When Glenn Ross was a child, in the early 1960s, he liked to take a shortcut through a field of sunflowers on his way to school. “It was beautiful, all these yellow sunflowers,” Ross recalls. “We’d bring home the seeds and fry ‘em up with butter and salt.”
A charming memory, but for the fact that Ross grew up in an industrial section of East Baltimore and this bucolic scene bordered a steel plant. One day he was at the neighborhood playground when word went around that “men in spacesuits” were collecting the flowers. When he went to investigate, he says he saw workers in Hazmat gear harvesting the plants, having surrounded the area with caution tape. Many years later, Ross learned that sunflowers are used in phytoremediation projects to pull lead from the soil. (Trail mix, anyone?)
These days, the site -- now a vast sorting facility for construction debris -- is one stop on Ross’ Toxic Tour, a rollicking bus ride through the contaminated wonderland that is inner-city Baltimore. A self-described “urban environmentalist,” Ross leads dozens of tours a year, primarily for college students from Johns Hopkins University’s schools of medicine, nursing, and (wait for it) public health, which are located nearby. The tours take in brownfields, rat infestations, truck traffic, illegal dumping sites, vacant buildings, and other environmental hazards in Baltimore’s poor, predominantly black communities.
Ross, who has been leading them for nearly a decade, makes sure the bus windows are open for these warm-weather outings. “I put it right up in their face -- they've got to smell it, taste it, the whole nine yards,” he says. “And at the end of the tour, they get it.”
“It,” says Ross, is nothing less than environmental racism. “These things only happen in poor urban communities, neighborhoods where there’s poor political representation."
Late last month, I wrote a post about an intriguing new solar technology that promised to radically reduce the delivered price of solar electricity. At the top of my post, I included that standard disclaimer, warning people not to get too excited until the product proved itself in the marketplace.
Of course, that disclaimer did not stop the inevitable: Cranky people from all over the internet descended on the comments to explain why the technology is absurd and could never possibly work. This is a familiar cycle to anyone who writes about cleantech.
Robert Styler, the chief marketing officer at V3Solar, contacted me to ask if I would elevate his response to some of the criticisms so that people would be sure to see it. So I'm doing that.
Just to be clear: I have no particular expertise on solar technology. I'm in no position to adjudicate these conflicts. But I do think they're worth hashing out in public. So here are some criticisms from champion skeptic MrSteve007 and some responses from Mr. Styler.
We don't reveal everything about our tech on the internet and that creates some false assumptions. Hopefully this will clear up some of the more common mistakes. In response to the questions by MrSteve007:
1. No matter what angle the sun is shining, 50% of the solar cells are always shaded at one time (except at high noon, at the equator). That dramatically increases cost and inversely lowers efficiency.
Steve, you are looking at this as static rather than dynamic. The inner cone is rapidly spinning in and out of highly concentrated bands of light -- also, the ambient light on the backside of the cone will be captured. PV is a light-sensitive semiconductor. Every other semiconductor works under periodicity, on/off, 1/0, binary code. For the last 30 years, PV has either been ON during the day, or OFF during the night. Moore's law states that the computing power of semiconductors doubles every two years. Why have we not seen a similar dramatic increase in PV?
By creating high-intensity flashes of light, we make the PV respond differently than it does in a static environment, just baking in the sun (see Q-switching and the Avalanche Photodiode effect). Again, we only go into specifics under NDA [non-disclosure agreement] with stakeholders and investors. We all know what we know, but few are open-minded enough to know what we don't know -- and that's the first step of innovation.
There's been enough written about genetically modified organisms and Monsanto that it's easy to lose touch with how they actually impact people's lives. On a recent trip to India, Perennial Plate got a wake-up call from environmental activist Vandana Shiva. Here's our conversation with Shiva on a seed-saving revolution, farmer suicides, and how female farmers are the future of India's agriculture.
It was an urbanist’s nightmare. On Feb. 1, a teenager was shot dead in the middle of a popular art gallery walk and street fair in Oakland, Calif. -- a town that highlights exactly what a city wins and loses when it attracts a huge influx of the vaunted “creative class.”
Kiante Campbell, an 18-year-old Oakland resident, was killed in the shadow of new condominiums, gourmet food trucks, and buffed art galleries selling oil paintings that cost more than a few months’ rent in the ’hood. The festival, Art Murmur, shuts down much of Oakland’s downtown on the first Friday of each month, drawing 20,000 people, including tourists from both San Francisco and the surrounding suburbs. Now its future was called into question.
The shooting highlighted a stark reality: The creative class is remaking Oakland in its own image, but the “urban renaissance” isn’t benefitting everyone. The neighborhood where Campbell was killed has new condos and galleries -- and a median household income of less than $22,000.
By the urbanist creative-class metric, Oakland is winning. It’s a top city for urban farmers, local organic gourmet food snobs (love you, food snobs!), cyclists, and art-lovers. It’s home to a growing number of imported young makers, tech start-ups, and rising artists, in large part because of its close proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. At the same time, about 13 percent of Oakland residents are unemployed, and the city still has one of the highest murder rates in the nation, especially for teens.
For years, Richard Florida and other urban life pundits have espoused the creative class as the secret to city success. When the creative class wins, their logic goes, we all win. Gentrification has essentially become America’s favored urban redevelopment strategy.
Florida has acknowledged that the rise of the creative class can exacerbate urban class divides, but his new research highlights just how big those divides can be.
Presidential decisions often turn out to be far less significant than imagined, but every now and then what a president decides actually determines how the world turns. Such is the case with the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if built, is slated to bring some of the “dirtiest,” carbon-rich oil on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. In the near future, President Obama is expected to give its construction a definitive thumbs up or thumbs down, and the decision he makes could prove far more important than anyone imagines. It could determine the fate of the Canadian tar-sands industry and, with it, the future well-being of the planet. If that sounds overly dramatic, let me explain.
Sometimes, what starts out as a minor skirmish can wind up determining the outcome of a war -- and that seems to be the case when it comes to the mounting battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. If given the go-ahead by President Obama, it will daily carry more than 700,000 barrels of tar-sands oil to those Gulf Coast refineries, providing a desperately needed boost to the Canadian energy industry. If Obama says no, the Canadians (and their American backers) will encounter possibly insuperable difficulties in exporting their heavy crude oil, discouraging further investment and putting the industry’s future in doubt.
The battle over Keystone XL was initially joined in the summer of 2011, when environmental writer and climate activist Bill McKibben and 350.org, which he helped found, organized a series of non-violent anti-pipeline protests in front of the White House to highlight the links between tar-sands production and the accelerating pace of climate change. At the same time, farmers and politicians in Nebraska, through which the pipeline is set to pass, expressed grave concern about its threat to that state’s crucial aquifers. After all, tar-sands crude is highly corrosive, and leaks are a notable risk.
In mid-January 2012, in response to those concerns, other worries about the pipeline, and perhaps a looming presidential campaign season, Obama postponed a decision on completing the controversial project. (He, not Congress, has the final say, since it will cross an international boundary.) Now, he must decide on a suggested new route that will, supposedly, take Keystone XL around those aquifers and so reduce the threat to Nebraska’s water supplies.
Ever since the president postponed the decision on whether to proceed, powerful forces in the energy industry and government have been mobilizing to press ever harder for its approval. Its supporters argue vociferously that the pipeline will bring jobs to America and enhance the nation’s “energy security” by lessening its reliance on Middle Eastern oil suppliers. Their true aim, however, is far simpler: to save the tar-sands industry (and many billions of dollars in U.S. investments) from possible disaster.
Just how critical the fight over Keystone has become in the eyes of the industry is suggested by a recent pro-pipeline editorial in the trade publication Oil & Gas Journal:
Controversy over the Keystone XL project leaves no room for compromise. Fundamental views about the future of energy are in conflict. Approval of the project would acknowledge the rich potential of the next generation of fossil energy and encourage its development. Rejection would foreclose much of that potential in deference to an energy utopia few Americans support when they learn how much it costs.
Opponents of Keystone XL, who are planning a mass demonstration at the White House on Feb. 17, have also come to view the pipeline battle in epic terms. “Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb,” McKibben wrote at TomDispatch. “If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature.” Halting Keystone would not by itself prevent those high concentrations, he argued, but would impede the production of tar sands, stop that “carbon bomb” from further heating the atmosphere, and create space for a transition to renewables. “Stopping Keystone will buy time,” he says, “and hopefully that time will be used for the planet to come to its senses around climate change.”
"You're going to like what you hear," White House aides have told green groups, according to an official at one environmental organization who expects the president to publicly commit to moving forward with EPA climate regulations.
"In past speeches, there was a lot of, 'I call on Congress,'" the official added. "And what I'm expecting to see more of this time is, 'This is what my administration is going to do.'"
If this OOEO (official at one environmental organization) is right, it will be cause for good cheer. But the question remains, even if Barack Obama is pure of heart and dedicated to climate progress, what can he do?
He'll get no help from Congress. Serious climate legislation is off the table as long as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is in charge of the House but not in charge of his Tea Party faction. So what can be done without Congress?
I thank you for the wisdom your articles have given me. I've been very curious about the health risks imposed by my wife's hair coloring. She uses a common brand, and when she is dyeing her hair it smells horrible, and lingers in the air long after she's finished. The closest thing I could use to describe the smell would be old, rotten, fungus-filled fruit sacks. I am not concerned about being exposed, but my wife's health is extremely important to me. Is it safe for her? If not, do I have an alternative to suggest?
Very Concerned Husband
A. Dearest VCH,
If you are not a writer by trade, you should become one. Your description of “old, rotten, fungus-filled fruit sacks” is impressively detailed, inarguably repulsive, and, I imagine, at least as colorful as your wife’s tresses.
Have you told your wife how you feel about her stinking up Susanville in the name of beauty? Perhaps you could suggest that you’d prefer to see a few gray hairs spring forth than watch her breathe in a cocktail of toxic chemicals. Even better, tell her you adore the gray hair (or whatever she is trying to alter). I bet she would appreciate your candor and, more than that, your unconditional love. Sometimes that’s enough to get one through the day, isn’t it?
You might also gently tell her that hair dye has been fingered in a number of health concerns. We know it contains carcinogenic ingredients -- here’s a handy overview from the Food and Drug Administration -- but when you comb through the data you’ll see that the science is not absolutely sure about all the various connections. Over the years, studies have connected long-term hair dye exposure to increased risks of leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and bladder cancer. Women in their first trimester of pregnancy are encouraged to forgo it, just to be safe. Should we not apply the same precaution in all stages of life? I vote yes.
As Grist reported earlier this week, the USDA released a massive report on climate change and U.S. agriculture. The report may represent the agency’s most decisive move to force farmers to face reality. The short version: Climate change is real, it’s here to stay, and farmers need to start adapting before the biggest effects hit.
And while this may not come as news to Grist readers, it’s worth highlighting the significance of this report. Big farm lobbying groups have been some of the most vocal critics of government action to address climate change, as well as of the very idea of anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) climate change. A 2011 survey of Iowa farmers [PDF] found that while 68 percent believed the climate was changing, only 10 percent agree that it’s caused primarily by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Many an article on the extreme weather in farm country contain quotes like this one from American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman:
“We are used to dealing with extreme weather variation,” he says, pointing out that his Texas farm has seen 20 inches of rain in a single day, in the middle of a drought. “We’ve learned to roll with those extremes. If it gets a little more extreme down the road, we can deal with it.”
The USDA would like you to look at a picture, Mr. Stallman.*
That’s what will happen to summer temperatures by the end of the century if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions. Note that farm country will get hit particularly hard -- average temps will rise by about 10 degrees F. When you combine that with the increase in extreme weather events that the USDA assures farmers are baked in to the climate cake at this point, it becomes harder and harder to assume you can just “roll with it.” So sayeth the USDA:
Suddenly everyone knows about Germany’s solar power dominance because Fox Newsheads made an ass of themselves, suggesting that the country is a sunny, tropical paradise. Most media folks have figured out that there are some monster differences in policy (e.g., a feed-in tariff), but then latch on to the “Germans pay a lot extra” meme. Germans do, and are perfectly happy with it, but that’s still not the story.
The real reason Germany dominates in solar (and wind) is its commitment to democratizing energy.
It also makes the country's “energy change” movement politically bulletproof. Germans aren't tree-hugging wackos giving up double mochas for wind turbines, they are investing by the tens of thousand in a clean energy future that is putting money back in their pockets and creating well over 300,000 new jobs (at last count). Their policy makes solar cost half as much to install as it does in America, where the free market’s red tape can’t compete with their “socialist” efficiency.
Fox News’ gaffe about sunshine helps others paper over the real tragedy of American energy policy. In a country founded on the concept of self-reliance (goodbye, tea imports!), we finance clean energy with tax credits that make wind and solar reliant on Wall Street instead of Main Street. We largely preclude participation by the ordinary citizen unless they give up ownership of their renewable energy system to a leasing company. We make clean energy a complicated alternative to business as usual, while the cloudy, windless Germans make the energy system of the future by making it stupid easy and financially rewarding.
I’m all for pounding the faithless fools of Fox, but let’s learn the real secret to German energy engineering and start making democratic energy in America.
Not many people would see value in a retired Chicago Transit Authority bus with 500,000 miles on the odometer, a slow engine, and seats bursting at the seams. But in late 2011, a group of Chicagoans looking for a way to transport groceries into their deprived neighborhood had a vision. They bought the bus for $1, and with grant money, made repairs, tore out the seats, and gave it a fresh paint job and a fitting new name: Fresh Moves.
Today, Fresh Moves, a nonprofit serving the city’s south and west sides, has two buses in its fleet, with a third coming in June. When growing season arrives, the crates onboard overflow with locally grown fruits and vegetables. And the lines of residents awaiting its arrival grow longer and longer.
If Mayor Rahm Emanuel has his way, services such as Fresh Moves will soon take root and flourish citywide under a completely revamped food system designed to change the way Chicagoans eat. Emanuel’s recently adopted, $5.8 million Recipe for Healthy Places is a comprehensive agenda seeking to curtail obesity by changing Chicago’s food culture. His goal: to make fresh food affordable and available within a mile of every resident’s home. And why not? This is, after all, home of The Bean.