Category Archives: Jobs

What is energy democracy?

At first glance, energy democracy is a funny term. Are we worried about a coalition of coal and natural gas blocking amendments to a bill from wind and solar? Is nuclear over in the corner putting forth reasonable proposals while everyone backs away slowly because of rumors regarding her volatile temper?

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Energy democracy is actually about bringing self-determination of communities back to energy generation, storage, and distribution. Not that long ago, most of society ran on locally-sourced energy. The bulk of this was in the form of windmills, water wheels, and wood-burning fires. As fossil fuels took the stage during the industrial revolution, energy supply and demand became estranged. Economies of scale for fossil fuel-based energy generation led to the creation of large power plants that supply power over an interconnected grid.

The 21st Century has seen the return of distributed energy sources. While solar and wind get the headlines, small modular reactors (SMRs), in-stream hydro, tidal, geothermal, and other distributed energy sources are showing promise as well. While the growth of these distributed generation technologies is good for decentralized solarpunk communities, it creates a point of friction with the existing centralized power grid. This is why when incumbent utilities do support renewables, they still want to build large, utility-scale projects. Nevada has had the most public battle over net metering in recent years, but many utilities have tried to suppress energy decentralization by pressuring legislators. In states like Virginia, where two companies have a monopoly on 80% of the energy market, it’s easy to see where problems might arise.

panoramic shot of sky

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There are some technical problems with energy decentralization which stem from the centralized past of the grid. As David Roberts explains at Vox, the grid was designed for one-way power flows from generation to distribution to end user. Solar, wind, and other distributed energy sources upend this model, sending power from the end-of-the-line back into the grid. There are several possible ways to overcome these difficulties ranging from going off-grid completely to piping every single generation source back into one giant grid managed by a central authority. For a solarpunk future, one possible option is the “decentralized, layered-decomposition optimization structure.” In this arrangement, the responsibilities of generation sources are held locally, but communities can still exchange power on an overarching, interconnected grid.

In some communities, such as Boulder, CO, the people have decided to municipalize their energy grid. Putting the grid into public hands makes it easier to align incentives between homeowners with rooftop solar, community-based generation projects, and the needs of all the users on the grid. Utility monopolies have to maximize profit and maintain the status quo. Energy democracy brings the power to the people, who can build a grid that uses distributed generation for a more robust, environmentally friendly, and healthy grid. The most extreme example of calls for energy democracy at the moment is the suggestion of a public takeover of PG&E. For more on areas that are flexing their energy democracy muscles, check out the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Power Map.

Do you have any energy democracy projects in your area? Let us know how your communities are fighting monopoly power and bringing clean, distributed power to the people.

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The Upcycle — A Review

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The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is the followup to Cradle to Cradle. Written in 2013, it brings a decade’s worth of new information and experience to the concept of Cradle to Cradle design thinking.

If you’re interested in the circular economy and can only read one book – this is it. There is a short section at the front that recaps the underlying principles of Cradle to Cradle systems in case you haven’t read the first book. While Cradle to Cradle was groundbreaking for the concept that we should design human industry to be a positive good for the environment, The Upcycle contains many more specific examples of projects where the authors were able to achieve these ends.

For example, in the book there is a story of Dan Juhl who pairs farmers with investors for building renewables on their land. The investors get a guaranteed return on their investment for ten years, and the energy generation equipment reverts to the farmers after this period. More renewables end up on the grid, and families get an additional source of income by owning the means of energy production.

The physical book itself is a nice counterpoint to the design of Cradle to Cradle. While Cradle to Cradle was designed to be reusable in technical nutrient cycles, The Upcycle is designed with biodegradable inks and paper so that it can become a biological nutrient again. One of the main ideas of Cradle to Cradle design is that things should be delineated into two separate nutrient streams: biological and technical. Wood, paper, and things of this nature can be reused as they would be in nature by returning to the land while technical materials like plastics and metals should be reclaimed for infinite technical cycles. Preventing the creation of “monstrous hybrids” is an important goal of the Cradle to Cradle design process. These materials are amalgamations of material that are difficult, if not impossible to separate and reuse. This is particularly harmful if the materials in these hybrids are toxic in nature. The book quotes McDonough, “Let’s put the filters in our heads and not at the end of pipes.”

The Upcycle is a breath of fresh air. McDonough and Braungart show how we can rethink the way we design everyday objects to fit into the constant cycles of Mother Nature and end the insanity of cradle-to-grave mentality. Cradle-to-Cradle design is definitely the way we should be thinking  when we design technologies and objects for our solarpunk future.

Do you use any Cradle to Cradle products in your life? What has your experience been? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 2: Decentralize

antique broken cell phone communication

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[This is Part 2 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here’s a link to Part 1: Repair and Part 3: Design.]

Humans have an amazing capacity for cognitive dissonance. Even though we may know something is bad for us or has significant negative consequences, we’ll still trudge ahead, even if the benefit to an action is small. As Steven Szpajda from This Week in Law is fond of saying, people will give up large amounts of privacy and security for a very small perceived benefit.

Solarpunk Druid had a recent post to this effect, “It’s the events stupid: Why FB is the hardest media to quit” discussing the titular quandary. As we have with fossil fuels, we’ve become reliant on systems whose existence is at cross-purposes with our own.

For this second part of my exploration of what a solarpunk communication device might look like, I want you to consider your relationship with your carrier and web service providers — Verizon, Facebook, etc.

antenna clouds equipment frequency

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Most of us have become comfortable, complacent even, with the idea that the companies that control our communications know everything about our habits. What might be surprising though, is that the information they collect isn’t just available to other multi-national megacorporations, but that private citizens can easily get access to the location of customers of at least AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile in the US.

Solarpunk, as a subgenre of speculative fiction is all about “what-if,” so what if we weren’t beholding to megacorps for our communications? What if we decentralized our cellphone and internet access? With the increasing presence of AI subservient to known bad actors, it’s time we start examining how to wean ourselves off of the corporations that feed our information addictions. While taking a break from technology can be beneficial for our mental well-being, I don’t think it’s practical to completely give it up either.

Solarpunk is also about making the “what-if” into a concrete reality, so what technologies exist to help us break free and decentralize our digital lives?

Mesh Networks

Mesh networking, which we’ve mentioned before, allows various parts of a network to communicate without a single central node, like a cellphone tower, controlling all of the traffic. If everyone in a given geographic area had a smartphone that worked on a mesh network, they wouldn’t need a carrier to contact their friends in that area. This has been touted as a potentially life-saving measure for natural disasters, and is also a powerful tool for people protesting authoritarian regimes. Mesh networks are still in the early stages of development, but they point toward a possibile future of decentralized communication where the users themselves are the network, not some centralized authority that could leave users in the dark either intentionally or because of a cyber attack. Some current implementations include the mesh network going up in Detroit, the Serval Project, GoTenna, and the Althea Mesh.

three person holding smartphones

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Leaving for greener social pastures

Between the shuttering of GeoCities a decade ago and recent major changes to Tumblr and Flikr, denizens of the internet have witnessed great swaths of the web be deleted at the whim of a single entity. At the same time, data breaches like Equifax and direct manipulation of users by Facebook and their partners has made it more clear than ever that you’re the product for these companies.

The Open Source Community has been experimenting with alternative social networks for some time, and with the W3C ActivityPub standard, we’re seeing the emergence of an interconnected, social media Fediverse. What’s really cool about the Fediverse is that people on different platforms can follow each other without having to sign up for a different network. If the current behemoths had started this way, then you could follow your friend on Twitter from your Facebook account without having a Twitter account yourself. Since these platforms are Open Source, anyone can start their own instance, so there are communities built up around common interests (like solarpunk) but you can still hang out online with your friends from a different instance. There are a number of different platforms modeled off existing networks like FB and Twitter, but I’m sure we’ll see new concepts emerge as well. There are even some beta plugins to allow WordPress websites to be federated with ActivityPub, so maybe you’ll see Solarpunk Station in the Fediverse soon!

The Fediverse isn’t the only decentralized social networking solution out there either. Other clients like Scuttlebutt and Steemit have also cropped up in recent years. Scuttlebutt has a large solarpunk contingent already as seen in the partial graph of the network below, while Steemit skews heavily toward the cryptocurrency crowd as it is itself based on the blockchain. Scuttlebutt has some really cool features like being designed around intermittent connections. There’s a lot more information and a fun intro video on their website.

Have you tried any of these new social media sites or built a mesh network? Let us know how it went below!

 

Why we can do better

bullion gold gold bars golden

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I recently went on a gold mine tour in Virginia’s Lake Anna State Park. At one of the stops, the ranger was talking about the various technologies people in the area had used to extract gold from the river. When she started talking about the steam-driven stamp mills, she said that a miner would have about 60 days of operating the machine before they went completely deaf. One of the children in the audience asked, “Why did they make the machine if it would make the miners go deaf?”

My first reaction was to think this was a silly question, since obviously the people who ran the mine would want to extract the most gold for the least cost regardless of what that meant for workers. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that this was a really good question. Is gold really so important that people should be risking their lives or their well-being for it? The ranger also told us that all of the gold mines in the United States had been shut down during the world wars since gold wasn’t a strategic material.

abundance agriculture bananas batch

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What things are really so important that people should risk their life and limb to obtain them? Any animal needs water, food, shelter, and space for their habitat. It would make sense that these are the things we should focus our efforts on and be willing to sacrifice to ensure. These are the things afforded travelers by the guest rights present in many ancient cultures.

At our current place in history, it seems we’ve forgotten these basics. We send people into dangerous mines for minerals that could be reclaimed (often at great monetary cost) as corporate capitalism makes human life less worthwhile than inexpensive resource extraction. I don’t suggest we go back to the Dark Ages, but I am suggesting we rethink what we value. If a job is important enough that it needs doing, we should be setting a living wage for the people doing it.

Putting people above profits will give us a more equitable world, one of the most important parts of a solarpunk society. To truly have a free market, you have to take as many variables into account as possible. Externalities like pollution and loss of human life should be factored into doing business and not just laid at the feet of the government or individual citizens. That’s not a free economy. That’s corporate welfare.

What other externalities concern you? What do we need to consider when designing our economies?

Designing money for a solarpunk society

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Money is a social construct, but it is a very useful means of exchange between parties without the need of troublesome conversion rates like how many chickens a smartphone costs. One of the best things about social constructs is that they are mutable. Despite the fact that the government would like you to believe that the money they issue is the only way to exchange goods and services, the rise of cryptocurrencies has shown that the true power of money rests with the people. In fact, trust of the public is the #1 reason government-issued currencies work at all. While a government can debase it’s money through overprinting and other abuses, the fact is that money doesn’t work unless everyone believes in its value.

four assorted cryptocurrency coins

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Hypothetical cryptocurrency

Let’s say I’m in charge of a small municipality. While I think people should be able to earn more money if they make awesome contributions to society through some sort of market, I don’t think they should do that at the expense of people dying in the streets or because they can’t pay for medicine. How do I design my money to have the appropriate incentives to make sure everyone is taken care of?

One option is Universal Basic Income (UBI), so let’s bake that in from the beginning. We’ll need to generate the money for the UBI somehow, and the land value tax or the Fair Tax are the top two candidates for simple and fair taxation. Since I also want to disincentive sprawl, we’ll go with the land value tax in this example. In short, the land value tax charges someone a tax based on the amount of land they own. I’ve seen this likened to a rent paid to The People if one assumes all land belongs to the citizens of a given region and that private use is a lease of that land from the true owners.

When someone pays their land tax it goes in a big piggy bank along with all the other landholders. Then, every month each citizen gets a UBI check deposited into their personal account to pay bills, get food, and buy whatever other things they need.

Globle

I’m not affiliated with Globle, but they have an interesting approach to the incentives issue of the current corporate capitalism system we have. Their approach combines UBI, venture capital, and Kickstarter into a sort of corporations by the people model. As a holder of Globle cryptocurrency, people can vote on what companies and/or products they want to see in the market. Then, based on how those companies perform, part of the company’s profits go to the investors and part goes back into a UBI fund for everyone. It’s hard to say how it will play out, but I do think it’s a novel approach to funding UBI that would also help companies and people work together better since their well-beings are more intrinsically intertwined.

What sort of incentives do you think would bring us closer to a solarpunk society? Let us know in the comments below.

Seizing the means of production – What does 3D printing mean for solarpunk?

Solarpunk Station is the proud owner of a new 3D printer! I am hoping to use it to produce useful objects as well as provide insights on how distributed manufacturing relates to solarpunk. This should be the first of many articles related to additive manufacturing.

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TL;DR: 3D printers have a lot of promise to disrupt manufacturing of household goods, but don’t get one yet if you’re not ready to tinker.

Most consumer 3D printers are basically a hot glue gun that uses plastic filament instead of glue sticks. A nozzle is suspended above a platform and computer-generated files are fed to the machine where it deposits plastic layer by layer to form a 3D object. There are other types of 3D printers that use UV light and/or lasers to form objects layer by layer from vats of goo or powder, but the basic idea is the same.

The main advantage of 3D printing is how it changes people’s mindset in relation to goods. If you spend some time on Thingiverse or Youmagine you’ll see people openly sharing things they’ve designed with each other. There are also some marketplaces like Cults3D that include a section for designs for sale, but the bulk of current design work is open. We’re moving from distributed, open software development like Linux and Firefox to distributed and open development of physical items.

Pineapple-inspired bowl (orange) with green leaves surrounding the edge. Only five of the 10 leaves are finished.

The orange part of the bowl took 30 hours to print. The leaves each took about an hour, so there’s ~35 hours of print time here. Total time was over 40 hours once all 10 leaves were finished.

Remixes take the open nature of 3D printable designs to the next level. People can adapt a previous design to a different device, or take a part and make it better, stronger, or faster to print. Since so many files are open source you’re free to adapt an item to your needs. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought that something I’d purchased was pretty cool except for one issue that I repeatedly turned over in my head. Without an easy way to make a replacement part, I was stuck with it. Now with a 3D printer, I can download a design, change anything I don’t like and upload my remix for others to find. While watching a part print can feel excruciatingly slow at times (the pineapple bowl took almost two days at 130% size), making something and being able to iterate on the design is still much faster than with most other methods.

These remixes extend to things you already own too. While I can’t print a replacement saucepan yet, I can repair or improve a lot of objects around the house. There’s a great subreddit for functional prints with lots of cool ideas, and Thingiverse has a pretty big section for replacement parts. DeskGrown is a new company that sells parts that can’t be printed for their designs and gives away the printable files for free. They have a clock and a set of headphones so far. I think we’ll see more of this hybrid model popping up since desktop 3D printers are limited to plastics at the moment.

While to some extent, 3D printing is over-hyped, I think it will be one of the critically enabling technologies for a solarpunk world. Not everything can be 3D printed, but a lot of everyday objects can be, meaning you can ship 1 kg of filament to your house and make several things for the same amount of packaging, cost, and environmental waste you would have for one item before.

The two main drawbacks of 3D printing are the learning curve and generation of plastic waste. As a beginner, I have had several failed prints. I believe the number of failed prints will go down considerably as I get more experience with the printer, but 3D printing is still not a zero waste manufacturing process. I am keeping failed prints and other scraps in a bag in hopes that I will be able to reprocess it into fresh filament in the future.

Failed cat ball toy print looks more like spaghetti...

This doesn’t look like a cat ball…

The plastic I have been printing is PLA (polylactic acid) which is a bioplastic made from various plant-based sources. It is biodegradable and can be recycled in a closed loop back to virgin material standards, making it one of the few Cradle-to-Cradle plastics available. Many other materials are available for 3D printers including ABS (often used in car parts), PET (soda/water bottle plastic), wax for metal casting molds, and TPU (flexible/rubbery plastic). With such a wide variety of materials available, it’s difficult to determine the exact environmental cost of 3D printing. If PLA were able to sate everyone’s needs, then we wouldn’t have the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but every material has it’s strengths and weaknesses, so that isn’t the case. On a bright note, PLA is one of the easier plastics to print with, so it has one of the highest adoption rates in the community.

We’re a long way away from the ease of use of the replicator in Star Trek. Using a 3D printer requires a lot of fine tuning and trial-and-error. I imagine the off-the-shelf solutions are better than kits, but 3D printers are still a large time investment. We’ll probably get to the point where you can buy one that just works, but as of now, a 3D printer requires a lot of time to get really good results.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to build your own computers or work on bicycles and really know what’s going on with the machines you’re using then I definitely recommend getting a kit. Otherwise, you’re probably better off finding someone locally with a printer on Make XYZ, 3D Hubs, or getting a design printed straight from Thingiverse or Shapeways. In fact, you may want to reach out to local 3D printer folk even if you do want to get a printer yourself. Most people who are 3D printing are glad to share their opinions on different models as well as tips and tricks to get better results. There may even be a Meetup in your area.

3D printers will play a role in distributed manufacturing along with CNCs, laser cutters, and other machine tools. We’re a long way away from asking Alexa to make “Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” but we may get there eventually. The space has moved very quickly over the last ten years, and I expect the next ten will be equally exciting.

Do you have a 3D printer or know someone who does? Are there any solarpunk ideas that are particularly well suited to 3D printing you’d like to see us explore? Sound off below!

The Rules: Capitalism, UBI, and the Blockchain

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The Rules Blog recently posted an excellent piece about the relationship between extractive capitalism, universal basic income (UBI), and blockchain technologies. Climate change, pollution, and exploitation of the workforce are largely a function of the incentives baked into the current version of centralized currency and capitalism that we have today. Blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies offer a beacon of hope that by wresting control of money away from centralized governments and big banks we can remake the economy in a way that serves the people instead of the current system where people serve the economy.

While governments dicker about the merits of UBI and small-scale experiments are starting in some jurisdictions, the blockchain community is already developing some cryptocurrencies with UBI built in. The people writing at the Rules Blog have connections to one of the solutions, Circles, but many others exist such as Manna* and UBU. A short list can be found in this Reddit post.

As I mentioned before, the best chance for UBI in the United States is the FairTax. I think that circumventing the ponderous bureaucracy of government will probably result in a more expedient and fair system than anything we would get from Washington. The other advantage of blockchain-based systems is that they will be truly international and not locked down by the draconian laws of any one given government.

What do you think? Is blockchain over-hyped? Is it the next big thing? Sound off below, and thanks for visiting!


*Affiliate link – I may receive extra Manna if you sign up for the Manna UBI project through this link