—the next Japan is more a matter of when, not if. Power plants, of course, are not designed as weapons, but that doesn’t make their  fall-out any less lethal.

Humanitarian aid workers: Are you ready?

Global earthquake activity since 1973 and nuclear power plant locations (click through to map web page)

* Addendum 3/31/11:

Hospitals and temporary refuges are demanding that evacuees provide them with certificates confirming that they have not been exposed to radiation before they are admitted….

…The eight-year-old daughter of Takayuki Okamura was refused treatment for a skin rash by a clinic in Fukushima City, where the family is living in a shelter after abandoning their home in Minamisoma, 18 miles from the crippled nuclear plant….

…Prejudice against people who used to live near the plant is reminiscent of the ostracism that survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 experienced. Many suffered discrimination when they tried to rent housing, find employment or marriage partners…

—”Japan nuclear crisis: evacuees turned away from shelters” / The Telegraph

Discrimination based not on race, creed or color, but on a cruel twist of geographic fate: simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It is tragedy compounded, reverberating through generations.

Perhaps we need to add a “futures wrecked” column to graphs purporting to show the comparative benignness of nuclear energy versus that produced by coal and oil. It is a lobbyist’s argument, telling a truth, but not the whole truth.

The whole truth? All of these energy sources are fraught in the present and threaten the future. A warming earth with rising seas and wilder weather will send millions of climate refugees fleeing to higher, safer ground—human migrations on a scale unimaginable.

Radioactive refugees have nowhere to go.

We need to get beyond this devil’s choice fast, to invest in renewables at every scale, macro to micro (e.g., micro-wind). We—as in “We the people,” as in our governments—need to support research and innovation and help ideas scale for practical, commercial use.

One the few hopeful stories this past week was the announcement of an “artificial leaf” that can create energy from photosynthesis. MIT professor Daniel Nocera has been working on ways that essentially cut out the middleman in energy generation. Unlike coal and oil, which are fossilized sunlight—energy banked in the past—or nuclear power, which requires vast investment to tap, Nocera’s inexpensive playing card-size solar chip can harvest enough energy from a gallon of water—stored in a small fuel cell—to power a home in a developing country for a day. The water doesn’t even have to be all that clean, either.

The latest version of Nocera’s technology is of commercial interest because, by integrating the catalyst with the chips, it dispenses with the need for traditional solar panels. That, he says, will cut costs considerably, by eliminating wires, etc. “The price of the silicon of a solar panel isn’t much,” he says. “A lot of the cost is the wiring. What this does is get rid of all that.”

“The real goal here,” he adds, “is giving energy to the poor” – especially, he notes, in rural Africa, India, and China.

Even better, he adds, the device doesn’t need ultrapure water. “You can use nature water sources, which is a big deal in parts of the world where it’s costly to have to use pure water.”

MIT scientist announces first “practical” artificial leaf / Nature

Recently, Tata Group, an international conglomerate best known as India’s largest automaker, invested $9.5 million in Nocera’s company, Sun Catalytix.

Follow the money. The smart money.

(video: Daniel Nocera explains personalized power / Poptech / 1 of 2)

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Green Circle: Redefining the Extractive Economy—TrackerNews.net Link Suite Overview

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Recycling isn’t just sorting the trash for garbage pick-up any more. A new generation of designers, entrepreneurs and activists is coming up with all kind of clever ways to connect seemingly disparate supply chains, turn expense into profit and redefine the “extractive economy” through a mix of biomimicry and circular thinking.

“Green Circle” – New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

The ancient alchemists aimed low, merely attempting to turn lead into gold for personal gain. The real magic, according to the chemists at start-up Micromidas , may be both muckier and microbial: turning sludge into bio-degradable plastic. If they are right, and their scheme scales commercially, it will be a win for everyone. What was once a problem will be transformed into an asset as a (literal) waste stream becomes a valuable feedstock. What was a  municipal cost will become a source of municipal income. And throw-away products made from eco-friendly plastic will, actually, go away, decomposing into environmentally compatible parts, instead of swirling into eternity in middle-of-the-ocean gyres.

It is a radical re-think of the “extractive economy,” notes Ryan Smith, Micromidas’ CTO. After a few centuries of hauling finite resources—from fossil fuels to rare earth minerals—out of the ground, we have enough on the surface to keep us going, and in fairly good style, but only if we refocus our collective tech smarts and investment dollars on mining garbage.

Drilling for oil and refining it into a form that can be used to make a plastic bottle, for example,  is a long, complicated giant-carbon-footprint process. When the bottle is tossed, the energy embedded in its manufacture is lost as well.

Architect William McDonough’s paradigm of “cradle to cradle” (C2C) design, which calls for products to be developed with recycling in mind, is subtly shifting towards what’s being called the “circular economy.” This is biomimicry nested into systems thinking and goes beyond the C2C mantra of “waste = food.” It is about  transformation, creative re-use and discovering unintended possibilities (or, to put it in evolutionary biology terms, “exaptations”**– traits evolved for one set of needs that come in handy for something completely different).

From Terracycle, an “upcycling” company that turns juice pouches into pop culture-stylish backpacks and sells worm poop fertilizer in re-used plastic bottles, to Recycle Match, whose founder refers to the company as the “eBay of garbage,” the focus is on keeping as much as possible from needlessly ending up in landfills.

Likewise, Oregon-based clothing manufacturer Looptworks, creates limited edition fashion lines from high-quality “pre-consumer” waste, a.k.a. surplus fabric that mills and manufactures otherwise simply discard. Nearly 12 billion pounds of textile waste is produced annually just in the U.S.—much of it destined for landfills. They have rejiggered the traditional fashion business model by creating smaller runs that require less lead time (a couple of months versus a year, or more), sourcing great fabrics at bargain prices and streamlining the distribution network, using the internet both for direct sales and developing a national retail network. Lower labor, material and distribution costs drop straight to the bottom line.

Ecovative Design wants to keep styrofoam out of landfills, not by re-using it, but replacing it with a product whose production itself diverts would-be agricultural waste streams from landfills. Founder Eben Bayer and his team developed a process that infuses crop byproducts packed into special molds with mushroom mycelium. In less than a week, the mycelium consume the ag waste, creating a sturdy biodegradable polymer in whatever shape the mold happened to be. Instead of throwing away packing materials, consumers can compost them for their gardens. Even if the material ends up in a landfill, it will break down quickly, unlike styrene, which can last for millennia. Also, because the “mycobond” process requires comparatively little investment in machinery—the fungus does most of the heavy-lifting—and can be adapted for a broad range of ag waste material, it lends itself for a distributed production network. That means yet another level of carbon-footprint savings shipping product over shorter distances.

The wisdom of the (scrap metal) grasshopper / Edouard Martinet

Perhaps the most poetic example of “upcycling” in the TrackerNews link suite is Edouard Martinet’s stunningly intricate scrap metal sculputures. Cutlery, bicycle parts  and office machine components are turned into spot-on grasshoppers, fish, frogs and birds. The sleight-of-junk is even more impressive in that the parts aren’t soldered together,  but selected: pieces for extravagantly intricate puzzles. An exaptation mash-up at the art gallery. Calling Edward Scissorhands

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Additional links on:
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All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

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CALLING ALL DESIGNERS, DIY’ers & CLEVER FOLK IN GENERAL: TWO GREAT COMPETITIONS

  • Win two free tickets to Compostmodern! (Really, who can resist a conference with such a great name?) All you need to do is rescue something garbage-bound and design a genuinely useful reincarnation for it. Entries for the GOOD magazine-sponsored competition must be submitted by December 20, 2010. The San Francisco-based conference, organized by the local AIGA chapter, takes place on January 22-23.

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* Micromidas’ website is currently being upgraded. Contact information: rsmith (@) micromidas (dot) com.

** Can exaptations apply to ideas? Yes, yes, yes, according to Steven Johnson, who devotes an entire chapter to it in his terrific new book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”

And Now for Some Good News—Really

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At TrackerNews, we have long mulled adding a tagline to our masthead: “One Damn Thing After Another…” But every now and again, we come across stories that gives us hope. The tale of “Greenfreeze” refrigeration technology is one them: a better, more energy efficient answer to cooling and a successful environmental / industry collaboration. Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics operation in Milwaukee, is another one of our favorites—one we have been following closely for nearly a year and a half.  —Ed.

“When we ring the siren, at some point we do bring the ambulance,” says Amy Larkin, director of Greenpeace Solutions, the environmental organization’s lesser-known division that works with industry to find and implement climate-friendlier answers. We recently caught up with Larkin, and her colleague, engineer Claudette Juska, after they taped an NPR Worldview interview here in Chicago. Their focus: F-gases, a.k.a. “the worst greenhouse gases you’ve never heard of.”

If you have ever used a refrigerator, flicked on an air-conditioner or strolled the freezer aisle in a grocery store in the U.S., you are guilty-by-unavoidable-association of helping to warm the world through F-gas-driven cooling.

It is a very big deal. F-gases account for 17% of the world’s global warming impact, says Larkin. “That’s not annual emissions. That’s cumulative impact.” In other words, they tend to hang around in the atmosphere. The story gets even more jaw-dropping when when you learn that not only are there alternatives, but they been tested and used by hundreds of millions of people in other countries for the last 20 years.

What gives?

In 1992, F-gases called CFCs—chlorofluorocarbons—were banned by the Montreal Protocol after it was discovered that they had punched a hole on the planet’s ozone layer. The chemical industry’s alternative? HFCs—hydroflurocarbons. Although these don’t harm the ozone layer, they still have the “F”—fluorine—a potent greenhouse gas.

Never ones to sit on their hands, in 1993, Greenpeace activists in Germany set about getting a prototype refrigerator built to prove there was another way around the problem using “natural refrigerants” such as isobutane. Then they tried to drum up some interest from manufacturers. Nada. Remarkably undaunted, they then pre-sold 70,000 non-existent refrigerators. As Larkin notes, this was way before Facebook and Twitter were even a glimmer on the cyber-horizon (indeed, Mark Zuckerberg was still in diapers…). Greenpeace went back to the manufacturer of the prototype, who was now happy beyond happy to ramp up a production line. The technology was open-sourced, so now all the major manufacturers make them, too.

Today, hundreds of millions of “Greenfreeze” refrigerators have been sold. Although comparable in cost to HFC models, they are much more efficient, so cheaper to run, too. Still, they remain illegal in the U.S. “The natural refrigerants do not have lobbyists,” explains Larkin. “The chemical industry does.”

But the rules may change soon, due in large part to Greenpeace-mediated industry pressure. Coca-Cola, Unilever, McDonald’s, Carlsbad Group and Pepsico banded together with Greenpeace and UNEP to form Refrigerants, Naturally!, to promote the use of climate-friendlier technologies, including regulatory and political frameworks to encourage investment.

Wal-Mart is also sold on the technology, even making improvements improvements and sharing its data. After electricity, refrigeration and cooling rank #2 on the company’s carbon footprint list. Says Larkin:

Large businesses like to have certainty, like to plan, like to see where they’re going to make a profit, like to see where they’re going to get hammered, like to see the regulation down the road and if they can, avoid a regulatory problem or a big, costly mess that they didn’t anticipate… (If they can make) a product that is more efficient, less costly in terms of energy for themselves or their customers, generally, they will be on our side.

…Part of the reason that businesses like to share this is that when all of the retailers and all of the ice-cream makers transfer their technology at the same time, you can achieve economies of scale.

The EPA and Underwriters Laboratory are currently reviewing safety issues—natural refrigerants are flammable—but given the global track record, it is possible that the first consumer Greenfreeze refrigerators will be available in the U.S. sometime in 2011. And that’s just plain cool.

NOW, WHAT TO PUT IN THE FRIDGE….

Another of our favorite stories here at TrackerNews is fast becoming a favorite story with everybody: Sweet Water Organics, the Milwaukee-based aquaponics start-up inspired by Will Allen’s urban agriculture work. They were recently featured in the New York Times (“Fish Farms, with a Side of Greens”) and on NBC’s Nightly News:

Although some of the facts have gotten a bit sanded for TV—this is not yet a completely closed loop system, but getting there, which is what’s exciting—the progress over the last 16 months has been nothing short of astonishing. When we first walked into the Sweet Water warehouse, just a few blocks from the expressway on the southwest side of town, it was empty, save for three newly-dug fish “raceways,” water burbling away, waiting to be stocked and some wooden structures holding a few dozen basil plants.

Today, every surface is bursting with life. The crops—mostly lettuce—are thriving, as are fish, by the tens of thousands. Staff and volunteers bustle about, while a steady stream of visitors tour the operation, eyes wide, taking notes. The learning curve has been both steep and, delightfully, endless. Tilapia are being phased out in favor of perch, which turn out to be more in tune with Wisconsin palates. New filters and bubblers are being tested to reduce sediment levels, while keeping water a nice perch-preferred degree of murky. Hoop houses are under construction in the courtyard. New vertical planting pots are being put through their paces. Even mulch has gone artisanal in this unique workshop / lab.

There is a palpable sense that something important and potentially world-changing is happening here. It is a story we will continue to follow closely. Stay tuned…

Nature as Nurture: A Paradigm Shift at TEDxMidwest & Our Place in the Greater Scheme of Things

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On humans as animals, the dawn of the anthropocene, designing nature, nature-mediated design, culturally smart rainforest restoration, doing right by orangutans and energy positive skyscrapers

Go Meave Leakey! With the addition of a single word tucked into a sprightly 6-million-year time-travelogue of our species’ history, the reigning matriarch of archeology’s most famous family blithely breezed past the troublesome—and artificial—division between man and nature: “Homo sapiens and other animals…,” said Leakey.  Not man and beast, but man as a beast, too. Which isn’t to say we are not unique. Noted Leakey, “We are the only species capable of destroying the biosphere,” which may very well be the most dubious distinction ever.

This shift away from an “us versus them” mindset emerged as a subtle but important theme at the recent TEDxMidwest conference in Chicago. From design and architecture, to conservation and reforestation, a new paradigm is emerging, one that offers genuine hope for slowing climate change, biodiversity loss and even improving health care.

Leakey’s casual comment may not have seemed all that radical, but it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Look up the word “zoonosis” and you will learn it is an animal disease that can also affect humans. By implication, then, humans are not animals. This is what every doctor is taught.

The arrogance of the definition regularly comes back to bite us—sometimes literally. Nearly 2/3’s of human maladies are zoonotic, including ebola, SARS, influenza, plague, cowpox and West Nile virus. Yet despite countless “teachable moments” over the last several years, budgets and databases, along with veterinarians and doctors, remain largely segregated. Score one for the pathogens…

NATURE AS NURTURE

Our connections to the environment are likewise profound, sometimes arching over eons. “The oxygen exhaled by stromatolites is what we all breathe today,” explained photographer Frans Lanting, during the first talk of the conference, a presentation of his famous Philip Glass-scored slideshow,  “LIFE: A Journey Through Time.”

So no stromatolites, no us.

Lanting spent seven globe-trotting years, seeking out scenes true to Earth’s earliest history and evolution for his photographs. Three billion years ago, curious little stump-like structures created from massive colonies of cyanobacteria—stomatolites—ruled the world. Today, the last remaining “living fossils”  are found only off the coast of Australia. Since they flourished before “before the sky was blue,”  Lanting photographed them in twilight.

Stromatolites / "LIFE: A Journey Through Time" / Frans Lanting

BY DESIGN

Fast forward to the present and humans have bumped the stumps off the pedestal of champion planetary engineers. You would have to look far beneath the surface to underground lakes, deep sea thermal-vent ecosystems and Verne-imagined center-of-the-earthscapes to find somewhat pristine wilderness. Even there, though, since the weight of rising sea levels caused by man-mediated climate change has altered pressures along geological fault-lines, our collective carbon footprint can be felt.

The holocene era, according to a growing cadre of scientists, has given way to the anthropocene, a new geological age defined by human impact on the world’s ecosystems. Maps charting “anthromes”—biomes that take human influence into account—reveal the extent and speed of our species’ global conquest. In a few short centuries, we have tilled, industrialized, deforested, drilled, paved and sprawled our way into just about every nook and cranny. Changing the world may be what we do best.

Maps shows human impact on the world's biomes / created by ecologists Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

For designer and TEDxMidwest speaker Bruce Mau, who has spent good deal of his career thinking about Massive Change, separating man from nature is absurd. “It’s not about control, but responsibility If we don’t openly design to nature, we destroy it.”  So far, we seem to be leaning heavily toward the latter. However, and encouragingly, two other presenters offered templates that could, if not return us to Eden, at least help pull us back from the brink.

RAINFORESTS, APES (HAIRY & OTHERWISE) & ECOSYSTEMS THINKING

Willie Smits first wow’ed the TED crowd with a talk in 2009 outlining a scheme to rebuild Indonesian rainforests using the sugar palm: a prodigious sap-producer that thrives on degraded land and only grows in polycultures:

  • Unlike the oil palm, which lends itself to vast plantations that shred biodiversity and produce only palm oil, a sugar palm-based polyculture produces dozens of forest products, from ethanol and fruit, to sugar and wood.
  • Oil palms require fertilizers and pesticides. Sugar palm polycultures enrich and stabilize land.
  • Rainforests burned to make way for oil palms have bumped tiny un-industrialized Borneo to the #3 spot for global CO2 emissions. Planting sugar palms can re-start the “rain machine,” promoting cloud formation and cooling.
  • Run-off from oil palm plantations fouls watersheds and contributes to flooding. Sugar palm polycultures soak up heavy rains and help keep watersheds healthy.
  • Oil palm plantations mean the extinction of orangutans and almost every other native forest inhabitant. Sugar palm polycultures are about stability through complexity. The more, the merrier, bio-wise.
  • Sugar palm polycultures produce more jobs than monoculture oil palm plantations

That last point is key. “The real issue is how to make it useful for people,” noted Smits. The sugar palm juice must be tapped daily, a labor-intensive proposition, which means steady jobs. The polyculture “recipe”—a plan for what to plant where and when, tweaked for specific sites—is designed to include food crops, which are especially important in the early years before the sugar palms start producing. The cascade of harvests starts quickly.

Willie Smits and orangutan orphans

Smits developed techniques to keep the fast-fermenting sugar palm juice stable for 24 hours and designed a processing plant that can be packed into three containers, flown into the jungle via helicopter and set up with almost “plug’n’play” ease. Once a village commits to the plan, it is fairly straightforward to jump-start resilient, eco-friendly economic development.

This is as much a jobs program as it is a reforestation project, and a way to help save our red primate cousins. It is about helping people where they live, rather than forcing them to uproot and become economic migrants competing for work in ever-expanding cities. The human cultural component is an integral part of habitat restoration.

BIOMIMICRY AND BIG TALL BUILDINGS

While Smits focuses on finding village-level answers in the rainforest, Chicago-based architect Gordon Gill seeks to “green” cities by reimagining the quintessential nature-defying structure: the skyscraper. A whopping 70% of greenhouse gas emissions are building-related, so it is a promising area for serious move-the-dial improvement. Rather than simply try to reduce a building’s carbon footprint, however, Gill would like to see it disappear altogether. Better yet, he wants buildings to go net positive, generating more energy than they consume.

No longer does form follow function. Gill has updated Louis Sullivan’s famous dictum for the 21st century: Now form follows performance, driven by a “synthesis of nature and technology.”

The 71-story Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China, set to open next year, generates its own energy through wind turbines integrated into the building’s structure. The design funnels air into the turbines, serendipitously lightening the load, saving enough money to cover construction costs of half a dozen stories. Vertical solar panels accent east and west-facing facades. Everything about the building relates to its environmental context. It is literally shaped by forces we cannot see.

Pearl River Tower, designed by Gordon Gill for Skidmore Owings & Merrill

The massive Masdar Headquarters project in Abu Dhabi is 103% efficient, mining sun and wind energy and recycling water on site.

The Federation of Korean Industries Tower in Seoul, which just broke ground, sports an accordion-style glass facade, with solar panels angled up to the sun and windows angled down to improve thermal efficiency.

Federation of Korean Industries, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, architects

Closer to home, Gill’s firm, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, developed the Chicago Central Area Decarbonization Plan, which promotes retrofits of older buildings and redirecting surplus energy back to the grid. According to their estimates, retrofitting half the commercial and residential buildings over the next 10 years could cut the city’s energy use by a third. Retrofitting the 10 largest buildings in the Loop could cut downtown emissions by 10%.

Gill’s firm itself is set to take on the largest green retrofit project in the city, or indeed, anywhere, ever: Willis (nee Sears) Tower. The estimated $200-to- $300 million project includes replacing 16,000 windows, installing more efficient lighting and plumbing systems and planting some experimental green roofs. The payback is expected to take 26 years, but enough energy will be saved to cover the needs of a proposed high-rise hotel to be built next door.

Willis (Sears) Tower retrofit: rendering with proposed hotel, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill architects

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It is liberating, empowering and deeply inspiring to see what a dramatic difference a shift in perspective can make: We are part of a greater whole, not the lords of all we survey. By finding ways to work with nature and understanding ourselves as a part of nature, there may yet be a way to turn things around. There is no time to lose.

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