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EcoFacts: Frack Away?

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

No-fracking-logoSteadily increasing attention on fracking, and regulation thereof, can ONLY be a good thing. This “less conventional” method and associated ones for extracting oil and natural gas was employed for many years with little notice. In the last 15 years, the amount of gas obtained here in the U.S. from fracking has gone from 1% to 25%, much higher by some estimates. Of oil, the increase has been similarly astronomic. The coming election will see initiatives around the country to regulate these methods, including Measure P in Santa Barbara.

Arguments in favor of these methods are energy independence and jobs/economy. However, the funders of the campaigns for fracking are primarily oil/energy companies, not citizens. it is clear that profits are the first and foremost argument in favor, unless you believe these companies are working above all for the greater good.

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EcoFacts: Lighting the Way

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

blauwe_ledNobel prizes were awarded this week to the inventors of blue LEDs, including Shuji Nakamura, a professor here at UCSB. You may ask what the significance is. Red and green LEDs were invented in the 60s. It took until the 90s for these fellows to create higher energy blue light from a light emitting diode, which, when combined with red and green form white, enabling multi colored and white lighting. Then came the screen technology we use daily in our phones, computers, tvs, etc.. and, those LED lightbulbs, which are even more efficient than CFL bulbs, don’t have any mercury in them, and can last for decades.

The costs of these bulbs, like the screens that proceeded them, have been dropping, making them more economically viable for us, but also for those who have been previously without any form of electric light. Using so much less power, they can easily be powered by solar.

I have been enjoying a small lightweight solar powered LED lamp for my work, and lights for my bike. I don’t need to buy batteries for them and the bulbs will last for thousands of hours. But think of what these devices can do for people who have been using kerosene lamps, buying the kerosene and breathing the fumes. A third of all people have either no or limited access to electricity. LED technology is a boon in these regions, as it is for everyone.

If all lighting in the U.S. was replaced with LED forms, electricity consumption would drop 20%, the amount produced by nuclear power plants, or by half of all coal used today.

The timing of this Nobel is pretty cool, too. This year, old fashioned incandescent bulbs of the 40 and 60 watt variety will no longer be manufactured, following the demise of the 100 and 75 watt varieties. I miss that light a bit, but its time has clearly passed. For beautiful warm light, we’ll just have to go outside.

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EcoFacts: Musings…

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

It is not a facts day. I’ve been thinking about “connection”, and how the uses of this word have evolved in recent history, and in my own….

I ride my bike and walk quite a bit and so very often I connect with people on the street whom I know, but frequently also with strangers. A hello and smile from a stranger always gives me a big lift, and it happens quite often, this warmth and very real connection in the human community and in my own. I also connect with people’s pets, yards, flowers (yes, their scents) trees, fleeting bits of conversations as people walk by. I feel the weather, changes in the light and breeze, clouds passing. I am closer to the community or “the land” even if it is the suburban or urban version of the romantic ideal.

This rarely happens when one is driving a car, at least in an urban environment. It is one reason I think, why drivers so often have little patience with bikes and pedestrians. There is little empathy there, as they are in an entirely different world, their own encapsulated world, windows rolled up, radio playing, and that possibly not-felt-enough tremendous power and heft of the vehicle that one is controlling is hopefully the main focus. And so easy it is to lose sight of the scope of the awesome responsibility that is ours in driving them. I realize that drivers do connect with other drivers in order to negotiate the roads – the vehicular community.

My sister once suggested that as buildings grew taller, people lost more connection with the environment. Imagine the difference between living in an apartment on the 3rd (or 23rd) floor and living in a small house with a large patio or lanai. Same with cars. As they got bigger and faster and fuel cheaper, they enveloped us, further isolating us from subtle sounds and smells, the pleasures of observation that require slowness in our experience.

People are connecting with an addictive fervor via social media Facebook, twitter, etc and by texting. Some are talking on their cell phones, but even that audio is so poor, it means much less of a real connection is had between the two talking than landline phones afford. Inflections and tone – at least – are lost, words or phrases even.

I wonder when this pendulum will change direction. In the U.S. there seems to be more of an interest in pedestrian infrastructures, farmer’s markets, community happenings, local economies. How is that connected to further exploration of virtual realities and cyber connections in the human experience? Will kids ever being playing outdoors more than with their screens again? Will the outdoors be a fit place for them?

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EcoFacts: Climate CHANGE Climate

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

A globally coordinated day of action last weekend mobilized thousands in Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, Melbourne, Jakarta – in 162 or more countries – with the People’s Climate March in New York City being the centerpiece. An estimated 300,000 – 400,000 people showed up. This was planned to be shortly before the U.N. Climate Summit, where the need for action was evident in the meeting of government leaders and 200 CEOs. The UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon stated “climate change is the defining issue of our times.” The World Bank also announced that more than 1,000 businesses — along with 73 countries and 22 states, provinces and cities — have expressed their support for carbon pricing. Not to mention the announcement of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund selling $50 billion US worth of fossil fuel assets in an effort to fight global warming.

In London an estimated 40,000 people marched, and the news from there as reported on the Islam Channel offers a thoughtful and refreshing perspective. Besides CO2 emissions, the report begins to explore the massive change needed economically, and even more fundamentally in our way of life, if the necessary work to avoid climate catastrophe is to happen. “The earth has a fever… shall we treat it with antibiotics or try to understand the sources of its illness?”

Here, from one of the marchers in London- “We are the first generation to feel the impacts of climate change and the last that can do anything about it.” Aye, there’s the rub. Massive change does not happen quickly. Is the tipping point near?

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Ecofacts: Nuts for Coconuts‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Coconut_Water (1)Coconut water is a perfect symbol for the confluence of globalization and marketing, for the internet-viral speeds of health claims, for our thirst for convenient and healthy alternatives to soda and tasty alternatives to water.

So recently, it was a rare thing here in the U.S., on the mainland anyway. Within a decade or so, cans, bottles and tetrapaks of it seem to be everywhere. And where does it all come from? Imagine a couple or more coconuts’ worth of water in every one of those cans sold, and that a tree only produces 50 fruits in a year. What, are coconut palms taking over large swaths of previously forested lands? Well at least that’s not happening yet. In fact much of the water comes from small growers in places like Indonesia and the Phillippines, and previously, the water was wasted while getting to the meat, which is used for the shredded stuff, coconut milk and oil. It has not been an economic boom for those farmers though, until more fair trade practices take hold.

As for health, suffice to say that coconut water’s well hyped nutritional claims are not nature’s answer to all of our bodily problems. More importantly, what we westerners drink is not the same as a freshly hacked coconut with a straw in it. Rather, it has usually been reconstituted or pasteurized, removing some of the original nutrients. But it sure does taste good. Too bad about all that packaging, all of those single use, disposed of containers, and those thousands of miles worth of shipping to get it to our lips, to quench our thirsts.

Below’s a video about the tremendous reliance on the tree and its fruit, having been used for food and shelter for millennia.

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EcoFacts: What We Drink

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

Although soda sales are down in the U.S., they are still rising, globally. More interesting is that while soda sales in general are down 3% and have been declining for nearly two decades, diet Coke and Pepsi are down much more – 7% here in the U.S.. Bottled water, energy drinks and ready to drink coffee and tea sales are up.  People are becoming slightly more health conscious, or speedy. Maybe smarter too, as they are also drinking Coca-Cola’s Glaceau Smartwater.

Of Coca‑Cola alone, there are 1.9 billion servings sold every day, around the world, that’s one per person for more than a quarter of the global population, daily. Pretty incredible numbers, for something that is, in the balance, not healthy for us or the planet.

cokelifeSome may welcome Coke’s new product Coca-Cola Life, a lower calorie, stevia sweetened alternative. In any case, you can bet that the soft drink companies will be rising to whatever challenges consumers give them (or appearing to anyway), whether it’s diet, health, water needs or environment. PepsCo and Coke’s plant based plastic bottles rest probably more in the appearances category.

Speaking of water needs, another Coke plant was closed in India recently, for extracting too much water and leaving polluted effluents in its wake. Plenty of the refreshing beverage is still being bottled there though, 57 more plants are in India, and more than 900 exist around the world. In some of those places, one might have to choose a bottle of soda over the unsafe water, just for something to drink.

The manufacturing of the containers alone – whether plastic, glass or aluminum – uses lots more water than the container contains, so this remains a consideration with sustainability issues for these corporations, and especially for the possibility of a future where clean water can be drunk by all.

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EcoFacts; What We Drink, Part 1‏

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

Okay, to state the obvious: Every living thing needs water to survive, every drink that touches our lips, every bite that enters our mouths, every thing we encounter and use, every day. Our current drought is forcing us to rethink how we use it – how much fresh water goes down the drain, for example. And this drought won’t be the last one, so things will have to change. Our daily use, yes, but those farmers, city planners and manufacturers, will they be able to implement new and better ways of doing old things?

A town in Orange County has the largest water recycling facility in the world, turning residential waste water into potable water – “toilet to tap” as they say. It costs less than importing water and half of what desalination costs. More of this to come, for sure.

A recent statewide analysis coauthored by a UCSB professor shows how tremendous water savings could be employed in California amounting to 14 million acre feet* per year “improved efficiency in agricultural and urban water use, water reuse and recycling, and increased capturing of local rainwater.” California has the world’s 9th largest agricultural economy. 80% of our water is used in agriculture. The state water deficit is at least 6 million acre feet, and according to this report, about that same amount could be saved with different irrigation practices, such as drip. Not something that will happen overnight.

The below infographic says it all, a glimpse at our possible water future.(click to enlarge)
PS: And here is an interview with the woman who was responsible for
hydrating Las Vegas for years.
* An acre foot is a third of a million gallons, or 436 hcfs, the household unit we are billed by, a hundred cubic feet = 748 gallons.

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EcoFacts: Desalination

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

To be sure, desalination has been a hot topic in California and other drought stricken parts of the globe. Fresh water supplies are always limited to less than 1% of all water on the planet. Needs increase with the population while more droughts threaten existing resources. In the last 5 years, desalination capacity, globally, has increased 57%.

The Middle East could be a model for this, now and into the future. Home to 6.3% of humanity with only 1.4% of the water supply, they generate over half of the desal water available on the planet at the moment. But that water is costly, using more than ten times more energy (and their precious export resource, fossil fuels) than needed for pumping well water. A renewable energy company in Abu Dhabi is working on possible alternatives that could be a boon to a thirsty planet.

Closer to home, another model could be Santa Catalina Island, a popular tourist spot off the coast of LA, sort of a miniature California water wise, except they are not getting water diverted from other places. It all comes from their drying up reservoirs, wells and some desalination, 10%. All of their water is controlled by Edison. Residents and businesses pay more – 5 to 18 times more - than anywhere else in California. Few relaxed showers and little car washing goes on there. Their entire economy is severely threatened right now.

desalTo reactivate Santa Barbara’s decommissioned plant, completed at the end of the last serious drought in 1991 and used only briefly, would cost nearly $30 million, so no one is in a rush to do it. This coming rainy season will determine how quickly that goes forward. We are fortunate in that currently most of the area’s water supplies are gravity fed and so of low energy use. Desalination requires pumping the water from the ocean to the plant, high pressure pumping through reverse osmosis membranes and further processing.

Environmental challenges in the process are: a higher percentage of energy and associated emissions needed for water supplies; potential harm to sea life at the intake; treatment and disposal of the briney waste. Let’s hope that the plants of the future most certainly needed, will manage these well.

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EcoFacts: More from the Sea

Catching up on our weekend content after Fiesta, here is Barbara Hirsch.

My eyes were opened, reading about kelp and other marine algae, and my curiosity whetted. Could all that plant matter out in the great oceans be used even more as a source of nourishment for our growing population, without us over harvesting the hell out of it, as we are wont to do with anything we want….to do?

Other than with sushi, and perhaps an occasional seaweed salad, most of us Americans would assume we have little experience with seaweed, even if we probably have a daily relationship with them (carageenan and alginates being super common food ingredients, et al.) Anyway the ocean’s plant world and us? Well, so deep a subject, so is a tiny bit and links to a wealth more.

Seaweeds have been harvested for centuries in coastal cultures around the world, for both plant and human food. They are characterized first by their phyla and color – red, green and brown. Nori, one of the red ones, is very nutritious, and is used for the sushi wrap and also those seaweed snacks showing up everywhere in the (annoying) plastic boxes. It has the highest economic value of all the seaweeds. Dulce is another red algae.

Kelp is the most common brown algae, and the most harvested. Although it’s primary uses are for the above mentioned derivatives, it is also a nutritious food on its own, as is Wakame, another brown algae. A common green algae is sea lettuce, and is, as the name might imply, edible.

Here is another enjoyable video, kind of goofy but informative, on harvesting your own food from the sea.

P.S. Those brightly colored seaweed salads and ginger at Japanese restaurants are not naturally so, and often have other less than healthful ingredients too. Darn.

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EcoFacts: Kelp

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Those of us who do ocean sports here and elsewhere are intimately familiar with kelp, the fly gathering mounds of it on the beach, becoming entangled in it in the water, but also its sheer graceful beauty. When the water is clear, looking down into a kelp forest is like glimpsing a fairytale world, evoking the magical experience of snorkeling.

KelpHarvester_MG35514I gratefully watched kelp harvesting one day while paddling, a ship with a giant rake pulling the kelp vines off the surface and to a conveyor belt leading to huge piles of it. This was an area that we paddlers usually avoid as it is so thick with the stuff. I had no idea then of the value kelp forest ecosystems held for the planet and us, though, or that what I saw was harvesting being done in an ecologically acceptable way. New growth happens quickly if the plants are skimmed from the surface, not yanked from the ocean floor.

Kelp has been harvested for ages, for use in gunpowder (!), fertilizer, food thickening agents and in the cosmetics industry, algin being a key ingredient extracted for some of these products. It has tremendous economic value to us, is also highly nutritional as a food, chock full of easily absorbed minerals, trace minerals and other nutrients, and as a plant food. Kelp powder is popular among organic farmers.

The environmental value of kelp forests is becoming more evident, their being home to all kinds of sea creatures, including shellfish which act as filters for our agricultural runoff that has been so damaging to ocean ecosystems.  Check out this cool video on one fisherman’s transformation, work and success in showing us the super vegetable status of this sea weed. We may be eating lots more of it, soon!

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EcoFacts: the Internet of Things

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

….So yes, all those devices we now require may be nothing compared to a “modern” household of the future, where ubiquitous objects interact with us continuously.

Early uses of electricity in the 19th c. were for telegraphs, automobiles and lighting, and then a hundred years ago communications took a leap when telephones and radios in our homes allowed us to connect with the world in ways never before imagined.

iocWe seem so very connected now, but soon it will be ever moreso, not simply to each other and abstract information and entertainment, but to things in our environment, and I don’t mean nature. That is, until they figure out a way to make sensors attached to trees which allow them to talk to us.

The term Internet of Things, has become empowered since a mention 15 years ago by a fellow who helped to create a global standard on RFID at MIT, that’s radio frequency identification, e.g. those tags or implants for tracking goods, people and animals. This term, now IoT, represents the coming world of internet connected, or smart devices. An example being an umbrella which glows when you should take it with you, as rain is predicted for that day. An EU initiative predicts “an ecosystem of smart applications and services which will improve and simplify EU citizens’ lives.”

Coming out this month is a book titled Enchanted Objects by David Ross, and Amazon’s offer of reading the first pages was certainly appreciated by me, anyway! It’s provocative stuff, even if not so exciting to a luddite like myself, but for me, more for reasons such as the environmental and even human tolls that may result, and that the ever dwindling natural world will be the only place we can disconnect. Or will we be able to?

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EcoFacts: All Those Devices

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

home-electronics-13The state of electronics today – wow, it’s a big one, probably even a country’s worth! We are wed to them and the manufacturers must continue to produce and sell as many as they can, so one is never enough, or quickly needs replacing. And they are so cheap as to be disposable, fast fashion of a sort. We pay a thousand or two per year for the connectivity and a thousand or so to buy the things, but the hidden costs are a much bigger issue.

In 2012-2013, we in the U.S. (PDF) purchased close to:

  • 125 million computers, 150 million tablets and e-readers, 75 million TVs, 250 million cell phones
  • In 2010 (last count) in the U.S. we disposed of around:
    384 million assorted devices – computers peripherals, phones, etc. and 19% of them were recycled.

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EcoFacts: State of Winds

Column by Barbara Hirsch

Windmills_at_Infersa_Salt_Pans_Marsala_Sicily_ItalyWindmills have been doing work for us for two millennia. The Danes began using them to produce electricity at the dawn of the previous century, and are now leading the pack with wind power per capita. In fact, on a Sunday evening eight months ago their turbines produced more power than the country used, over 100%. The next month, wind averaged 55% of their consumption.

The world’s largest offshore wind farm is to be built in the Netherlands by a Canadian company – Northland Power – with Siemens providing the turbines. It will produce 1.5 million folks worth of electricity.

A Northern German state now generates 120% of its own needs with renewables – mostly wind and solar – exporting the excess.

For a few days last month, wind energy supplied two thirds of electricity needs in a southern state in Australia.

Spain relied more on wind than any other power source, in 2013.

How about here in the U.S.? Over 4% of our power came from wind in 2013, and Texas, land of the big, uses the most electricity but also generated 10% of it with wind last year. Check out this state of the states in wind power production, keeping in mind that 1 MW of rated electricity capacity is enough to power around a thousand relatively conserving homes, or half as many in the south, like in Texas.

And for the bird lovers:

Windmills aren’t the biggest serial killer, but are instead the smallest threat to birds worthy of mention, on par with airplanes.”

Buildings (and windows) kill the most birds by far, followed by high tension power lines, cats, vehicles and pesticides. And, as the same author states of humans: “Roughly 20,000 of these moderately-intelligent animals die prematurely each year from air pollution from coal and oil, according to a study ordered by Congress.”

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EcoFacts: Biochar

By Barbara Hirsch
biocharIn the past several years, this stuff called biochar has been seen as a potential planet changing product, providing ways of simultaneously mitigating climate change, cleaning the air, generating energy and managing waste. It does sounds like a game changer, eh?

Biochar is an un-manufactured form of charcoal. It is created by very slow burning of biomass in a low oxygen environment – pyrolysis – creating a charred substance that contains about half the carbon that was in the original material. The other half is emitted in the burning process, and can be used as fuel. The story goes that if left to rot, or simply burned, the biomass would release its carbon into the atmosphere, but as biochar it sequesters a large part of its carbon, indefinitely. In fact it (terra preta) remains deep in the soil of ancient civilizations.

Some research has shown that when applied to fields, biochar boosts agricultural yields by increasing microbial activity, retaining nutrients and water. And the making of it, using agricultural waste or almost anything organic that is handy, also produces fuel as heat or syngas, to be used in place of fossil fuels. A devoted researcher describes 55 uses for the stuff here.

A microcosm of this system can be seen in a modern but simple cook stove, that could greatly improve the lives of three billion people who cook their food on open fires, often suffering health problems from the spewing smoke. With it they could use much less valuable fuel, breathe no smoke and sell the biochar they make while cooking!

Back in the U.S., Kingsford charcoal is owned by Clorox (few things are as black and white) and their charcoal production, although energy intensive, employs the heat from the charring as energy for a later part of the process. Of course the charcoal then goes on to emit its carbon, as the grills nourish and entertain us for the summer barbecue season

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EcoFacts: Sunlight and Water‏

By Barbara Hirsch

cycleNo one can doubt the abundance of solar energy potential, and that it can provide fuel to use in place of the more polluting ones. Solar panel technology has been improving the amount of electricity generated per square foot, but other entirely different methods are being discovered, e.g. artificial photosynthesis. As Nature Magazine stated, it is Springtime for the artificial leaf!

Hydrogen fuel cells currently employ fossil fuels, primarily natural gas to produce hydrogen fuel, but soon may be much greener. Our government and the private sector are funding such research in the hopes of finding cheap, clean and efficient hydrogen energy production and storage. Just in the last couple of weeks funding for transformational fuel cell technologies has increased by more than $50 million.

A company in Santa Barbara is one of only a few in the world to be working in this exciting field as you read. Hypersolar is partnered with scientists in the Chemical Engineering department at UCSB and is using sunlight and a photoelectrochemical process to separate hydrogen and oxygen from any source of water, including dirty water, “to produce clean and environmentally friendly renewable hydrogen”. And this could be done near the point of use (distributed generation), eliminating problems with transport.

Tim Young, the CEO of Hypersolar, is a great guy, and I am so proud that this fantastic work is happening right in our own backyards! (Guess I am a Y!,IMBY.)

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