Author Archives: bob

Sustainability is the Future

The United States became the dominant world power by the conclusion of World War II. In essence, we were the last man standing, ie, the only real industrial power not impacted by war. In fact, the war brought us out of a depression and stimulated our industrial might. Additionally, we had vast resources of fossil fuels to run the factories.

To this day we are still the largest economy on the planet, but no longer the leader in some of the technologies that will be important, even determinative, in the future. Our utilization of fossil fuels in the past brought us to the top but continuing to rely on then in the future will bring us down.

Whether we recognize the inherent dangers of global warming and the need to decarbonize our energy mix, most of the rest of the world does. President Trump is trying to move us in the wrong direction by abandoning international agreements such as the Paris Accord. He has ordered a cutback of fuel efficiency standards, opened vast areas of public land for fossil fuel exploitation, and generally thumbed his nose at any and all previous measures meant to deal with global warming.

Clean, sustainable energy is the future. Economies built on this recognition will in the long run prosper. Although we pioneered electricity generation from wind, China has blown past us in installed capacity with over a third of the world’s installed power. The European Union led by Denmark, Germany and the Iberian peninsula, is now producing more than the US.

The latest big move into wind power is the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The UK has moved rapidly to install offshore turbines and now has more offshore capacity than the rest of the world combined. Scotland leads the world in the fraction of electricity demand it meets with wind power. An astonishing 53% of all electricity production comes from wind turbines. In the US, it is 6%. And they are not resting on their laurels. The UK will soon be home to the largest wind installation project with a capacity of 1,800 megawatts off the Yorkshire coast. The largest in the US the Alta Wind energy project with 1,548 megawatts.

This wind project will be powered by 150 turbines each generating 12 megawatts of power. Each turbine will provide enough energy to run 16,000 homes. These giants stand over 800 feet tall, almost 3 times the height of the Statue of Liberty.

A similar story holds for solar. China leads with about 25% of total world production. The US is fourth after China, Japan, and Germany. In terms of the fraction of total production, the US falls to tenth place with only 1.4% of our total production. Italy leads with 7.5% of there total.

As stated earlier, the countries which deploy the greatest fraction of their energy production via sustainables will lead the world if for no other reason than a decreasing demand for a diminishing resource is a good thing. As important however, is the advantage of leading in the development of tomorrows technology.

Every wind turbine and every solar panel also means cleaner air and reduced global warming potential. Did I mention that the Arkansas Public Service Commission is likely to soon make a ruling which will disfavor home solar arrays? MAGA, Making America Grate (on our nerves) Again.

Happiness is sharing

I think we can all agree that we know what happiness is and when we and or our friends are happy, but can happiness be measured for whole countries? And when we talk about happiness for a whole population, just what are we talking about.

For individuals., important things like being in a stable and loving relationship, having a secure and fulfilling job, being secure in the fact that if you get sick or have an accident that you will be able to afford proper care all come to mind. Other factors include access to education, freedom of activities, a comfortable retirement, and importantly protection from violence and even political coercion.

A number of organizations from the United Nations to the Gallup poll, using survey and economic data come to the same conclusions: Scandinavia wins every time, Canada beats the USA which is in about the middle in happiness, and at the bottom despotic, and especially war-torn countries.

Factors which gather all this input into a simple number are the Gini indices for wealth and income, especially income. The Gini index is a way to put a number, between 0 and 1, on the distribution of some asset. It is usually applied as noted to wealth or income but can be applied other things. If something, wealth for instance, is held by very few or even one and nobody else has any then the index would be at or near 1. On the other hand, if it is evenly distributed throughout the population, then the value would be near 0.

Back to happiness. It should be obvious that the happiest countries all favor socialism in the broadest meaning of the word. Economic systems in countries are organized somewhere between capitalism and socialism, although neither exist in the purest form anywhere in the world.

Even in capitalistic United States we have socialism in the form of social security, medicare and medicaid, and even more mundane structures such as police and fire protection. Rigidly socialist North Korea has some capitalism by way of street vendors who sell things like food and cheap commodities.

The strongest objection by capitalists to socialism is that it throttles innovation. Why work hard or try to create wealth when the government just takes so much in taxes? The happiest people live in the Scandinavian countries which are all are relatively socialistic. They also have relatively high gini (wealth) indices. The people of Denmark, frequently ranked as the happiest, has a gini index comparable to the United States.

Where we and the countries with the happiest people vary is the gini index for income. Income is much more evenly dispersed in the happy countries. This is net income which includes not only cash payments for work but also the social welfare network which provides healthcare, education, retirement, a host of other services which enrich life.

The happiest people in the world live in countries that have low gini indices for income but relatively high indices for wealth. This means that the largest number of people have sufficient income to ensure that they don’t have to worry, while at the same time allowing wealth to accumulate to those who seek it.

Biodiversity = Sustainability

Ask ecologists what is the best measure of the health of an environment and they will tell you diversity. There are a multitude of ecological niches from the frozen tundra to boiling hot springs, from bone dry deserts to ocean expanses. In every case, greater biodiversity signals greater productivity and hence greater sustainability. Broader plant diversity means more food available to herbivores, and more herbivores makes for more prey animals.

Homo Sapiens, the only species on the planet that is actually capable of thinking about its impact, doesn’t. At least not much. We might forgive our Ice Age ancestors for wiping out most the megafauna on the planet because they didn’t realize their impact, but whenever humans showed up on the scene large animals disappeared. Other than Africa where we co-evolved with several large mammals, few are left around the world. Even the African species are dwindling.

The slaughter began as modern humans migrated out of Africa as early as 100,000 years ago. Europe, Asia, Australia and finally the Americas saw the rapid disappearance of large mammals. Some blame may be placed on changing climate, especially what is called the Holocene extinction at the end of the last glacial period, about 12,000 years ago. This period coincided with human migration into the Americas. Not only did the more northerly megafauna disappear but others such as a giant beaver as big as a compact car and a giant ground sloth which towered over 20 feet tall.

A similar rapid extinction took place when humans made their way to Australia about 40,000 years ago. A prehistoric marsupial weighing in at 3 tons disappeared shortly after human arrival. Also on the extinct list are a 2 ton Goanna (lizard), a turtle with a shell diameter of over 6 feet, and 500-pound flightless bird.

Probably the best-known example of a human-caused extinction is that of the Dodo, a 50 pound flightless relative of pigeons. Over a very short period of time it was extirpated from its island in the Indian Ocean. The Dodo was first seen by Dutch Sailors in 1598. It was gone from history by 1662, a species driven to extinction over the course of one human lifetime.

At the same time that we drive wild megafauna to extinction, we are replacing them with a very limited number of livestock, principally cattle, sheep, hogs and chickens and little else.

The combined mass of humanity is currently around 300 million tons, that of our livestock, 700 million tons. Compare that with the combined weight of everything from beavers to blue whales, which adds up to only 100 million tons. There are 200,000 wolves in the wild compared to 400 million dogs. Our closest relative the chimpanzee number about a quarter million compared to 7.6 billion of us.

The last western Black Rhino died in 2011, the last male Northern White Rhino died last month, leaving two infertile females of the species. Biodiversity means resilience means sustainability. What is our plan for our descendants?

Yet Another Dam?

Here in and about the river valley, we enjoy what could be described as plentiful rainfall, and a pinch of snowfall on occasions. In all, we average about 50 inches a year. Precipitation is generally spread over every month of the year with maximums occurring in the spring and early winter months. For the time being, we have sufficient water for both agriculture and drinking water, but this will change in the future. Growth alone will mean that we need to expand our drinking water supplies.

If the projections of computer models continue to correctly predict changing climate, we’re in for more trouble. Generally, global warming should mean more rainfall as warmer air can hold more moisture, but computer modeling predicts changing weather patterns with less rainfall in mid-continental regions and more on the coasts. Further confounding the issue of water availability is the prediction that what precipitation we do get will come in more intense and less frequent storm events.

Even if we get the same amount of precipitation, but it occurs less frequently, we will need more reservoir capacity to tide us over between rain events. Where will we get our drinking water in the future? In the 1980s City Corp looked to the North Fork of the Illinois Bayou as a possible site for a reservoir. Objections from the environmental community and the Ozark National Forest shifted the attention to the current site on Huckleberry Creek. The watershed of Huckleberry Creek is not large enough, but the reservoir is supplemented by pumping water out of the Illinois Bayou.

This “off-stream pumped storage” option has served the River Valley well for a couple of decades, but now City Corp is looking again to expand its supply by seeking an impoundment on the North Fork. Aside from environmental groups’ objections, and reservations on the part of the National Forest to cede land, there is the considerable expense of constructing a dam. If constructed this impoundment will flood a near pristine area currently used for hunting, fishing, camping, and other water sports.

And when this small impoundment’s capacity is exceeded, then what is the next valley to be flooded? And the next and the next? Ultimately the real long-term solution is to draw water from Lake Dardanelle. Why don’t we just cut to the chase and avoid the costs, both fighting with environmental groups and the monetary cost of construction of dams.

Water in Lake Dardanelle is good quality and can be further refined if necessary by technology. Reverse Osmosis (RO) is employed around the world to turn seawater in the potable water. RO systems are scaled from under the sink units for homeowners to multi-million gallons per day systems for municipal desalination plants.

The Arkansas Department of Health frowns on the utilization of the Arkansas River as a drinking water supply, but their objections are based on old data, and failure to recognize drastic improvements in the cost and efficiency of Reverse Osmosis technology.

Minimally treated water from lake Dardanelle could be pumped to the current Huckleberry Creek reservoir at a fraction of the cost of building more impoundments. This solution will allow us to have the drinking water we need for an expanding population under pressure from global warming. At the same time, we can save some of our wild places so our children and their children can have the experience of a relatively unexploited environment, the same as we enjoy.

Rural Digital Divide

Throughout the previous century and into the 21st, there has been a gradual population shift from rural to urban locales. The jobs just aren’t there anymore. Early on this was dominated in a shift from subsistence farming to a reliance on cash crops. Later, it was driven by the mechanization of farming technology.

This demographic shift was very obvious when looking at life in the Ozarks. Subsistence farming filled the hills and dales. Even in face of the double whammy of the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, families survived. The advent of World War II however, created jobs that hadn’t existed before. The Ozarks saw a huge drop in populations as whole families moved off to work in defense plants.

In addition to the demographic shift to towns and cities, there is also an age shift, with the average age of rural populations increasing. This is entirely understandable as the older folks with jobs in rural areas stay and the youth head to the cities to find employment.

A big step bolstered the success of rural life, rural electrification. President Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1935 which was followed later with legislation creating the Rural Electrification Administration. Were it not for this act life in rural areas would have disappeared even faster. Electrification brought some parity to rural life compared to life in the cities.

As we transition to the age of the internet, there is a new form of disparity between the cities and rural areas. Access to broadband internet is becoming essential to both learn and earn in contemporary society. Increasing numbers of jobs depend absolutely on broadband internet. With quality internet access, many jobs could come back to rural areas. Rural life is inherently attractive to many but there has to be an income source.

The value of broadband internet has been recognized now and even the smallest schools have access. But what about when the children go home? Not so much. The best method for broadband is fiber optic cables but the cost for rolling out the cable is unattractive to commercial entities. Broadband can be delivered via a cell phone signal to many rural areas, but again low population densities mean low income for private investment.

The Ozarks present a particular difficulty because of the topology, deeply cut serpentine valleys mean even more towers are necessary for complete coverage. It is time to consider a significant effort to support bringing broadband internet to rural areas, just like rural electrification. In fact, the electric coops could act to broker the delivery. The poles to string cables are already there. It would require an expansion of the skill set for the coops to manage internet connections, but that in itself would bring jobs back.

It’s time to bridge the digital divide and bring our rural areas into the twenty-first century. Children at home need access to high speed internet. Modern home security systems require connectivity, even many personal health notification devices for the elderly require access.

Deregulation = Poisoned Eagles

Much of president Trump’s success, if you want to call it that, has come from deregulation. Consumer and environmental protections are at the forefront of the race to make a buck at any cost. The attacks on environmental protection are broad and untimely dangerous. Clean air and water, especially if Obama’s name is connected, are under fire.

Gone is the the clean power plan created by Obama, which had the two-fold benefit of reducing releases of greenhouse gasses and lowering our exposure to lung damaging fine particulate matter. Gone is the methane rule which which was designed to prevent fugitive emissions of Methane, a greenhouse gas 22 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide.

Gone is the 2015 Clean Water Rule which clarified just what bodies of water should come under federal regulatory rule. Conservatives saw it as overreach, but then who needs clean water, right? Wetlands protections, Mercury emissions, numerous regulations meant to protect the environment from rapacious fossil fuel extraction, and on and on, gone.

One recent deregulatory step has been to lift the ban on lead used for hunting on wildlife refuges. This increases the the likelihood of poisoning of non-target species that can be poisoned from eating carcasses of unrecovered animals or the entrails of field dressed animals like deer and elk. Among those animals at increased risk is none other than our national symbol, the Bald Eagle. They, other raptors, and vultures can receive lethal doses of lead.

My personal experience is not uncommon. Recently while floating on the Illinois Bayou with friends we stopped on a gravel bar to grab a bite to eat. Not 20 yards from where we stopped was a Bald Eagle near the brush line on the gravel bar! Just sitting there. We assumed it would fly away so we didn’t disturb it. After several minutes it hadn’t moved so we walked closer, within just a few feet of it. It made no attempt to flee. This bird was obviously in very bad shape. We contacted the HAWK center (Helping Arkansas Wild Kritters) and were encouraged to bring him in. Lynne Slater met us at the takeout and took over his care.

A toxicology screen showed a blood lead concentration of 3.6 ppm. Concentrations of lead greater than 0.6 ppm are diagnostic for lead toxicosis. X-ray examination of the eagle show no physical damage or the presence of any lead shot, hence he was poisoned indirectly. After around the clock intensive treatment for almost a week, the eagle died. Essentially this eagle died because someone want ed to save 2 to 5 % on the cost of bullets. Non-lead bullets and shot exist but are ever so slightly more expensive.

Multiple studies show that even when a lead slug passes through an animal, it leaves small, even microscopic bits of lead which contaminate the flesh and entrails. One study found lead fragments in 1/3 of all ground venison packages examined. So not only are the scavengers getting lead from the gut piles, the hunters and their friends and family are similarly exposed.

We have recognized the hazard of and removed lead from our gasoline, paint, plumbing and numerous consumer products. It is high time that we get the lead out of our environment by mandating alternatives to lead in weaponry.

Something Has to Change

Ironically, if we don’t get to the issue of the availability of guns in the wrong hands, we will erode the freedom we are trying to protect. Trying to second guess which person with a gun is likely to do violence to others will require a massive level of surveillance never seen outside the likes of dystopian novels.

Yet more innocent children were mowed down in school last week and again we have thoughts and prayers, gnashing of teeth and pounding of fists. In this case, the friends of the children who were massacred are speaking out and want solutions. What, if anything will we do?

The direct solution is to limit access to certain weapons for people that have no need for them. Military-style semiautomatic carbines with large magazines are killing machines. They are designed to kill people, plain and simple. They have been used over the past few years to kill everybody from young children in schools to attendees at a country music festival. Innocent folks attending both a church and a nightclub were murderously gunned down. If we don’t limit access to this weaponry, other steps will be necessary, and they aren’t pretty.

If we don’t watch (access to) guns, we need to watch the people. The FBI right now is being chided for not pursuing information on the alleged shooter in Florida. We may greatly expand surveillance of the populace at every level from local constables up to and including the FBI. It would require a massive expansion of manpower, and drastically reduce privacy as we know it.

A third avenue would be to act defensively on a large scale. We could turn our schools into something that more resemble fortresses than places of education. Metal detectors at every conceivable entrance, numerous armed guards constantly roaming the halls, even bulletproof shields surrounding playgrounds. We would essentially be sending our children off to prison, not school.

Also, personal protective gear may be necessary. School uniforms could be used that resemble the clothing of SWAT teams because, well, the children need to get from an armed and fortified home to an armed and fortified school. Actually, school backpacks fabricated from Kevlar are already available, but (child size) bulletproof chest protectors, helmets, and leggings would also be needed.

Granted, the last two paragraphs propose rather extreme and very impractical solutions. The real solutions are all around us. Where there are guns there will be gun violence. In the mid-nineties in Dunblane, England, 20 children were slain while at school. The immediate result was legislation banning private possession handguns. Although there is still gun violence in the UK, it is orders of magnitude lower than in the United States. Similarly, a mass shooting in Australia a few years back resulted in a buy-back and ban of military-style weapons. There have been no massacres since.

Without confiscating a single weapon, simple precautions such as registration, licensing, and insurance will go a long way. Something has to change.

Hurrah for Clarksville

Our neighbor to the west just had a ribbon cutting ceremony for their new 6.5 Megawatt solar array. It is visible from Interstate 40 near exit 55. The 20,000 panels will provide enough electricity to power 25 % of Clarksville homes. They also purchase wind-generated power so that nearly half the communities’ needs for power are met by clean and renewable resources.
Home solar arrays are being installed at an ever-quickening pace. Here in Arkansas, Entergy is in negotiations to close two large coal-fired plants, and the replacement? Installation of large-scale solar arrays locally and purchase of wind power from abundant sources to our west.
The cities of Fayetteville and Little Rock have joined with the Sierra Club in the “Ready for 100” program, a pledge to work towards 100 % sustainable power for their cities. All of this is important because our current administration has completely dropped the ball when it comes to addressing global warming by replacing the use of fossil fuels with clean, sustainable energy sources.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has been all over the map when it comes global warming. In his previous position as Attorney General of the State of Oklahoma, he sued the EPA several times. Many of those suits involved actions taken by the EPA to reduce the impacts of global warming and resultant climate change. Pruitt, as Attorney General for Oklahoma was frequently joined by Leslie Rutledge, Attorney General for Arkansas.
Apparently, he previously agreed with his current boss who famously claimed that global warming is a Chinese hoax. His position shifted somewhat to maybe but we need more study and it sure isn’t us. By us he means his patron, the fossil fuel industry. Shortly after taking office he stated “I would not agree that it [carbon dioxide] is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” It has been shown and is known around the world that burning fossil fuels release carbon dioxide which leads to global warming.
His latest position is – maybe it’s real but not so bad. In a recent interview in Las Vegas, his tune is now ”We know humans have most flourished during times of what, warming trends, So I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing.”
One can only assume that he is referring to a time when humans went about barefooted in the snow, running down Woolly Mammoths. Were a warmer air temperature our only metric, he might have a point. Life is a bit more complicated now. There were no major cities to be flooded due to sea level rise – no Miami, Houston or New Orleans. Besides the obvious issue of sea level rise, the complexity and integration of a global economy are dependent on climatic stability.
A warmer climate in a temperate zone for wealthy countries may not have as negative an impact as the direct impact on poor countries in the tropics. Widespread crop failures from heat, drought or flooding could create major economic collapse and out-migration to cooler regions, regardless of these regions ability to support the immigrants. Walls will not stop the starving. Our arrogance to fail to join with the rest of the world in the Paris Agreement to address global warming will come back to us in the future.
It’s the (sustainable) economy, stupid.

Permitted Pollution?

The Mt Judea hog factory is going back to court. The factory was first permitted in 2012. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) granted a Regulation 6 permit for the factory. Trouble followed immediately. Opponents of the factory rightly claimed that little to no public notice was given before the factory was permitted and the Reg 6 permit had no site-specific considerations.

The several thousand hogs produce close to two million gallons of waste per year. This stinky brew of urine and feces is spread on hay fields which drain into Big Creek, about six miles from the Buffalo National River. Environmentalists claim that the nutrient pollution washing from the hay fields pollute the Buffalo and threaten hundreds of jobs and a 60 million dollar annual tourism industry.

In 2016 the Reg 6 permit expired. The factory then sought a Reg 5 permit which if granted continued without requiring renewal. The factory continued to operate while ADEQ examined the new permit request. Last month the ADEQ denied the new permit request which the factory is currently appealing. There should be a decision within a couple of months.

Supporters of the factory claim that the factory is operating within the rules of the ADEQ but the environmentalists claim the factory is polluting Big Creek and the Buffalo. They are both right.

The factory has been inspected on numerous occasions and has operated without a violation. At the same time, there is clear evidence of pollution from the factory. Currently, there is a five-year moratorium, begun in 2015, for any new medium to large Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). The purpose was to allow time for a study to be done evaluating the impact of the factory on the watershed. Governor Beebe funded the Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET) to collect and evaluate the necessary data.

Pollution from the CAFO comes principally from excess nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate. They make their way by washing from the soil into Big Creek and thence the Buffalo. Also, the whole of the Buffalo watershed is underlain by the Boone formation which contains much porous limestone called Karst. This porosity can provide multiple paths for the pollutants to move from the field to underground streams, springs, and wells then into the Buffalo.

Factory proponents want to blame the tourists for nutrient pollution. Granted there will be some, but no way will the million annual visitors leave a couple of gallons each of urine and feces in the watershed.

They also claim that feral hogs in the watershed contribute to the pollution, but the feral hogs are only eating and excreting nutrients already in the watershed – the plants and animals which they eat. On the other hand, the CAFO hogs are eating and excreting nutrients imported into the watershed, an imbalance show by the BCRET data.

Most telling is the data from two gauging stations on Big Creek, one upstream of the spray fields and one downstream. Nitrate measurements downstream average 50 % higher than upstream. The measurements of soluble phosphate show a greater than 100 % increase in concentration downstream compared to upstream. This pollution stimulates algae growth and a subsequent reduction in dissolved Oxygen.

Choking algae blooms and reduced Oxygen negatively affect the numbers and health of fish and other aquatic organisms. Will tourists come to fish for carp in the future? Or will we decide that there are better locales for raising hogs?

Intermittency Need Not Be a Problem

There is no question that the future of power will be from the sun. Wind generation and solar panels are the predominant contenders. The president has wrongheadedly bragged about bringing back coal as an energy source. It hasn’t nor will it happen for simple economic reasons. Natural gas generation of electricity is cheaper and wind and solar are rapidly approaching parity in cost. Burning coal has the additional unaccounted burden of fouling our air and water.

The only advantage that fossil fuels have is that once extracted, they are available for power production near continuously. Sustainable sources such as wind and solar are available only intermittently. The relative availability is referred to capacity factor (CF), the fraction of time when a power source is available. Generally fossil fuel consuming power sources have higher capacity factors than intermittent sustainable sources, but are by no means constant.

The point of this is that all our electric generation sources are intermittent to a degree but power demands are continuous. At times less power is needed such as at night, or during the spring and fall when less heating or cooling is needed. Interconnected grid systems match power production and demand by balancing the various sources. Sustainability experts estimate that we can introduce intermittent power sources into the gird up to about 30 % of our total production without changing anything. After that we will need to add storage or change the way we utilize available intermittent power production.

Most think of batteries when considering electricity storage, but it is not the electricity necessarily that needs to be stored but rather the potential. Pumped storage is an example of the latter. In several locations, excess power at night can be used to pump water up a hill into a storage reservoir. During the day when demand increases water can be released to generate power.

Another strategy is to match jobs and/or lifestyle to the availability of electrical power just like we do for other traditional activities. We don’t grow corn and beans in the winter. We don’t go downhill skiing in the summer. In some locales power consumption is managed on a small scale with time of day pricing of electricity. Generally there is less demand for electricity at night, so power companies lower the price at night. This influences people to shift power consuming activities to later hours.

Larger scale operations could be shifted to times when energy is more available. The upper midwest has abundant wind energy available. It is available intermittently but predictably. Manufacturing schedules could be matched with the availability of lower cost power.

Solar power could easily be matched with power needs which themselves are only intermittent. Huckleberry Creek north of Russellville, Arkansas is a 500 acre man-made impoundment. It provides drinking water and in most years is sufficient. On occasion water is pumped from the Illinois Bayou uphill into the impoundment. Pontoon mounted solar panels could be floated on the lake to provide pumping power. There are a couple additional advantages here. Evaporation would be reduced by panel coverage and the solar panels themselves would be more efficient due to cooling from the water.