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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for December 2013

2013: the year in review

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If you have 40,000 pop bottles, recycle them into a Christmas tree

If you have 40,000 pop bottles, recycle them into a Christmas tree

Wow, 2013 is nearly over.  Now that exams are finally marked (the Christmas curse of every educator in this country), time for a bit of cheer and reflection.

On the personal front: family, friends, nobody died or had a major injury.  I’ll give thanks to that.

I’m lucky that I still like my job.  That’s in large part thanks to my students – I always learn from them.  This year, I’ve been asked me to design a degree in environmental protection; very welcome news.  Lots of work, but exciting.

But this is also the year where Dinah and I got personally shafted by Stephen Harper (well, his policies).  Dinah will likely be laid off in the new year, as the feds will no longer fund programs like hers.  Funding for an international student exchange program was cancelled by the feds (I had a good proposal), and our Cuba exchange project also lost its federal funding.  I’ll have more to say about that in a separate entry (cuz it’s not sitting well…).

Books were read, of course; I’ll recommend Dan Fagin’s Toms River as my environmental book of the year.  Toms River is the site of a cancer cluster, and Fagin does a masterful job of making the science interesting and the people come to life in this story that deserves to be widely known.

I was lucky enough to return to Cuba and travel to Sweden for work; Dinah and I also spent some holiday time in Australia – while looking at environmental stuff.

There was quite a bit happening in science and environmental news this year; the climate deteriorated, but renewable energy has made amazing gains, showing us the way out of our predicament.  Here’s  what made an impression.

The on-line magazine ThinkProgress claimed that 2013 was the best year ever worldwide: less racism, sexism and discrimination; fewer wars, murders, and violent crimes; less extreme poverty; and fewer infant deaths than ever before. 

In science news, a team from a university in Munich cooled a small amount of potassium below absolute zero (which, as we’ve all learned in school, should be impossible).  The resulting substance is also infinitely hot.  The mind boggles – isn’t science cool?  Also, eight species thought to be extinct have resurfaced (never give up!), mathematicians got closer to understanding twin primes, and the satellite Voyager having reached the outer limit of the solar system in the news of the year (Voyager was launched in 1977 – the mind boggles, again…).  September saw demonstrations across Canada to protect science, after cuts to the the Experimental Lakes Area, PEARL, and others in the previous years.  Blogger Roz Pidcock reviewed the five most important papers on climate science, which include the hockey stick turning into a scythe.

Speaking of climate news, May saw atmospheric  CO2 reach 400 ppm for the first time since the mid Pliocene (about 3 millions years ago), but GHG emissions slowed down for the first time this year.  It was the wettest May on record in the midwest, causing enormous soil erosion in Iowa.  The huge June downpours in India, causing numerous floods, are considered a sign of changing monsoon.  Central Europe was also badly flooded; and, of course, the climate event of the year in Canada was the devastating Calgary flood.  

 In BC, there was no rain in Vancouver and Victoria in July;  this was also the month of the record-breaking downpour (and flood) in Toronto, and also when smoke from unprecedented forest fires in Eastern Canada was detected in Europe.  September saw unprecedented flooding in Colorado; In October the IPCC released its new report, stating unequivocally that humans are changing the climate; in South Dakota, a freak blizzard killed cattle.  While there were the fewest hurricanes in the Atlantic since 1982, this was the year of Haiyan, the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall (in the Phillipines), and Phailin, possibly the strongest Indian Ocean cyclone ever.  Sam Carana continued to blog about arctic methane emissions, possibly the most under-reported climate story.

The Guardian and Mother Jones both featured extensive coverage of the climate in 2013, and gave its “blog of the year” award to Christopher Majka on Tom Mulcair’s views on climate change and eenergy policy – whether or not you like Mulcair, it’s a good read.

In renewable  energy news,the world’s largest solar concentrated power plant opened in Abu Dhabi in March.  For a few days in October, all the electricity needs of Denmark came from wind, with a twenty percent extra.  This was a first for any nation, worldwide (the average fraction for wind in Denmark is about 30%).  In Germany, record breaking solar capacity is pushing coal-fired power plants to close.  In June the Seychelles opened their first wind farm to replace their diesel generators.  In the US, some of the biggest breakthroughs came from Hawaii, which is leading the way in decentralized solar energy policy.  In July Germany broke the world record for solar power with 5.1 TWh for the month, and the largest off-shore wind farm opened in Britain; Peru announced a two-year plan to install free solar power for its 2 million poorest citizens.  More electricity was generated by wind than by nuclear in China, and the Japanese announced plans to build the largest wind farm in the world, off of Fukushima.  The 280 MW Solanas solar plant that produces electricity round the clock using molten salt storage opened in California.  Warren Buffett announced plans for a $1 billion wind farm in Iowa, the largest on-shore such installation.

In fossil fuel news, May was also the beginning of a five month “unstoppable spill” was caused by in-situ bitumen extraction in Alberta.  July saw the Lac Megantic derailment.  Quebec placed a moratorium on fracking (challenged in October by US company Lone Pine under NAFTA), and so did Newfoundland and France; in December a Pennsylvania court struck down part of the law on fracking, allowing municipalities to regulate the industry.  The Elsipotog First Nation drew national attention by protesting fracking in New Brunswick.  In December the national energy board approved the Northern Gateway pipeline. Ontario Hydro announced it was getting off coal altogether.  Subsidies for fossil fuels topped $500 billion in the rich world, and the Koch brothers and others have been exposed for funding climate deniers to the tune of $1 billion. 

ThinkProgress compiled a list of major spills this year, and CBC reported on the 1047 spills in Canada in the last decade.

In other environmental news, air pollution blanketed Beijing and Shanghai,  the USEPA started to cut down on GHG emissions, and a United Nations report stated that small scale organic agriculture can feed the world.  New York City banned styrofoam, and the Big Island of Hawaii banned GMOs.  Jordan and Israel signed an agreement to restore the Dead Sea by pumping Red Sea water to it; it is controversial (there are environmental risks) but any accord in the Middle East is good news.  The Harper government pulled out of the international desertification treaty and dismantled the Fisheries library while gutting DFO (500 jobs, $1m gone).  The battle over bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides became better known, generating several petitions.

And here’s my editorial bit: there would have far fewer bad environmental news in Canada had it not been for Harper’s policies.  Something to focus on for the new year!   

Written by enviropaul

December 30, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Power to the Peace – but no dam

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The Peace River Valley

The Peace River Valley

Building a dam across the Peace River, at site C, seems to make sense – until you look at the numbers.

Looking at the BC Hydro website, one can read that

The Site C Clean Energy Project (Site C) is a proposed third dam and hydroelectric generating station on the Peace River in northeast B.C. Site C would provide 1,100 megawatts (MW) of capacity, and produce about 5,100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity each year — enough energy to power the equivalent of about 450,000 homes per year in B.C.

One of the boosters of the dam added that

Even before Site C starts producing power for British Columbians, it would provide significant economic benefits, creating thousands of jobs in the region and across the province, and bolstering the provincial economy with a $3.2-billion increase in GDP during construction.

What’s not to like?  Except that a few things come up when examining the numbers.

First, there’s the usual “enough to power 450,000 homes”.  This is based on the common number that 1,000 kilowatt-hour are needed, monthly, to power a home.  This is actually a huge number; using very basic energy conservation measures (powerstar appliances, better insulation and lights), twice that many homes could be powered. A new house build according to PassivHaus standards (mandatory in Germany) would use less than 20% of this value. What this means is that none of that extra power would be needed if basic energy conservation measures were followed – and these would be cheaper to implement.

Then there is the issue of the boom-and-bust nature of the jobs that the dam promises.  There are indeed a lot of construction jobs during the ten years or so of the construction; nothing to sneer at.  But then all that is needed are a few guys throwing switches. Compare that to, say, wind power; wind is scalable, which means there are as many or as few jobs as the the wind farm is large or small, and that these jobs can be spread over time, creating lifetimes of employment, something much better to sustian communities.

In fact, in the Peace region, wind is huge.  A recent prospectus for the Quality Wind Project, in Tumbler Ridge, promoted a wind farm using 79 windmills rated for an installed power of 142 MW, “enough to power 43,000 homes”.  In other words, multiply the project by ten, and you have the capacity of the Site C project.  That’s about 800 windmills.  That’s big, yes, but comparable to other large wind farms in other countries.

The clincher is that the Quality Wind Project has already been built, is doing well, and the projected cost (in 2010) was $455 million.  Now Site C has an estimated tab of $7.9 billion (in 2011). Now, unless my figures are wrong, that means that, for the same power, wind is cheaper by about $3 billion.  And you get power deliveries much sooner.

Ah, but wind is intermittent, so it couldn’t replace a dam, now, could it?  Well, actually, it can.  That is because there is another pair of dams just up river.  And wind and hydropower make a beautiful couple; when the wind dies, hydro takes over, but when the wind is strong, water is kept in the reservoir (or even pumped back up, a set-up called pumped energy storage).  So intermittence is a red herring in this particular case.

Finally, the dam would flood some very productive farm land, farms that benefits from a unique microclimate that enables them to grow corn or melons – like the Lower Fraser Valley.  Farmgate returns represent a net revenue that would be lost to the flood.  And the current revenue is below its actual potential, because BC Hydro has been slowly buying land over the last decades in preparation for this project, land that is mostly idle.  If the project was to be canceled for good, the sale of these lands alone would represent a substantial windfall for BC Hydro (and the taxpayer).

Never mind that the unique land of the Peace River Valley are an important part of BC’s food security, or that it is also home to a number of rare species and ecosystems.  It is, as NDP energy critic John Horgan said, “a little slice of heaven.”  It must be preserved.

Written by enviropaul

December 9, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Black Friday music

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Music at Kwantlen

Music at Kwantlen

Last Friday was Black Friday, the yearly celebration of mindless consumerism.  Time magazine called it a “calm” event, since only one person died this year in the fight and trampling, as opposed to four in 2008.  Sheesh.

My own Friday was quite different: I happened to be on Kwantlen’s  Richmond campus and emerged from a class to be treated to beautiful live music.  This was an initiative of our music program, and students were playing selection of classics from the romantic era, on piano and violin.

There’s nothing like live music as a full experience.  There’s the beauty of the music itself, of course; but also the energy of the performers (there were few enough of us listening that eye contact was possible), and the often forgotten realisation, with the amazing accoustics of the campus foyer, that the sound of live performers just can’t be fully captured in recorded music.

As I was listening it also occurred to me that this was an activity that is completely carbon neutral.  Performing arts, be they music, theater, or whatever, can bring up amazing emotional joy without resorting to any kind of artifice that is damaging to the environment.  The same thing is true of painting, photography, writing…the arts, in general.  This is where real human wealth lies, and it is infinite; there is no limit to human creativity.  There is an argument out there that environmentalism is about hair-shirt deprivation and general no-fun attitudes.  But that is just plain wrong, and the richness of art attests to that.

This was a free concert – or, should I say, free to the public. But it isn’t free to society: there’s a fair chunk of public money that goes into maintaining a school of music, to say nothing of the personal investment of these students in time and tuition.   As a taxpayer, I applaud this and want more: funding arts creates a public good that weaves society together. Thought that was the last thing on my mind (I was just transported by the music), I was watching a live creation of social wealth.

Sigh.  I had to leave, couldn’t catch all of it.  But afterwards, for some strange reason (it wasn’t one of the recital pieces), I found myself humming to Farewell to Stromness.  That’s a piece that was created for the 1980 Yellow Cake Revue, a musical protest to the then-proposed uranium mine in the Orkney Islands.  The composer is Peter Maxwell Davies, famous for his experimental classical work.  But as the crowd were bracing themselves for some difficult piece, they were delighted by a deceptively simple, beautiful melody evocative of the majesty of the northern islands.  I found a version transcribed for guitar, played by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet.  A real treat.

If you ask me, that’s a far better use of time than trampling someone to death over a flat screen TV.  And they say environmentalists are no fun?  Pfff…   


Written by enviropaul

December 5, 2013 at 12:13 pm