Thursday, May 31

The Power of Sunlight

Summer is the season for fun in the sun - vacation time for many of us. It is also a time when humans become more aware of the power of sunlight. It has the ability to burn our skin, warm the ground we walk upon and change the air we breathe. It sparks the rebirth and renewal of plants, insects and animals. It extends our days and diminishes our nights. The sun is our energy source - a power in our lives. For me, solar energy is the most logical source to fuel and power our cars, our homes, anything that requires a battery or a charge and as a clean source of energy, it is our pathway to survival.

In the early, 1990s, General Motors owned a huge research and development facility in Burbank, CA. They were testing and producing their electric vehicle, the EV-1. Honda also produced an electric car and I test drove both versions. As explained in a recent documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car," market and governmental forces combined to create a perfect storm of greed and stupidity that sabotaged this program.

I recall seeing Huell Howser, on a KCET, program showing brand new EV-1s being dismantled, compacted and sold for scrap. If you're familiar with Howser's California Gold series, you quickly get bored with his quest for clarity as he constantly repeats the comments of those he interviews.

"You mean these are brand new cars?!" he asked repeatedly as we watched them being crushed into metal rectangles. Like Huell, I was mystified at this unbelievable stupidity and was glad, for once, that Huell was as stuck as I am on this crazy fact. What is so sad is that Americans have the vision, the technical brilliance, the resources for creating wonderful things, but we lack the courage to change.

I say, "we", because consumers got close to buying and supporting this technology, but bailed out when faced with infrastructure inconveniences that only time, patience, government support and commitment can eliminate. The Department of Water and Power used these vehicles and installed charging stations. Even Costco started installing chargers in their parking lots. Given a few more years, most retail outlets, gas/charging stations, city/state/fed buildings (you get the picture) would have added to the grid. And, all of this structure would be on top of residential chargers.

Clean and abundant power was almost within our grasp just five years ago. This power source does not require acres of land and tons of water to support it as in bio fuel production. This power can reduce our dependence on Exxon/Mobile and their ever increasing prices. This power can stop our government's interest and interference in other countries energy production and consumption. It can and will end the pork barrel, energy policies of the Bush regime. My hope is that this energy dementia will end sooner or later, but it will end.

Why? Because, unlike oil, the sun is not going away. Solar power is the future, and, like Alun Andersen, former editor of "New Science," I am optimistic that this power source will save us sooner rather than later. Andersen said it best when "Edge - The World Question Center" asked him, "WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?" Here is his response:

"The Sunlight-Powered Future"

"I'm optimistic about…a pair of very big numbers. The first is 4.5 x 10ˆ20. That is the current world annual energy use, measured in joules. It is a truly huge number and not usually a cause for optimism as 70 per cent of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels.

Thankfully, the second number is even bigger: 3,000,000 x 10ˆ20 joules. That is the amount of clean, green energy that pours down on the Earth totally free of charge every year. The Sun is providing 7,000 times as much energy as we are using, which leaves plenty for developing China, India and everyone else. How can we not be optimistic? We don't have a long-term energy problem. Our only worries are whether we can find smart ways to use that sunlight efficiently and whether we can move quickly enough from the energy systems we are entrenched in now to the ones we should be using. Given the perils of climate change and dependence on foreign energy, the motivation is there.

Can it be done? I'm lucky that as a writer I get to meet some of the world's brightest scientists each year, and I know that out there are plenty of radical new ideas for a future in which sunlight is turned straight into the forms of energy we need. Here are just three of my favourites out of scores of great ideas. First, reprogramming the genetic make-up of simple organisms so that they directly produce usable fuels (hydrogen, for example). That will be much more efficient than today's fashionable new bio ethanol programs because they will cut out all the energy wasted in growing a crop, then harvesting it and then converting its sugars into fuel. Second, self-organizing polymer solar cells. Silicon solar cells may be robust and efficient but they are inevitably small and need a lot of energy to make. Self-organizing polymer cells could be ink jetted onto plastics by the hectare, creating dirt cheap solar cells the size of advertising hoardings. Third, there's artificial photosynthesis. Nature uses a different trick from silicon solar cells to capture light energy, whipping away high-energy electrons from photo-pigments into a separate system in a few thousand millionths of a second. We are getting much closer to understanding how it's done, and even how to use the same principles in totally different nano-materials.

But what of the pessimist's view that we can are just too entrenched in our current energy systems to change? There is a world-wide boom in investment in green technology already under way. And there are many transition technologies coming into operation that enable practice runs for more radical genome reprogramming and creation of new nano-structures. Although the consensus view is that the sunlight-powered future won't be taking over until 2050, I'd place an optimistic bet that one of the many smart ideas being researched now will turn out to be an unforeseen winner much earlier."

This essay and many others are available online at Edge. Check it out!

Update: Here's a winning solar idea: "Using Solar Roofs to Power Hybrids"
Here's another one: "Easy Solar Power" - thin film photovoltaic laminates
Uno mas: "GM Scorns Internal Combustion Engine "- at least they are back on the right track.

Wednesday, May 16

Protecting the Facade

"Today, the U.S. Senate rejected legislation that would cut off money for combat operations in Iraq after March 1, 2008." -AP news report

"..,Congress has approved five emergency-spending measures since Sept. 11, 2001, and other federal money has been moved into the effort to wage battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. In all, more than $400 billion will have been set aside or spent by the end of this year (2006).
The administration plans to seek the additional $70 billion as special "supplemental" funding, an emergency procedure outside the regular budget process that has stirred controversy on Capitol Hill
." - By Mark Mazzetti and Joel Havemann -2006 Los Angeles Times article

Five (or is it now six, going on seven?) times the Bush administration has asked Congress to approve additional funding for these wars. The key word is "additional." This administration is so incompetent that they cannot figure out a winning strategy or budget for waging war in two countries that have no military, to speak of. I repeat, the USA has spent billions on military industrial weapons to bomb the shyte out of people reduced to living in a virtual stone age after decades of war. I am inclined to support the President's veto of his latest request for war funds and NOT give him anything. There is a massive war budget, without this supplemental funding, for him to dip into. Maybe if Congress stopped approving these requests the war would end? I feel that this is too obvious and simplistic a solution, but sometimes the obvious is ignored.

I remember reading about the American Revolutionary War and wondering why British soldiers wore bright red uniforms, lined up in straight lines, fired guns and were picked off by American snipers and sharp shooters. It was obvious that this was wrong. Americans used tactics learned from their battles with Indians - guerrilla war tactics. Rather than be a bright red target for anyone who wants to kill something, they used stealth, withdrawal and intelligence to win the war.

The Bushites live in a "stay the course" fog that cannot be penetrated with any obvious truth or justice. What is the course??? Like the British of the 1700s they underestimate and denigrate their opposition. Bush supporters stick to their belief in a godly, military-industrial-corporate merger. They use the word "patriotism" as a glittering facade - hiding their dangerous neocon and theocon agendas for a new (or old) world order which eliminates the rights of individuals in conflict with those in power. The latest "supplemental war funding request" should be the last.. request, that is.

We are not lemmings. Suicide is not part of the American psyche. Americans elected Democrats to stop the hemorrhaging of lives, money and international goodwill. The Bush bloodletting must stop and those Democrats and Republicans that are "supporting the troops" with more of the same lies, incompetence and stupidity are choosing to kill their political careers over a losing cause. They are also choosing to put our soldiers in bright red suits with targets on them so they can be tortured, maimed, killed by the Shias, or the Sunnis, or al Qaeda, or anyone who hates America.

5/24/07 Update: Congress backs Iraq funding bill.
Reported/Estimated Deaths caused by the Iraq war.
Congress is ignoring the will of the people.

Wednesday, May 9

Hundreds Flee

Griffith Park is on fire.

My son called me from Merced yesterday afternoon, worried that the Griffith Park fire might be affecting me and my nearby neighborhood. Earlier, I listened to radio news reports of "a fire in Griffith Park," and I expected to hear another news report a few hours later that the blaze had been extinguished. Almost 24 hours later, the park is still on fire and wreaking havoc on the dry, brushy hillsides.

Last night, I worried that the animals in the LA Zoo would be destroyed and thanks to the efforts of firefighters and zoo workers, the animals are safe. Homes in Los Feliz, the Greek Theater, the new Observatory, the Merry-Go-Round and children's playground have been saved. Dante's View has been lost.

I've visited Dante's View and the other volunteer community garden, Amir's Garden, a few times. They are well-loved hiking destinations and beautiful examples of the power of an individual's passion for plants and these men connected and resonated with the community. Whenever I've hiked up to these gardens, volunteers were busy maintaining them while enjoying the view of the city and the sunshine. I have no doubt Dante's View will be rebuilt and continue to be a source of beauty and shared joy.

LA Mayor, Villaraigosa, is now on the radio and so far, the fire is about fifty percent contained and expected containment is within another twenty-four hours. Over 800 acres have been burned, one man partially burned, no structures have been burned. Wild animals, such a coyotes, raccoons, possum, have been wandering down from the barren hillsides for months. More of these animals, displaced by the fires, will be on our city streets.

It's early May, and fire season has already started because of the extreme drought. I keep waiting for the mayor, fire chief, someone, to outline a mandatory water conservation and fire safety plan. Now is the time to drive home the seriousness of these drought conditions and to guide the the community through this crisis with conservation and safety awareness/mandate programs.