Monthly Archives: September 2015

Global Warming, Problems and Solutions

The drumbeat to deal with the immediate problem of global warming gets louder. Ice caps are melting and glaciers shrinking at ever increasing rates. Sea levels continue to rise and the oceans are becoming more acidic. 2014 was the hottest year in recorded history and 2015 appears on the way to surpass that. The hottest 10 years on record have occurred in the past 17.

melting glacier

melting glacier

Meanwhile human activities added over 40 billion tons of Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere in just the last year. Human activities are also increasing the amounts of other climate forcing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Frightening feedback loops serve to intensify the rate of climate change: A warmer atmosphere hold more water vapor, a very strong greenhouse gas in it’s own right. Melting sea ice reflects less solar energy back into space and thawing tundra in the far north releases Methane.

The data from above is measured on a daily basis across the globe. There is no controversy. We are creating a situation that will continue on for generations. The only question is just how badly do we want to burden our children ? The longer we delay the more costly it gets; in environmental degradation, in money, and in human lives.

President Obama has taken a bold step with the clean power plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions by 30 % compared to 2012 levels by 2030. It is a first step, but only a small one. Basically we have to find alternatives for energy production to replace the use of fossil fuels. The United States is behind many other countries but we have the resources available, wind and solar, to rapidly catch up and become the preeminent power in the world again.

Our heartland, the Midwest, is considered to be the Saudi Arabia of wind, but to properly exploit the resource requires a rapid expansion of the grid to deliver the power to where its needed. Part of the expansion of transmission should pass through Arkansas. Utilities are beginning to show interest, or at least are prodded on by the clean power plan. They tend to favor large “ utility scale” projects for both wind and solar.

Wind resources here in Arkansas are limited but readily available from our neighbors to the west. A utility scale 500 acre solar farm will soon be built near Stuttgart Arkansas. Large scale projects like this are financed by long term contracts with the energy producer and the power companies that have the transmission and distribution capacity to deliver the power to the consumer.

Big power producers and big industries have the lobbying might to bring on the large projects, but that needn’t be the only way to generate large amounts of clean power. If individual home owners and small businesses were afforded the the same long term contracts, there wouldn’t be a need for large tracts of land, only south facing roofs.

bob

bob

You could be a power provider by using the sun falling on your roof everyday. Just measure how much energy your roof can capture, then go to your grid operator and request a long term contract based on the power you could be producing (and profiting from.) With contract in hand go to the bank for underwriting a loan, to be paid for through the power contract. Alternatively lease agreements could still earn a tidy profit.

In Arkansas this could be as simple as the Public Service Commission mandating that long term contracts be available to small producers, just as they are to the big boys. Voila, large scale distributed energy.

Processed Food

Today we think of processed foods as a relatively recent innovation with rather negative connotations, think chicken nuggets, Cheetos and diet sodas. However, the reality is that humans have been processing foods long before we settled into agricultural societies.

The first obvious innovation was the use of fire to cook. It takes less work and provides more calories to eat cooked food such as meat and root vegetables. Some authors have suggested that use of fire to prepare food was integral to human development, allowing for enlarged brains, and resulting in the more gracile facial characteristics of smaller jaws and teeth.

The time line for the adoption of the use of fire to prepare foods ranges from suggestions that H. erectus used fire 1.8 million years ago. Others suggest that the real control of fire and frequent use of fire in food preparation dates roughly to the time of a later relative H. neaderthalensis, about 400,000 years ago. Others say it is as recent as 20,000 years ago. Which ever time line you choose, processing food with fire began long before what we describe as civilization, the transition from isolated hunter gather groups to larger agrarian societies.

Agriculture was the great transition to move towards larger social groups, but there is evidence that making bread preceded active cultivation of grain crops. Wild grains are nutritious but difficult to consume without processing. By grinding grains to produce a flour, and then baking that into bread provided a relatively calorie dense, environmentally stable and easily transportable food. As we became more dependent on bread, cultivation became necessary and drove the transition towards agricultural.

The shift to agriculture produced new demands. Crops are seasonal but but our diets are daily, hence the need for storage at least on an annual cycle. The next technical advance was quite likely the invention of beer. Traces of a residue from beer on pottery have been found dating back to over 7,000 years ago.

During the Middle Ages much of Europe was probably mildly drunk – men, women and children alike. Hygiene not being the strong suit at the time, water sources were invariable polluted with human wastes. To brew beer however required boiling the wort, a mixture of malted barley and water. This produced a potable beverage with considerable nutrition to boot. Later hops were found to improve the flavor, and increase the storage life, making beer all the more valuable.

Europe, especially northern Europe saw the evolution of lactose tolerance in adults. Milk is an extremely nutritious source of protein and fat and therefore a complement to bread and beer. But milk doesn’t store well. Cheese on the other hand has a considerable shelf life, months to years. Cheese was first made by storing mike in natural container, a stomach removed from a ruminant. A substance know as rennet present in the lining of the stomach caused the milk to clabber. Add various bacteria to produce lactic acid for increased digestibility and you have a flavorful, stable, fat and protein laden foodstuff.

A diet of “processed food” – Cheese Whiz on a cracker washed down with a beer – is a truly ancient meal. With the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrate, and the micronutrients both fat and water soluble vitamins, it’s all there. Bon appetit.

Animas River Spill

Colorado has an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines, going back to the time of the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of 1850. The history of mining in Colorado is written in the names of some towns: Anaconda named after a Copper mining company, Bonanza, Gold Hill, Silver Plume, Eureka, Telluride after a salt of the element Tellerium, Silverton, Leadville, and Placerville.

The majority of the abandoned mines present little problem but several hundred around Colorado are filled with water and a mix of various metals that are frequently found in association with more valuable precious metals. Some are not so serious such as Iron and Copper, but others are a danger to human health and the biosphere in general. They include Mercury, Cadmium, Lead, and Arsenic. These exist in the main as relatively insoluble salts. In bodies of water they are found in the silt at the bottom, slowly moving from there into the bodies of the benthic organisms and up the food chain. In rivers they can be mobilized during high flow events and moved down steam.

Given their numbers, it’s not surprising that there are occasional “spills” of these wastes. The most recent case is the 3 million gallon spill that occurred when a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a dike that held back waste and allowed it flow into the Animas River.

It is sad that a remediation effort results in a spill, but it is the price the tax payer must assume now for not acting sooner to prevent the abandonment of the mines. The problem dates back to an 1872 law governing mining on public land. It allows essentially unfettered access to mine for metals without any payment of royalties or environmental standards.

The government has the authority to require bonds to insure cleanup, but the rate is so low as to be ineffective. Currently the EPA spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to clean up the toxic wastes left behind from previous mining operations. The government accountability office estimates that upwards of 70 billion dollars would be required to clean up the abandoned mines in the western states.

Legislation has been proposed to address the issue over the last few years, most recently Representative Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. has introduced legislation which would modernize the mining law by requiring a 7 cent per ton fee on rock mined. The proceeds from this would be used in the reclamation of mined land. This proposal is called The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 (HR963).

This and similar recent legislation has gone nowhere as the mining companies have lobbied long and hard to avoid any responsibility for cleaning up after themselves. Will the current attention to the pollution of the Animas, and downstream San Juan and Colorado rivers get the attention of the public? Just what will it take for us to recognize that we have look over the shoulders of industry and hold them accountable for their actions?

A mine is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar. Mark Twain