Archive | October 2011

Cleaner clean fuel sources

I came upon this in an article about alternative clean power sources:

“If 1 percent of the earth’s hot deserts produced clean solar-thermal energy, they would meet the entire planet’s current electricity demand.”

Solar-thermal energy in this case involves using hundreds of large ground-level mirrors to concentrate light on a tall tower, which then converts the light into heat, and then into electricity via a steam turbine. Such a source of power would require massive amounts of space and decent electricity infrastructure already in place to take it from a [presumably] desert area to villages and cities. While making mirrors and one steam turbine would definitely require fewer minerals (like gallium, arsenic, cadmium, and tellurium used in PVs) than photovoltaic-based solar power, and solar-thermal energy would probably have more attainable economies of scale, I wonder how transferable solar-thermal energy will be in reality, compared to PV solar. Given the lower marginal costs and seeming efficiency (at least, based on that quote), it seems strange that solar-thermal hasn’t become more widespread.

The writer, David Benjamin, argues that the visibility [or lack thereof] of these cleaner technologies is why they’re not more widespread–but one look at the controversies behind large-scale wind farms and PV farms seems to hint at a different relationship with renewables.

In a preliminary talk with a vertical wind-turbine developer, the start-up’s co-founder claimed that their product’s biggest selling point was its visibility and therefore image- and public-relations-boosting abilities. Should this really be the driver for innovation of clean tech — aesthetics, instead of efficiency? Is the public still so unconvinced by our rising gas prices, multiple wars in oil-rich countries, oil tanker crashes, climate change, and domestic ethanol biofuel subsidies (which were supported initially because the ethanol blended well with gasoline as a replacement for more toxic additives), that we need to focus on increasing the visibility of renewables for them to be used?

Link to article :


Conservation vs. Development

Conservation vs. development, to me at least, always seemed to be a false dichotomy.

However, within the last 12 hours alone, I’ve seen multiple posts that argue otherwise. One was in Foreign Affairs regarding Morales’s declining regime, and another on two large concessions in Gambela, Ethiopia (Saudi and Indian); these are disparate continents and issues, yet both writers seemed to think that unless a national park or protected area has a fence and federal guards 24/7, people have the right to abuse the land. The more striking assumption, however, is that it would not be in the interests of the citizens to preserve their wildlife–as if people do not fish, hunt, drink water, breathe air, wear clothes made from plants, consume plant-derived medicine, grow food that needs pollinators, or take advance of the hundred other ecosystem services afforded them by the land they live on. Development does not have to be the crazy roller-coaster that China embarked on, with the obsessive emphasis on cheap fuel and rapid industrialization. We have already seen examples of African entrepreneurs taking advantage of abundant solar resources to provide clean electricity, and of the power of simple cellphone networks to transform personal banking and increase market access on the continent. Why should it stop there?

I don’t know that paying for ecosystem services is the ultimate answer to this dichotomy, but other market-driven incentives already exist. Ecotourism. Agroforestry. Shade-grown organic-certified coffee and tea. And if we drive ourselves to be more creative, more will arise.

On skepticism and happiness

To say that I am a skeptic is an understatement. I don’t think that murdering a figurehead like Osama bin Laden will bring an end to extremism, nor that keeping a currency artificially high will bring the best results in the long run. The eternal New Yorker in me sees skepticism as a mode of survival, but in California this seems to work against me. The happy folks out here equate skepticism to pessimism, and pessimism to downright grouchiness.

Well, happy people, you are both right and wrong. A good friend, calling himself a humanist, lives by the motto that he can’t control others’ happiness, but can at least ensure that he does things to make himself happier. While I would never deny the benefits of an Epicurean lifestyle, there’s something to be said for empathy. People everywhere are struggling–not in deciding between two different cars or girlfriends–but to survive. And there’s beauty to the struggle, always. But to ignore it because it doesn’t fit neatly into the bubble lifestyle of VC funding and 401Ks is to ignore one’s roots… and forgetting our roots is the most common mistake we make as a species. So we continue to be amazed by the harshness and anonymity of war, the nostalgia for extinct species as we keep losing more, the scale of revolutions technological and political alike.

One step forward, two steps back.

I don’t think foreign aid is the answer to others’ struggles. Charity rarely is, mostly because it’s not sustainable and lacks an accountability mechanism (though it arguably needn’t have any). I don’t think stopping FDI inflow will prevent land grabs, nor do large-scale land acquisitions have to be inherently unwise. They just often are. Things are more complex than the media, the progressives, the conservatives, and the governments portray. So why not be skeptical?