Book Review – Eaarth

What is happening to the “Eaarth”? A question many are asking, including author Bill McKibben, as the summer brought us the worst drought in decades along with extreme heat. Many people would blame this on global climate change while others would argue that “global warming” and “weather” are actually two separate things. Well it is time we delve back into the discussion I began earlier this summer as part of my 2012 La Nina Reading List.

McKibben is a true believer in climate change, holds humans responsible and writes we’re dealing with a “spooky, erratic climate”. He writes that global warming is no longer a philosophical threat or a future threat, no longer a threat at all. It is reality. Because we no longer live on the same planet, argues McKibben, earth needs a new name: Eaarth.

The focus of his book is to turn back time, per se, to safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The “safe” level according to climatologist James Hansen, is 350 parts per million – a number we have surpassed and now hover around 390 parts per million. Throughout the book, Hansen explains why lowering levels of CO2 “will be extremely hard” but offers ways “we can try”.

Why do we need to do this? Because, argues McKibben, “…the earth has changed in profound ways, ways have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived. We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has- even if we don’t quite know it yet.”

One of the main issues he focuses on in the book is the need to replace the fossil fuel system. Other issues include the need to fix infrastructure and he posits that climate change will cause more resource wars and leave billions of people “climate change refugees”.

The book concludes with a discussion about ways to reduce impact with the main theme being things need to get smaller and less centralized. He also writes that we need to focus on maintenance not growth. In addition, McKibben writes we need global governments to have the courage to take a stand against climate change.

For those who are passionate about the environment, you know that McKibben is one of the best-known writers in the field. His latest book doesn’t disappoint – it is an interesting read. Yet he barely scratched the surface on outlining what needs to be done to live on the new Eaarth. Might that be the topic is his next book that he could call Eaarth 2.0?

Book Review – Last Summer at the Compound

This weekend I read the fiction book “Last Summer at the Compound,” by JH Bartlett.  The story takes place outside of Boston, near the aging Pilgrim nuclear power plant with the same design as Fukushima (the plant that was hit by the tsunami). Taking place a year after the Fukushima disaster, there are fears surmounting in the community and in one of the main characters that a disaster with the plant could take place, whether by accident or design. The book ends on Labor Day weekend, so I thought it was only fitting to review the book today.

The story chronicles a multi-generation family who spends each summer near the water at the family “compound”. This summer an unsettling change is in the air and the family begins to discuss whether to sell the property or hang on. One of the most vocal family members to sell is Sarah, who is worried the nuclear power plant will be attacked or have a severe accident. She is also concerned about the spent rods that have been stored near the plant with no where to go.

On the plus side, the author does a good job of laying out the pros and cons of nuclear energy through the characters. Also through her characters she brings up the need for renewable energy and the ongoing wars that have taken place around the world for oil as well as environmental concerns as reasons to support clean energy.

On the negative side, I felt that the characters’ voices weren’t authentic enough and the end of the book was unfulfilled. I also felt like there were many missed opportunities to really explore nuclear energy and various plot lines. The story was more of a novella and it missed the opportunity to be a novel with a true, in-depth exploration of both nuclear power and family dynamics.

Movie Review – Carbon Nation

I took a brief break from my 2012 La Nina Reading list to watch a documentary on climate change.  Carbon Nation touts itself as a “climate change solutions movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change.” Yet this movie does care about climate change.  The narrator says, “We thought we had time to figure things out. Trouble is there is no more time. Climate change is happening now.”

The movie features many of the same players and same technologies as other films – Lester Brown, Van Jones (who just released Rebuild the Dream, which I will be reviewing soon), Amory Lovins, and Thomas Friedman.  In terms of technologies, it covers wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, and it also has sections that discuss land use, deforestation, transportation, and energy efficiency.

The movie was well done, interesting and had great graphics. In addition, I really liked some of the people who were interviewed – real down to earth people who are taking clean technologies into their own hands. The other thing I liked about the movie was the way it broke down how each technology or action will or can affect carbon.

What do I mean?

For example, globally, the world uses 16 terawatts (TWh) of energy each year. Of those, it is estimated that when fully developed, solar could produce 86,000 TWh, geothermal 32 THw, and wind 870 THw. In other words, these three technologies alone could replace all fossil fuel based energy and leave room for growth. This doesn’t even include the amount of energy saved and carbon reduced when you factor in gains from energy efficiency and land use strategies.

Continue reading

Book Review – Roosters of The Apocalypse

The second book in my  2012 La Nina Reading List was “Roosters of The Apocalypse,” by Rael Jean Isaac. This book could be a dictionary definition of “opposite” as compared to Climate Wars. Where Climate Wars is on the far right side of hysteria of the evils of climate change, Roosters of The Apocalypse is on the far left side of hysteria that it is a major, orchestrated hoax upon the world that is costing us billions upon billions of dollars.

So what is a rooster anyway? Isaac quotes Richard Landes who describes “those who initiate and build support for these movements as roosters (aka Al Gore) for they crow an exciting new message, and their opponents as owls, gloomsters counseling caution and skepticism (Real Issac).” Issac weaves the message of the Xhosa throughout the book, a parable about an orphan girl’s vision of truth. I can’t tell you her truth because I was unable to follow the thread. Rather than explain it in one section, she drops little nuggets of the story throughout the book and not in a clear, concise way.  I could have looked up the story on Google, but quite frankly, I’m far to lazy to go to the trouble.

Anyway, the key to building momentum is getting “elites” to join the cause. Al Gore, or U.S. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid would be considered rooster elites.  Once that happens, ordinary people will join in.  Isaac tells the story of how the prophecy of global climate change caught fire and spread around the world in breathtaking speed.  While doing this, she deconstructs all the “deceptive techniques” and fakery” used by organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). I won’t rehash the scandal involved in their report but the bottom line was accusers claim they fudged the numbers to support climate change.

It is no doubt that those on the “right side of green” will make millions on global climate change.   Continue reading

Book Review – Climate Wars

The first book on my 2012 La Nina Reading List was “Climate Wars” by Gwynne Dyer. The premise of this book is that global warming is happening and will continue to happen and as the world overheats, the result will be a range of “climate wars”.  One of his hypotheses is that the climate will change and affect different regions and countries differently but all countries will be negatively affected in multiple ways.

First, claims Dyer, the globe will experience a crisis in the food supply. Dyer writes that another major factor in the world’s future is that today a number of great powers are already using climate change scenarios to plan military strategy. To prove his hypothesis Dyer created eight future scenarios based on published science and current or past events with each ranging from worst-case to moderate case.  Each scenario focuses on one or two countries and their reactions to climate change.  After each scenario is presented, and written as if the events had already occurred, he then reviews the science and events used to create the scenario.

A reader asked the question, “What does climate change have to do with DomesticFuel?”  Everything, I argue because of you buy into the concept of climate change or global warming, the largest contributor to warming is carbon.  The largest generator of carbon are fossil fuels and fossil fuels are used to create energy and electricity – the crux of this blog. The theory would then be, if you reduce or replace the carbon generated by fossil fuels with lower or no carbon alternative energy sources, then the reduction would help to help to stave off the heating of the planet.

So how does Dyer portray fossil fuels and alternative energy in his scenarios?

Not with much hope. Continue reading

Mobilize the Earth – Earth Day 2012

Earth Day snuck up on me this year which is surprising considering all that people can talk about is the hot weather in the Midwest caused by “global warming”. Think what you will about that statement, Earth Day is April 22nd coined “Mobilize the Earth,” and because I can’t come up with new ideas (it must be the unusual heat) I’m going to review four environmental books and one movie leading up to the big day.

Inevitably, I’m going to get both applauded and ostracized for what I’m about to do – two of the books will be pro climate change and two of the books will be anti-climate change. Someday I may be drowning off the coast of Iowa and I will go under screaming and flapping my arms that you can’t learn and move forward if you don’t educate yourself about an issue as a whole – and that means all sides of the issue should be heard.

My review of books and movies is not an endorsement of the author’s beliefs – the point of the review is to let you know what the author thinks to determine if it’s a book you want to read in your lounge chair on the beach of Council Bluffs this summer.  And without further ado…My 2012 La Nina Reading List:

  • Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer
  • Roosters of Apocalypse by Rael Jean Issac
  • Eaarth by Bill McKibben
  • Climategate by Brian Sussman
  • Carbon Nation

Well I’m off to the scuba shop to buy gear for my qwest to find the Hollywood sign….

Book Review – The Powers That Be

I felt like an academic when I read this week’s book, “The Powers That Be Global Energy For The Twenty-First Century And Beyond,” although author Scott L. Montgomery wanted the book to be “fun.” I sported my black geek glasses and curled up in a chair at a local coffee shop and attempted to give off the personae that I’m smart. Although I’m not sure anyone was fooled, I’m definitely smarter about our country’s energy options now than I was before I read the book.

This is an extremely in-depth look at what our energy landscape looks like today. It also reviews where we stand, as a world, with regard to resources and options as well as politics and policies that are driving the future. In addition, it looks at where we are headed.  As I look at our country, I’ve felt for a long-time that we are “energy illiterate” and need to become better students of energy education. While Montgomery agrees to some degree, he feels the problem lies more in lack of curriculum and the inability for people to learn about energy in a nonpartisan setting.

Montgomery writes, “Energy matters are critical to understand because they are fundamental to our way of life and because they are the subject of endless misconception, misrepresentation, and, as already noted, myth.”

Throughout the book, Montgomery takes an approach that many other authors have not and that’s the view that he doesn’t categorize energy as “dirty or clean” or necessarily “evil versus good.”  He explains that fossil fuels help build and transport renewable sources and also reminds us that every type of energy has an impact on the environment. Yes everyone, there is no “renewable” energy source that is developed, produced or transported without a fossil fuel. Continue reading

Book Review – Climate Capitalism

Can we clean up the environment and make money at the same time? The answer is yes according to L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, the authors of “Climate Capitalism.” They write, “Two words define the current era: ‘climate’ and ‘capitalism.’ ” The authors begin by talking about America’s economic collapse and then reframe the argument around the environment from one of a moral or environmental issue to one of a “crisis of capitalism.”

The authors write, “What is little recognized is that the twin threats, to the climate and to the economy, are linked in both cause and cure. Unless nations move aggressively to implement energy efficiency and renewable energy, key elements of the transition away from fossil fuels and necessary to save the climate, it is difficult to see how our economy can lift itself from recession or avoid further crises. Solving the climate crisis IS THE WAY OUT of the economic crisis,” (authors’ emphasis).

Now that the stage is set, Lovins and Cohen begin providing case studies of sorts of different companies that have improved their bottom line by investing in energy efficiency and sustainable technologies. For example, Toyota became the largest auto maker in the world through the production of hybrid vehicles and fuel efficient cars while U.S. automakers continued to churn out oversized SUVs when a consumer green shift was taking place.

Conventional thinking around the issue of reducing green house gas emissions has held that averting climate catastrophe will cost the world trillions of dollars during a time countries can’t afford to invest due to the financial crisis. However, the authors argue that climate capitalists will seek out economic opportunities in the context of averting runaway climate chaos that will both mitigate climate change as well as offer profits.

Climate capitalists will be successful, the authors write, because they follow the principles of natural capitalism. The first principle is buying time by using all resources as efficiently as possible. The second principle is redesigning how we make and deliver all products and services using approaches such as cradle-to-cradle concepts, Biomimicry, the circular economy, Design for the Environment, and others.

While the information was interesting, and arguably relevant to supporting the authors’ argument, I found it to be a bit difficult to digest – the cause appeared to be information overload. But I still managed to grasp hold of the big takeaway – if you believe that the world is in fact threatened by climate crisis, then can you afford to not do anything? Lovins and Cohen say no. Those who choose not to plan and invest in a future based on sustainable practices will fail miserably.

Movie Review – Deep Green

This week I watched the documentary, “Deep Green,” written and produced by Matt Briggs. The documentary takes the position that global warming is real and global warming is serious but, “We can fix this.” Using a combination of animation shorts such as “The Krill is Gone” along with interviews of leading global warming influencers, the documentary says that if we don’t cut out carbon emissions between 80-90 percent in the next few years, it will be too late to reverse its course and well, we’re doomed.

The documentary travels to nine different countries including Germany, Sweden, China and the U.S. to take a look at actions taken to solve global warming. The film features green building projects, renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar and highlights energy efficiency strategies. Briggs interviewed several environmental “who’s who’s” including Lester Brown, the founder of the Earth Policy Institute; David Suzuki, Co-Founder of The David Suzuki Foundation; James Woolsey, former CIA Director and founding member of Set America Free Coalition; Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma; and Amory Lovins, Co-founder, Chairman and Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute.

The documentary was well done and beautifully produced and did an excellent job on intertwining commentary, with interviews, with animated shorts, and solutions. And Brigg’s solutions are not presented as once and done, a strategy often undertook. He continues to lay out solutions over, and over so that you walk away with some solid personal actions you can take to mitigate your own personal carbon footprint. Continue reading

Book Review – The Vertical Farm

I switched gears this week and spent some time learning about ways the world can feed a burgeoning population. One emerging idea is through a “vertical farm,” an idea that has been promoted by Dr. Dickson Despommier, a former professor of microbiology and public health in environmental sciences at Columbia. He recently authored, “The Vertical Farm Feeding the World in the 21st Century,” which lays out the idea of growing our food vertically in greenhouse skyscrapers, rather than spread out over hundreds of millions of acres of farmland.

This idea has really captured my fancy and got my head spinning around all the ways it could be carried out. But let me take a step back. Today, our food travels on average 1,500 miles from field to table. Crazy. Much of our produce and fruits come from places like Mexico and South America. Wouldn’t it be cool if they could come from your own city?

That is exactly what Despommier is promoting. In the middle of an urban area could be a “vertical farm” that grows produce, fruits and grains and houses things such as fish farms. These future farms would grow our food year round while the excess waste, or biomass could be used to produce bioelectricity and biofuels. In fact, Despommier says that in some cases, a vertical farm could have up to five harvests per year.

He writes that ideally, they would be cheap to build, modular, durable, easily maintained, and safe to operate. A vertical farm would mitigate external influences on crops such as too much rain or drought and disease along with the need for fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. Vertical farms would provide well-paying jobs and improve economics. He also believes they should be independent of economic subsidies and outside support once they are up and running and they should be profitable. Continue reading

Book Review – Energy, Convenient Solutions

I read an unusual book this week. “Energy, Convenient Solutions,” by Howard Johnson. The book was part Energy 101, part manifesto, part conspiracy theory. It began with a look at various forms of energy ranging from fossil-fuels to biofuels – to nuclear energy. From there, Johnson laid out his manifesto, per se, or his ideas on energy, our current state and what the future could or should look like. The end of the book reviewed factors that make it difficult to effect change as well as highlighted several “hate campaigns” that have been lobbied against big oil and nuclear energy.

Johnson says the real purpose of the book is to present many different ideas about the generation, transport and use of energy. “The study of these ideas and the efforts to make them into realities can result in excellent and viable solutions in years, instead of decades. Creative solutions are sure to be found that require few and inexpensive infrastructure changes and by using both new and existing technologies.”

Now, before I continue, some of you will accuse me of being in the pockets of Big Oil. I’m not. I’m simply reviewing the author’s book and the thoughts contained therein. What makes the diversity of energy books so compelling is the fact that each author has his or her own ideas, predictions and solutions.

Speaking of predictions, Johnson outlines a few in his book. First, he notes that the largest energy growth sector is expected to be in electricity and the largest growth product will be nuclear energy followed by geothermal. He believes there will be a decline in coal-fired power plants unless carbon sequestration technologies come a reality, and also believes wind and solar energy will require long-term substantial subsidies to compete, and even so, may never be cost competitive. In addition, he predicts hydropower will stay fairly stagnant due to environmental concerns and finally believes electric vehicles will dominate and vehicles fueled by liquids (such as gas or biofuels) will be phased out. Needless to say, like so many others, Johnson does not believe first generation biodiesel or ethanol is a solution but does have hope for things such as algae-based biofuels. Continue reading

Book Review – Life Without Oil

Woe is a country who can’t break its dependence on foreign oil. But how do you make such a bold move when our entire society is built upon its wares? And even more so, how do you break the chains when there are no other alternatives? This are some of the topics discussed in this week’s book, “Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift To A New Energy Future,” by Steve Hallett with John Wright. Hallett is a professor in the department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Purdue and Wright is an energy and environmental journalist.

The premise of the book is that the world is running out of oil while at the same time depleting itself of its natural resources. These two issues can combine to cause destruction and complete collapse of a society. The book begins by highlighting some of the societies that have disappeared due to lack of resources whether it be water or trees or others. One of the most famous case studies he uses is that of Easter Island, now owned by Chile, and the irony that although the people knew their future was in jeopardy due to diminished resources, they used them all anyway. Will this be society today?

Hallett is not a fan of biofuels as a solution to our problems. He also believes renewable energy, such as wind or solar, will only become mainstream when it is the only option. He also doesn’t think we will be laughing 30, 40, 50 years from now about how peak oil and climate change were myths.

In terms of the future energy sources, Hallett believes it will be one in which nuclear and hydrogen play major roles. Continue reading

Book Review – The H Factor

Reading books about the renewable energy industry shouldn’t be all about education. That’s why this week I took a “mini” vacation and read the novel “The H Factor,” by L.E. Indianer. This fast pace story closely follows the triumph of two college students attending Georgia Tech University who using hydrogen, create the energy silver bullet. But basking in their invention doesn’t last long – the creators’ lives are threatened by global interests who don’t want hydrogen to succeed.

The students created a patented, cylindrical contraption that cost effectively and efficiently converts water to hydrogen with no emissions. Rather than paying the $1 million plus for a real hydrogen car (the hydrogen fuel cell cars are less), the students’ discovery can be put on any car or truck for less than $10k. For all things oil, this game changer must be quashed at all costs.

Hydrogen is one of the most common and combustible elements known to man and many believe that someday technology will be able to manipulate it in a means that is could save the world. Great premise for a senior thesis deducted the two main characters, students Marc and Gerri who had this discussion to kick off their project.

“Anything that requires oil-based fuel today needs to be replaced by some other energy source, or a combination of sources. There’s no question about it, and H could be the starting point for us,” said Marc.

“Can you imagine not being dependent on foreign oil…oil that produces the billions of dollars that militant Islam is trying to use to destroy our country?” asked Gerri.

Sound familiar? This is the battle cry of the renewable energy industry.

Well needless to say, evil oil wants the world to be dependent on its products and the lengths the oil companies and foreign regime make for some high drama that hits very close to home. While this was a fun, fictional read, lets hope that Indianer is not a clairvoyant, at least in the sense that a silver bullet would be welcome, but not the war that comes with it.

Book Review – Switching to Solar

I’m writing this post, sitting outside, overlooking a pool sparkling in the sunshine. OK, not really but it gets your mind in the right place – a sunny day. Solar energy has been gaining ground in both the U.S. and especially Europe so I thought it was high-time I learn more about the history of solar. “Switching to Solar,” by Bob Johnstone should become the industry and consumer reference to the worldwide solar story.

I have to admit that reading books on energy, environment and ag can be a bit dry regardless of the veracity of the information. But Johnstone broke the mold with his engaging story telling, compelling information and insights on the solar industry. It probably helps that he is a journalist, but he takes us through the history of solar weaving through Europe and taking a stop in Germany and coming back to the States – a country that was winning and now is losing, the solar technology race to countries overseas such as China.

There are several issues that are discussed in the book that are of special importance to the solar industry: rate of conversion, subsidies/tariffs, industry viability, legislation, and technology. He also talks about overcoming utility resistance to renewable energy and their adoption to both energy efficiency strategies and the adoption of renewable energy. Two areas he didn’t discuss in detail are the challenges with storage and transmission lines/ smart grid issues.

He writes, “For utilities, promoting energy efficiency was an unnatural act. Thus far, their entire rationale had been to encourage customers to use more energy, not less. their rate structure was designed to reward consumption, by charging customers less for the additional kilowatt-hours they used. Their domestic sales departments came up with promotional gimmicks to encourage usage. Utility salespeople gleefully handed out free hair dryers to their customers.”

See this ladies. It’s the utility companies’ fault that we’re contributing to global climate change with our old school hairdryers. Continue reading

Book Review – Energy Myths & Realities

This week I decided to bone up on some energy 101 so I read “Energy Myths & Realities” by Vaclav Smil, an energy scientist. He discusses eight myths and attempts to set the record straight by disseminating the true facts around the issues. He believes several of the myths have been mired in the past while others are perpetuated by the media.

For example here is one myth that he demystifies: Electric cars will replace conventional cars in the near future. The reality according to Smil: Electric cars are expensive, their adoption rate will be slow, and internal combustion engines will dominate the market for decade to come. He also believes that EVs will not provide much, if any, energy savings.

So why does it matter if there is discourse among energy advocates? Because, says Smil, these incorrect facts and fallacies are hampering the development of effective new energy policies and wasting time and money that could be better used in pursuit of a constructive, scientific approach to the global energy challenge.

Here are some other myths that Smil addresses, all dished up as solutions, or part of a solution for our energy woes.

• The world will soon run out of oil.
• Carbon sequestration is the solution to global climate change.
• Ethanol will replace gasoline as a significant source of automobile fuel.
• Wind power will soon become the world’s leading source of electricity.

I’ll play my hand here and agree with Smil that carbon sequestration is not a solution. In fact, I believe it is a multi-billion dollar farce. Yet where I diverge with Smil is while he believes various forms of alternative energy should have no role, or will only play a small role, I think it’s shortsighted to ignore parts of the energy portfolio that are right in front of us. But I digress. Continue reading