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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.

Continue Reading →

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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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EcoFacts: The Hydrogen Potential‏

Column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsWho knows? A couple of decades from now, images of Dickensian energy barons may become history. Even if Jeremy Rifkin’s scenario of the democratization of energy – as we become the producers of it – does not seem a likely future, solar has given us a peek at this. No longer subject to energy price increases, many thousands of people currently produce more electricity than they use and sell it back to utilities. Some drive their cars on it as well. What if hydrogen fuel cells could broaden this base, also generating energy for our homes and cars?

There are plenty of naysayers out there (really, given any positive future topic) but hydrogen fuel cell use is growing fast, globally. An insurance agent in southern California is the first, a few days ago, to get a Hyundai hydrogen powered SUV, leased at $500/month with free fueling for three years. In 2015, Toyota and Honda will deliver theirs to the market. The number of filling stations in California, now at 10, will soon be over 50. Forklifts at Walmart and the grocery chain Kroger are already running on hydrogen. Continue Reading →

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EcoFacts: Current Losses and Gains

Column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsEnergy drives life, the economy, the world. Energy security often drives politics. Energy is always needed, and is usually a primary source of pollution and climate change. What new technologies will allow us to transform our systems, our relationships to energy and fossil fuels?

Power plants are being built every day – 60 nuclear reactors are under construction globally, and seemingly countless numbers of plants utilizing coal, gas, solar, wind and others.* Sunflower Electric Power Corp (love that name) is building a $2.8 billion new coal fired power plant in Kansas, for example. But without a doubt the best, the cheapest and the most efficient plants are the ones never built, thanks to energy conservation, wherever and however we can do it.
Continue Reading →

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Ecofacts: Emissions News

Column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsCalifornia greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 12% in the last decade.  A 12% drop in 7 years occurred in the transportation sector due to the large number of fuel efficient vehicles here. In 2012 emissions actually grew 2% due to closure of a nuclear plant and the drought lessening hydro-electricity output, fossil fuels taking up that need.

Emissions in the U.S. as a whole dropped 10% from 2005-2012. The last year of the report saw the biggest drop from the previous one – 3.4% – due to the trend from to coal to natural gas for power generation, increases in vehicle fuel efficiency and a warmer winter. The European Union’s dropped as well.  Continue Reading →

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EcoFacts: Bad News, Good News on Climate Change

Column by Barbara Hirsch

If USA Today has lots of current stories to offer on climate change, it must finally be getting some real spin here in the old U.S. of A., thanks somewhat to the very recent National Climate Assessment Report.  Polling on the subject that I described a month ago is probably already outdated. As for the political will to do something, the USA Today itself says of the GOP: “Denial risks branding the party as one that refuses to participate in constructive governance.” And constructive governance sure is what we will need in the coming decades.

Here are a few (quoted) key messages from the NCA report:

  • Droughts intensify, longer term ones in large ares of the Southwest, southern Great Plains and Southeast.
  • Increased risk of flooding in many regions
  • Groundwater changes in availability and water quality
  • Essential services and infrastructure disruptions and damage.
  • Intense heat waves – recent ones almost triple the long term average

You can check out the report if you are feeling strong. It is very well presented grim stuff, albeit with response strategies included.

HOWEVER many are going along in their daily lives without concern or action, there’s lots of great work going on out there to help solve the world’s energy and emissions problems. Ecofacts will highlight some of them in future weeks. Here is one crazy and cool one to begin.

solarroadwaySolar Roadways generate electricity, keep themselves ice free, light the roads and deal with storm water runoff.  Besides roof tops, imagine parking lots and road multitasking for us!

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EcoFacts: Population Trends

Column by Barbara Hirsch

Here are some population trends and forecasts to 2050, thanks to the Pew Center:

Global population is expected to increase 38% to 9.6 billion by 2050.

U.S. population will grow at a slower rate, around 28%, to 401 million.

Much of the population increase will be due to longer lifespans. The number of people over 65 will triple worldwide. In the U.S. our seniors will double.
PG_14.01.29_agingFacts_1_popAge

India’s population will exceed all others, expected to become nearly the size of China and U.S. combined.

Nigeria will take the U.S.’s place as the world’s third largest population. Number of people in Nigeria and Kenya will far more than double and the continent of Africa’s will increase from 15%, to be 25% of the world’s peoples.

The percentage of Europeans and Asians in the world will decrease. Japan, Russia and Germany’s citizenry will decrease by over 10%.

Current Fertility rates, the number or babies born per woman in childbearing years, range from 1.1 in Macao to 7.6 in Niger.

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EcoFacts: Moments for the Planet

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

earth day smallerNot that I mean to personify the earth, this “earth week”, but it is a fantastic living ecosphere, with its multitudinous systems dependent on each other to function, like our own miraculous bodies.

So when do we ever get to actually give back to this incredible system of beings, water, rock and soil that sustains us? Not that it would thank us, certainly. (We would thank us.) But every other living being takes only what it needs to survive and then decomposes to become more organic matter that nourishes. Surely can’t say that about us, at least the greatest majority of us 7 billion. For us to live comfortably by developed world standards, we seem to need so much more of its resources - 16 metric tons per year or more for every one of us reading this. and the billions of other folks. Well we may be comfortable, but we are also powerful.

Trying to imagine things we do “for the planet” then, these actions are practically always taking less, using less, wasting less, destroying less, having less of an impact, e.g. riding a bike instead of driving, recycling, using less water and electricity.

What are some net positive actions? I am asking, I am wondering. Please write in (reply) with one or more. Here are a few to begin with.

1. Planting things that will not need chemicals to thrive.
2. Assisting in restoration of damaged ecosystems – soils, forests, bodies of water, etc.
3. Educating and legislating populations towards positive impacts, net or not!

Here’s to a twenty-first century where humans use their power to learn how to live sustainably.

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EcoFacts: Another Earth Day

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

EarthDayTuesday is the 44th Earth Day, an idea born after a senator came to Santa Barbara to experience the devastation of the ’69 oil spill. The international Earthday.org site states that over a billion people are participating in one way or another. Wow, that is one large percentage of the global population!

To some or many, perhaps, it seems silly to have an Earth Day, because  1. every day should be one, or 2. they are so cynical as to think that all of the efforts we make to be better stewards of the planet are ridiculous. That category can be further divided into those who could care less and those who do care, but feel the futility of it.

Between those extremes, there is the reality that people like to have a reason to gather in a celebrating community fashion,  be amidst visual displays with a theme of some substance, visit booths to learn about cool programs and technologies, hang out with other kindly responsible folks, maybe buy some stuff and eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.   Oops, did I just say that?

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is a certain deeply pertinent (to earth day) piece on one environmentalist’s road to despair and what follows. It is a good read, and even better if you go on to read the comments. Here are excerpts from a few:

“He’s no longer trying to change the big picture, just the one he lives in.”
“You don’t have to save the world, just don’t destroy it.”
“Man’s attempt to control the natural environment will doom him.”
“Nature will take it all back, it’s just that we may not be around to see it.”
“Better to face the facts, and go down fighting the good fight. Drive less, bike more, eat vegan and have fun!”
“…Perhaps we will not pollute every molecule of land, air and sea. Not trying is the greatest moral failure.

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EcoFacts: States of Dryness

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

No news here:  as we enter the dry season in California, we are coming from one. Our water supplies sure are not looking good.  If you look here you can see extreme and exceptional drought areas in California, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Currently half of the mainland U.S. is in drought, but fully 100% California is. All of its water supplies, snow pack, water from the Colorado river, and our local supplies, are down. Snow pack is about the lowest in a century, at less than 10% of normal levels.

Santa Barbara View photo: Cachuma Lake, April 2014

Santa Barbara View photo: Cachuma Lake, April 2014

Some small rural California communities may be running out of water in the next few months.

A piece in the San Jose Mercury highlights a database that shows per capita water use by region in the state. These range from South San Francisco at 76 gallons per day to Palm Springs at 736 gallons per day. Goleta is at 119 gallons per day and Santa Barbara is at 128! Hooray for us!

How much water do we residents use? You can look at your water bill. Our water is billed by the unit HCF – one hundred cubic feet –  which is equal to 748 gallons, about  25 gallons per day, per household. A shower without a low flow head uses a heck of a lot of water per minute, 4-7 gallons, so one shower could easily be more than a bath of 25-50 gallons.

Time for those Navy Showers! One could save 10 or 15,000 gallons per year by getting wet and turning off the shower to soap up and scrub. Sponge baths can work well too and then you don’t have to wipe down the tiles/glass/anything afterwards.

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EcoFacts: Galluping for Climate Change Answers

You’ve probably heard the news about the recent IPCC report on climate change, it was a doozy, describing in detail the potentially and quite certain disastrous effects of a warming planet due to anthropogenic (human caused) emissions. There will be a few positive effects too, but the negative ones will win out. Climate change “is having an impact on every ecosystem from the equator to the poles.”

climate-changeIf you wonder, as I do, about how we are thinking about these things in the U.S. lately, thanks to the Gallupers, we can have an idea.

Over one third of Americans worry a great deal about climate change. About the same number say that they understand the subject very well, triple the number in the early nineties.* Many more worry about pollution though, and these percentages have increased since last year. The two groups who are the least concerned are those over age 65 and Republicans. Continue Reading →

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