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.


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 Future? Fossil Fuels Are So…Yesterday: On Post-Oil Possiblities, TEDxOilSpill, Amory Lovins, Reinventing Fire & Small People Power

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"Burning oil on the Gulf of Mexico," from the TEDxOilSpill expedition, June, 2010, photo credit: James Duncan Davidson; For more information on June 28 event: http://www.TEDxOilSpill.com

Despite my general rule that once a day is designated for a cause, the cause is likely lost (or at least in serious trouble), I found myself rooting mightily last Saturday for Solarday. Missed it? It is only in its second year, but with global aspirations and the power of the sun on its side.

The power of new sun that is, not the fossil kind captured by plants millions of years ago and transformed into oil, coal and gas. Old sun is best left underground, underwater, under salt seals, in mountains and far, far away from tail pipes and smokestacks. Old sun warms the Earth in all the wrong ways. New sun offers a way out of Dodge.

The “teachable moment” in the Gulf, now stretching into its third month and threatening to stretch for years, frames the debate in the starkest of terms: oils spills versus sun spills. Which one would you prefer to soak up?

We have loads of clean / cleaner energy options beyond solar (photovoltaic, water heating):

  • wind power (macro and micro)

Every week journals burst burst with news on ever-niftier applications for existing technologies (the solar light bulb) and breakthrough improvements, such as MIT professor Daniel Nocera’s efforts to biomimick photosynthesis for “personalized energy,” all the while improving water use and quality:

Energy start-up Sun Catalytix aims to scale up Nocera’s work in the lab for real-world application.


As Nocera points out, unless we get a hold of demand, energy supply is always going to be a game of catch-up – as it is for resources of every kind. Casting the issue in terms of per capita usage actually provides a perverse incentive for over-population.

Rather, the question isn’t how to most equitably divvy up a finite fossil fuel pie, but how much energy is needed for people to live happy, healthy, productive, environmentally-compatible lives.

The education of women in developing countries, which has been shown to correlate to family-planning, along with easier access to contraceptives, are key for a successful global energy strategy.

Business-as-usual means that “every three years, a new Saudi Arabia needs to be discovered and exploited just to maintain the level of output,” according to Antony Froggatt, a senior research fellow at British think tank, Chatham House and co-author on a new report co-produced with insurance giant Lloyd’s of London on business-smart energy strategies: Sustainable Energy Security: Strategic Risks and Opportunities for Business.

Global energy use is expected to climb a staggering 40% over the next two decades. Even if there were no risks or downsides to deep water drilling and tar sand mining, this would be a tall order to fill. “In an energy insecure world, resilience is an absolutely key function,” says Froggatt.

So how do we put more “bounce” back in the system?  Clearly not by continuing to pour money into vulnerable pipelines, pirate-friendly tanker ships, inefficient central power generation plants, “dumb” grids and top-down one-size-fits-all answers driving an ever-depressing downward spiral, greased by oil spills.

How do we transition to the dazzling variety of better technologies that are either already on the shelf or on the near-term horizon? This is a business and logistics question, not a technical question (which is not to say that substantial and steady R&D funding isn’t required – it most definitely is).

If the Chatham House report is right, things will start to get really dicey by 2013, when China’s domestic oil production is expected to peak and competition for global supplies becomes even more fierce.


Few people have been as tenaciously focused on saving the world from its fossil fuel addiction as Amory Lovins, chief scientist and cofounder of the Colorado-based “think and do tank,” Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). For over 30 years, Lovins, a geek’s geek, has relentlessly and with trademark statistic-laced cheer, shown how saving energy is almost always cheaper than generating it (“negawatts” and “negabarrels”) and how thoughtful design can translate, often immediately, to the bottom line.

When Detroit declared that cars were as efficient as they were ever going to be, Lovins set about reinventing the auto as a “Hypercar,” experimenting with carbon-composite plastics (light-weighting and saves on “paint shop” costs), LED lights, hydrogen fuel cells, better insulation to cut A/C needs and low drag design.  While the team was at it, they did away with the steering wheel in favor of joystick, too. Voila! 100 mpg.  Many of the technologies (though, so far, not the joystick) have been adopted by major manufacturers (video).

Green building design has always been a central part of the RMI’s work, starting with Lovins’ own home, The Banana Farm, nestled in the Rockies of Snowmass, CO. The most ambitious project so far: a $13.2 million retrofit of the Empire State Building, designed to save just under $4 million in energy costs per year.

As impressive as these projects are, they are the warm up for what may very well be Lovins’ masterwork: Reinventing Fire. RF, a new research initiative just getting underway,  builds on work from an earlier project, “Winning the Oil Endgame,” a business-driven road map for weaning the U.S. off oil by 2050. Lovins explains in this TED talk from 2005:

For Reinventing Fire, once again Business is targeted as the engine of change, with competitive edge as the carrot motivating Business. CO2 and pollution reduction are almost incidental benefits. Rather, RF aims to make virtuous circles possible: Do the right thing and all kinds of good things follow.

With the clear-headed cunning that comes from decades at the front lines, the RMI team has carefully chosen its battles:

In the web of interconnections spanning how energy is produced, transported, distributed and used, all the points along the way are fair game for intervention. But decades of research into how energy moves from fossil-fuel sources to uses have revealed key leverage points in four sectors: transportation, buildings, industry and electricity.

Although RF’s focus is on the U.S., the lessons can be applied anywhere and everywhere. The good news only gets better.


There is no need for the rest of us to wait on the sidelines while Business gets its profit-priorities in gear. Plenty of revolutions – maybe most – start with “the small people,” as English-as-a-second-language-challenged BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg dubbed us.

In addition to seeking out energy-smart products, insulating our homes and lobbying for more and better public transportation options, we can begin to think more about what we eat and where it comes from.

Much of what appears an America’s dinner plates took thousands of miles to get there. Calves born in Florida might be “finished” in a feedlot in Nebraska and shipped as hamburger to a grocery story in Illinois. Fresh fruits and vegetables are no longer about the bounty of season, but flight logistics. The loss of shrimping in the Gulf from the oil spill doesn’t only mean lost jobs, it means more imports from overseas.

From running farm machinery, to inputs for pesticides and herbicides and, of course, shipping, an enormous amount of fossil fuel goes into food. It is time we put a fork in it: “Small people for locally or regionally-produced food!” If we can up the percentage to just 25% of our collective plate, not only would it force a change in production logistics, but we would be healthier for our efforts. A lot of vitamins get lost in transit…

The urban agriculture movement, which puts farms in the middle of cities, shortens the loop about as much as it can be shortened. As pioneered by MacArthur fellow Will Allen at Milwaukee- based Growing Power’s flagship farm, fish can be added to the harvest through a closed loop aquaponics set up where plants filter water while fish fertilize plants (see TrackerBlog post: “The Farm Next Door”).


In a recent interview with the New York Times, the wife of a Gulf coast oil worker spoke about her conflicting feelings between the need for  jobs right now and the high environmental costs of drilling.

“I mean, eventually we might figure out a way to switch over to something else for us to use for energy,” she said. “But is it going to be affordable for everybody?

If we remain loyal to oil, it is a sure thing that it will not be affordable for all. There is simply too much global competition, too much geopolitical risk and no deadline for “eventually.”

Jon Stewart / "The Daily Show": Presidents promising energy independence...

Imagine what the present would have looked like if Nixon (!) had delivered on his promise for energy independence by 1980. Or his successors been a bit more successful pushing green alternatives. What wars might have been averted? What industries would be creating jobs? What would Nigeria look like? And what hole in the ocean floor wouldn’t be gushing?

There is no time left for “eventually.” You want that better future back? Let’s go get it.


  • TEDxOilSpill: June 28, 2010 – livestreaming from Washington D.C.

Post COP15, Part 2: Five Ideas That Could Help Save the Climate (Really)

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On biomimicry and the answers right in front of us; Photosynthesis & personal power; Urban farming, tropical agroforestry and (eco)system modeling; A carbon negative idea with fertile perks; Population balance

Waiting for diplomats to resolve the global climate crisis may take so long, it won’t matter. So what do we do in the meantime?

At TrackerNews, we have highlighted all kinds of promising green energy ideas, from micro-wind and solar textiles to vast arrays of concentrated solar collectors and giant “sea snakes” harvesting wave energy.

We love them all and their heartening range of ingenuity and resourcefulness. But none of them – or even all of them taken together – can do much to move the global thermostat in the near term, especially without the political will and the investment that results to grow them to scale.

We began to wonder whether there were any ideas that could make a difference, that could actually help stabilize our feverish planet within a matter of years instead of decades. We found five – an encouraging start. Notably, all take their design cues from nature and offer multi-faceted benefits. Nature, notes Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Institute, relies on technologies that have been field tested for millions of years, the ultimate in iterative design. It works. Every time.



MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera says he can solve the world’s energy needs with a little bit water – and while he’s at it, make a dent in the water crisis. Although the most theoretical of the four ideas, Nocera’s breakthrough could lead to a quick and decisive global conversion to a hydrogen-based economy.

He began by calculating global energy needs past and future (best case and business-as-usual scenarios), comparing them with the most optimistic projections for energy generated from non-carbon sources (wind, solar, nuclear) and noting the physical limitations that prevent significant improvement in battery storage.  Disturbingly, even if we all did everything possible to minimize per capita energy consumption and the number of “capitas” was kept in check by educating poor women – the fastest way, according to Nocera, to reduce the birth rate, the future looks pretty gloomy.

In the hopes of rosying things up, he studied how plants make energy by splitting water molecules. For years researchers had focused on finding catalysts that could survive the process. Nocera noticed that nature didn’t bother, instead using catalysts that simply reassembled themselves. The system was “self-healing.” Then he came up with a way to do the same thing.

Within  “8.1254 years, ” Nocera envisions homes outfitted with solar panels tied into  inexpensive water-splitting systems (no pricey precious metals such as platinum required – common pvc pipe will do). The resulting hydrogen will be stored on site to take care of the home’s energy needs and recharge electric cars.  Each building will become its own power station, with no grid  – and no coal-powered central power stations – required. As a bonus, the catalyst is hardy enough to handle dirty water, so the system  can be set up almost anywhere. And if you reverse the process, reuniting hydrogen with oxygen, presto, clean water. Continue reading

TrackerNews and the Human Algorithm, PopTech, PopTracker and a Challenge

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At TrackerNews, our approach is a little different from most aggregators. While they focus either on the latest or most popular stories, we focus on context. Stories cycle through the site in groups to deliver  a more faceted experience: breaking news is paired with archived stories, research papers, blog posts, websites, book reviews, e-books – print, audio, video. Every link is researched, reviewed, summarized, curated. Stephen Baker, former BusinessWeek journalist and author of the The Numerati, summed up it best: “TrackerNews puts the human algorithm back in the equation.”

We are not opposed to automated news feeds. Indeed, we scour them all the time. But they tend to skew to the new and the popular. Likewise, search engines often have hidden skews, affecting the order in which links appear (sponsored links, deals with news organizations, SEO tricks, etc.). Thousands of links make come up in a Google search, but who ever goes beyond the second page? As Mies van der Rohe pithily noted, “Less is more.”

"TrackerNews" Screen Grab Slide Show

Over the last year, TrackerNews has covered everything from malaria, mapping and microfinance, to chemical spills, earthquakes, political protests, human trafficking, energy, lighting, mobile tech, logistics, floods, famines, urban farming, the bushmeat trade, rapid diagnostics, mental illness and global warming. Our searchable database, which also includes an extensive collections of resources, has swelled to 3,000+ links and is just beginning to get interesting. (see slide show)


PopTech 2009 Take-Aways: On Amateurs, Mining Cross-Disciplinary Gold, FLAP Bags, Science Fellows, $12 (well, $10) Computers, the Solar Hope, a Few Ideas for Next Year & Some Darn Fine Fiddling…

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poptechblogIt was a wonderful little bubble while it lasted. Getting up before dawn. Dressing in easy-to-peel layers for whatever the day might bring. Walking over to Boynton-McKay, a diner of rare perfection, where the wi-fi was as reliably good as the pancakes (a boon in connectivity-challenged Camden…) Ascending the stairs and more stairs of the town’s famous 19th century Opera House. A few minutes to mingle-navigate among tables of nibble-food before settling down for a morning of things worth thinking about.

But first, a little music. Logan Richardson’s soulful, playful, questioning sax riffs on “America the Beautiful” one day. Zoe Keating’s clear, deeply layered, architecturally precise, transcending cello pieces another. How lovely to start each day by not thinking. Just being. In the moment. Together. Brilliant.

And then it was off and running, from economics to education, urban decay to urban agriculture, environmental catastrophe to conservation hope, design theory to food design, cardboard robots to paper diagnostics, communications to comics, art to dance to music. To, to, to…

But as the last note of the Mark O’Connor-anchored jam session finale faded into festive applause and we trundled off in buses through the rainy dark to a cavernous transportation museum for one last party, the bubble had begun to weaken and thin. Faces, now familiar, circled by against an improbable backdrop of vintage automobiles, sci-fi bicycles and disconcertingly disembodied airplane parts.  A few final conversations and business cards. Some hugs and toasts. Promises to keep in touch, follow up, finish that thought. We stayed up until we couldn’t. By morning, the bubble was lost in the dazzling clarity of a New England fall day. One by one we left the the small town – Maine’s answer to Brigadoon – journeying back to the chaotic urgency of our daily lives. With each mile down the highway to Boston, and each minute in the sky back to Chicago, I could feel experiences recasting into memories, ready for sorting and analysis.


Throughout the conference, Michelle Riggen-Ransom, Rachel Barenblat, and Ethan Zuckerman were absolutely brilliant live-blogging the talks and I recommend reading their posts, along with Kristen Taylor’s, on the PopTech blog to get a more detailed view of goings on.

Among the overarching themes: the serendipity of the amateur and the common sense of a cross-disciplinary approach. In short, the easiest way to see outside the box is to be outside the box. Continue reading