Sustainable Yada Yada Yada

This is a blog about sustainability, urban design, scientific and technological progress, and what the future may hold. As well as interesting or random stuff on occasion. I'll try my best to avoid politics!

the cyborg moths are finally here!

Well, they’re finally here - the cyborg moth slaves. First it was cockroaches and I didn’t say much because, well, they’re cockroaches.

cap and trade

This Greentech article has a long analysis of how cap-and-trade is likely to affect gas prices in California. The author comes up with ten cents a gallon, then explains why he thinks the higher estimates offered by the oil industry are just scare tactics. To put the ten cents in perspective, he offers the following options to offset the cost:

  • Drive 70 mph instead of 72 mph on the freeway. That…

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monopoly and free markets

This article from Alternet has a nice explanation of why “free markets” in the absence of regulation do not lead to open and fair competition:

Some monopolistic industries mess around with your daily life in an obvious way, like Big Telecom bringing you the low-grade misery of shoddy service and defective products. Others fly a bit lower under the radar, like the credit reporting monopolist Fair…

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grid parity

If a good indicator of grid parity is articles about grid parity, then grid parity seems to be here. This article from Renewable Energy World has a good roundup of recent articles on grid parity and the possibly dire consequences for traditional utilities.

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more on climate change and U.S. farming

more on climate change and U.S. farming

This NPR article says that climate change is allowing North Dakota farmers to switch from wheat to corn.

“Especially the increase in moisture has allowed for better yields and more profit in corn than, say, if we had some of the lesser moisture we had in the ’70s and the ’80s,” Ritchison says.

Corn and soybeans, which also like the moisture, now cover about 15 percent of North Dakota’s cropland,…

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genuine progress indicator

Vermont is going to have a go at the Genuine Progress Indicator, a GDP alternative:

Estimating the GPI begins with household consumption, the major component of Gross Domestic (or State) Product (GDP), followed by twenty-four separate adjustments including:

  • Additions for benefits not included in GDP, for example the values of volunteer and household work, and non-market benefits from the services…

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you know nothing, snow

you know nothing, snow

From Wired Science:

The western United States is undergoing a major shift in precipitation patterns. Large swaths of the West that have historically been dominated by snow in the winter months are starting to see a lot more rain instead. A new study that maps out the predominant form of precipitation shows that this trend could result in an average reduction in snow-dominated area of around 30…

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This claims the ocean will be empty in 30 years at our current fishing pace.

climate change, water, and corn

climate change, water, and corn

Here are a couple stories on U.S. corn yields:

From the “Risky Business Project“:

Shifting agricultural patterns and crop yields, with likely gains for Northern farmers offset by losses in the Midwest and South.

  • As extreme heat spreads across the middle of the country by the end of the century, some states in the Southeast, lower Great Plains, and Midwest risk up to a 50% to 70% loss in average…

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cost-benefit analysis

Here’s a vicious attack on cost-benefit analysis:

It is often argued that projects involving public good changes should be chosen on the basis of monetary valuation and cost–benefit analysis (CBA). However, CBA is not value-free. When used to measure welfare, it is based on highly controversial value judgements. When used to measure efficiency, it is based on assumptions of limited relevance to democratic decision-making processes. CBA measures total net willingness to pay, neither more nor less. While interesting in its own right, the normative significance of this indicator is not obvious.

I completely agree with not allowing economists and financiers to make our decisions for us based on their very narrow view of the world. But decisions have to be based on something. I have always liked a two-step process where the cost-benefit (or scientific or technical) results are provided as inputs into a political decision making process. This way the decision makers have the relevant facts at their fingertips and some understanding of the likely consequences of various decisions. They can rule out clearly wasteful or harmful alternatives, and can then factor in whatever else they want to factor into the decision.

virtual reality

Commercial virtual reality is here!

water conservation and the Clean Water Act

Here NRDC tries hard to make a case that water conservation will help a water/wastewater/stormwater utility with Clean Water Act (e.g., CSO, stormwater) compliance. It may under certain circumstances. To state the obvious, water utilities are in the business of selling water. A pure water utility, that is only in the business of selling clean water, doesn’t have a lot of incentive to promote conservation - in other words, encouraging people to buy less of its product. However, getting rid of leaks and waste in the utility’s own network (which can’t be billed to customers) is always a win. If the utility can delay, defer, or avoid a big capital investment, it’s a win. That happens if demand is growing, if existing infrastructure is about the wear out, or if available supplies are dwindling or changing requiring investment in new types of supplies.

Now, the utility that is in charge of clean water and dirty water, especially if it has combined sewers has these same issues, plus the added issue of preventing pollution of natural waters. Water conservation will help decrease wastewater flows a little bit - then you have a balancing act between the lost revenue from selling less clean water, and possible cost savings from having to treat less dirty water. It is unlikely that you can make a major change in your treatment plant or processes though to offset that cost, unless the change is very large. Again, it is a clear win only if you can delay or avoid large capital investments that you otherwise need to make. In cities with shrinking customer bases, the problem gets even worse.

So I don’t have the perfect solution here, and I don’t think the NRDC does either. It requires new thinking and new business models. The water industry hasn’t really woken up to these challenges yet. The electric industry however is thinking a lot about the analogous issue of responding to off-the-grid solar and battery storage systems. Smart, forward thinking people in the water industry should keep an eye on that, then do some additional thinking of their own.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk says he is trying to put people on Mars in 10-12 years, put sustainable colonies on Mars longer term as a hedge against human extinction, build cheap batteries for cheap electric cars and houses, build cheap solar panels to charge the batteries, and protect us against killer artificial intelligence. He also thinks other people should advance the Hyperloop and figure out how we can live…

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alternative energy

This article (in the descriptively name journal Energy) describes how California could move to an all-renewable energy future, then tries to put an economic value on that. It is always the link between air pollution and health that surprises me. Why don’t people get more upset that power plants and vehicle exhaust are literally taking years off all our lives when there are other alternatives out…

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