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 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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More Incentive to Clean Up the Gulf: The X Prize Foundation Announces the Wendy Schmidt Oil Clean-up X Challenge

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Idea first floated at the TEDxOilSpill conference by Francis Belland of the X Prize Foundation and David Gallo of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute becomes real.

Since the BP gusher started spewing millions of gallons of crude oil and methane into the Gulf of Mexico more that three months ago, there have other high profile spills, including one of China’s largest, near the city of Dalian, that created a 170 mile slick. Closer to my home in Chicago, a pipeline break released over 800,000 gallons into western Michigan’s Kalamazoo river, which flows into Lake Michigan.

Last year, Australia took a one-two punch, first with a tanker spill that fouled 40 miles of Queensland’s coast, then an oil rig blow-out eerily similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In Nigeria, oil spills have become such an every day nightmare – an estimated 7,000 between 1970 and 2000 – that the tally is measured in units of “Exxon Valdez” (over 50 and still counting).

Clearly, if you drill, it will spill. Although the X Prize Foundation’s Oil Clean-up Challenge was developed in response to the mess in the Gulf, its importance goes far beyond our local oily waters. “The oil industry has focused on,”How do you drill deeper, further, more efficiently. Little money has actually been spent so far on “How do you clean it up properly?’, ” notes Peter Diamandis,  X Prize CEO.

With $1.4 million in incentive prizes provided by the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Challenge is designed to wrap up next summer, with demonstrations of the promising technologies at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility (OHMSETT) in Leonardo, New Jersey.

RELATED READING:

“Introducing the Oil Clean-up Challenge,” by Wendy Schmidt, Huffington Post

“TEDxOilSpill: Surface Slicks, Deep Water Despair, Galaxies of Oil Platforms and Why We Really, Truly, Don’t Need Oil” by J.A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews Editor’s Blog

When in Roma…On the Way to the Piazza Navona: China, Africa & The Lessons of Leonardo

Dark hair, dark eyes, black jeans, scarf just so, slightly dissatisfied expression and a brisk pace that makes it look like you know where you’re going: Expect to be asked for directions early and often on the streets of Rome.

As long as I kept the dialog to “buon giorno,” “uno” (when pointing to a particularly remarkable pastry), “grazie” (when buying said pastry) and “sera” (turns out “buona” is optional), the illusion was perfect. I was Roman. So what if I had only the sketchiest of mental maps of the city and came across the Trevi Fountain by chance? Or that my  concrete-coddled American legs were no match for the Eternal City’s infernal paving stones? I was Roman enough to have paid my respects at Julius Caesar’s surprisingly humble tomb at the Forum:

In ricordo della Idi di marzo

Still, two or three times a day, someone would burst my bubble with a babble of Italian, forcing me to admit that I was but a clueless American, likely more lost than they. That was until I met the undaunted Eva, who replied that she was Dutch and spoke English. She  asked one of the few questions for which I actually had an answer: “Do you know the way to the Piazza Navona?” “Si, si! Just heading that way myself…”

Built on the site of a first century stadium, the piazza is a long irregular oval, punctuated by three fabulous fountains and filled with artists of varying talent doing their best to sell paintings. On one side sits a massive 17th century basilica built above the tomb of St. Agnes, not far from the brothel where she was martyred 1,700 years ago (Sant’Agnese in Agone). On the other, a row of so-so restaurants offering better view than food. A rotating cast of “living statues” rounds out the regulars, including the inevitable King Tut (I must have seen 8 of them working various piazzas). The afterlife, it turns out, is funded by tourists.

Another day, another euro: Morning on the Piazza Navona - King Tut suiting up and The Headless Man waiting for tourists...

Into this delicious mix of past, present, saints, sinners, art and artifice, Eva and I strolled as dusk dimmed and the piazza’s evening crowd began to gather. She was a somewhat frustrated international studies grad student who had found a program in Rome that—unlike others closer to home—hadn’t been fussy about her bachelor’s degree in psychology. It was a deficiency they felt she could overcome. Continue reading

Free Press?

121908freepress4002Last night, I posted a record 12 links on a single topic on TrackerNews: a dozen stories from around the world about efforts to thwart a free press. I could easily have posted more. Here is what made the cut:

Critics warned the loose wording will give authorities ample leeway to prosecute those who cooperate with international rights groups.

Under current treason statutes, some NGOs are not considered “foreign organizations,” meaning a person who passes a state secret to an NGO might not be considered a traitor.

Some of Russia’s most prominent right activists, including Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Civic Assistance director Svetlana Gannushkina, said the bill in fact gives authorities the power to prosecute anyone deemed to have “harmed the security of the Russian Federation.”

It is “legislation in the spirit of Stalin and Hitler,” the activists said in a joint statement — legislation that “returns the Russian justice to the times of 1920-1950s.”

  • “Online and in Jail” –  the snappy headline from an article summarizing a new Committee to Protect Journalists report that found 45% of all “media workers” jailed in 2008 were web-based.

“Online journalism has changed the media landscape and the way we communicate with each other,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “But the power and influence of this new generation of online journalists has captured the attention of repressive governments around the world, and they have accelerated their counterattack.”

Continue reading