Rethinking batteries

close up photo of batteries

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As an engineer, I’m always thinking of how to make the objects around me work better. After rereading Cradle to Cradle this year, I’ve also been considering how to balance the needs of the present and the end of an object’s life.

When I was an undergrad, I did research in energy materials, so my interest was piqued when I saw the Volta Battery concept by Koraldo Kajanaku that won the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge. Designed to be easily disassembled and made with materials that can easily be returned to technical or biological cycles, the battery is an excellent example of everyday objects that could be made better through thoughtful design.

The current ways in which we build batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines can’t get us all the way to a 100% renewable, solarpunk future. Elements such as the lithium used in cellphone batteries are rare and have some hurdles to true recyclability. Lead acid batteries, while more easily recycled, contain materials that are very hazardous to human health when not properly contained. Lithium batteries are an amazing technology, but we should be finding more readily recyclable alternatives for applications that don’t absolutely require the high energy density that a lithium chemistry affords. Aluminum, iron, nickel, and zinc could use a little more love when it comes to research and development. Nickel iron cells, for example, are likely the most robust chemistry available. They are quite heavy at the moment, but they might be one of the best options for grid backups since they don’t require the coddling that other technologies do. For the tidalpunks out there, you might want to check out ocean batteries.

More diversity of battery chemistries could lead to more energy democracy in energy storage. Communities could build the chemistry that uses the most local resources to back up their renewables. When paired with more sustainably designed windmills or solar thermal plants, we could do a lot more with a lot fewer rare earth minerals. Mechanical approaches to energy storage are also an attractive option. As is often the refrain with sustainable design, there is no silver bullet, we need many different solutions to fit the many different use-cases in existence. The 20th century was concerned with trying to shoehorn all our problems into a fossil fuel-shaped hole. The 21st will be defined by a diverse and beautiful ecosystem of solutions.

Is there an everyday object that you wish was designed more thoughtfully? Let us know below!

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Keeping the end in sight

adult background ball shaped blur

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I previously mentioned that I sometimes struggle with over-researching a topic, and I found myself doing that again this week with political theory. I keep seeing memes attacking people who critique capitalism or who think that socialism might be the answer, and I got bogged down reading dozens of articles from a variety of political angles on the subject arguing semantics about “correct” definitions of capitalism or socialism.

I rewrote a political theory post from this research several times, and still doesn’t quite sit right with me. I think this is because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. All the arguments over this or that political theory don’t really have much impact on real life. One of the critiques that is repeatedly leveled at solarpunk is that it isn’t practical, and navel-gazing about political theory certainly doesn’t have much real world impact. I’m not going to say that any academic pursuit is a waste of time, but for me, I have spent far too much time in headspace and not enough in the real world.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can't read the signature, so if it's yours I can take it down if you don't like it here.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can’t read the signature, so if it’s yours I can take it down if you don’t like it here.

People from all over the political spectrum recognize that there are significant problems with most of Western society. I’m particularly focused on the US because that’s where I live, but I suspect many of these issues exist to some extent in other countries as well. Why are people dying because they can’t afford medication in the same country that has people so rich they don’t know what to do with their money? People want their families to be safe, to have enough food to eat, and to have some leisure time. I think this is something everyone can agree on, but the details can be an understandable point of contention. The problem becomes when we start identifying people by labels instead of other human beings. It’s not acceptable to compromise with “those people,” but if we just would pack these increasingly meaningless labels away we might actually make some progress on the problems that face us.

People aren’t happy with the state of healthcare in the US. No one wants to see their parks full of trash and pollution. Anyone will balk at a pipeline if it’s going to be going through their own property. It’s time we stop getting hung up on labels and work together on solutions. If nothing else, let’s decide to table the debate on a national level and help states be the “Laboratories for Democracy” and let them try different approaches without trying to force everyone to do the same thing.

The reticence of the federal government to make a firm decision that would guide the lives of 327 million people is understandable, so it’s time to flex the 10th Amendment and give the states some of their money back to tackle the problems on their own terms. I think that’s something we can all agree on.


For my part, I’m trying to become more active in my own community by joining the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Council (BPAC) to be a part of the decision making process with regards to making Charlottesville more friendly to non-auto forms of transit.

Some more resources to check out if you think there should be more experimentation with public policy include Symbiosis, Vox’s The Impact podcast, Strong Towns, and The Institute for Local Self-Reliance. What are some of the other ways we can make change real instead of just talking about it? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Wallflowers

bloom blooming blossom blur

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I’m an introvert. I work from home, so beside running errands, I rarely leave my apartment. I’m slowly coming to the realization, however, that I need to be around people to maintain my mental well-being. Humans evolved as social creatures, despite what social Darwinists think, so even introverts need some human interaction. Despite all the technology devoted to communication, we still experience loneliness which can have severe impacts on our quality of life.

Reading Susan Cain’s Quiet made me wonder about all the ways the extrovert ideal espoused by western society is what has driven a lot of the problems we currently see with society. Every person as a salesperson is an alliance of extroversion and capitalism that leaves the rest of us behind. If you want to get ahead, especially in America, you’re expected to extrovert up or fake it.

To be fair, in some ways it’s easier than ever to be an introverted, highly sensitive, or shy person. There are remote work opportunities, home delivery of practically anything you need, and a plethora of ways to contact other humans. The problem is that all of these new methods of communication and the high-productivity mindset of the world can just as readily cause us to be overstimulated.

Community is a theme that appears throughout solarpunk, but how do we balance the opposing needs of social interaction and “me” time? Can we build communities with strong social networks while still respecting the personal space of those most sensitive to overstimulation?

In Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince, there are vegetated nooks and crannies of the megalopolis, Palmares Tres, where the characters are able to take a respite from the book’s action. Some of these are private gardens of the more well-to-do, and others are more or less micro-parks scattered throughout the city’s multistory structure.

I think this approach of having personal space at home, and quiet zones scattered throughout a community seems to offer a chance for people to get away from overstimulating situations while still allowing us to interact with the world.

A poll of introversion/extroversion

A poll from solarpunks on Sunbeam City about their preferences for human interaction

I suspect that even true extroverts would benefit from a little “me time,” and most humans probably fall into the ambivert category anyway. A super-scientific poll of solarpunks on Sunbeam City shows a strong preference for being with other people, but only some of the time. One thing I see come up again and again in discussions of communities is the need for people to be free to interact with others (or not) on their own terms. While social isolation is a serious issue in western society today, we should seek a happy medium, not race toward another extreme of no personal time or space.

How might a society carve out both communal and personal spaces? Here are just a few ideas. Feel free to comment with your own after the article!

  • Co-housing
    • Baugruppe and other forms of co-housing allow people to come together to build residential communities where some of the infrastructure or social load is distributed to the group. There’s no one form of co-housing, but I like to think of it like fancy dorms for grown-ups (this is a gross over-simplification).
  • Superblocks
    • Barcelona is currently implementing a plan to bring streets back to the people. This will increase safety for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as help rebuild the social fabric of neighborhoods.
  • Secret gardens
    • Having small parks or gardens distributed throughout a city could help give people safe spaces to duck into when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Why speculative fiction matters

woman reading a book

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When facing existential crises, it can be hard to see the point of things that aren’t directly related to the problem at hand. One thing that often comes under fire in times like these is fiction, both in books and other media. Even within fiction, scifi and fantasy have long been disparaged by “serious” academics since these realms of speculative fiction deal with fantastical elements that don’t exist. What these critics overlook, however, is the difference between truth and reality.

While elements of the political landscape are dedicated to obfuscating the truth, this isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to the ability of stories to separate all of our social and cultural baggage from important issues. Star Trek, for example, is known for holding up a mirror to the human condition and such important issues as racism, death, and war.

The other benefit of speculative fiction is stretching the imagination. As Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.” Fiction lets us see problems in a different light, whether they be social or technological in nature. Love it or hate it, the cellphone has its roots in science fiction, along with innumerable other technologies that now make up the fabric of daily life.

Most engineers and scientists I’ve met trace their interest in the sciences to scifi or fantasy. One of the main reasons I became an engineer was growing up with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dinotopia, and other works of fiction. Asking ourselves “What if…” is the underlying principle of the scientific method, and it feeds our innate human curiosity about the world around us. Something doesn’t have to be “real” to help us explore what is true. So, even though the world is burning, take this as an invitation to think differently about the problem. The solutions to climate change just might be a fictional account away.

Is there a book or other story that influenced how you think about the world? Let us know below!

Riding the rails

Picture of an Amtrak train car; single deck; number 25051

One of the coach cars from the Cardinal

I recently went on a trip to Missouri, and since flying or riding the train would cost the same amount, I decided to do the solarpunk thing and try train. I’d only ever gone on short, touristy train rides before, so this was my first time evaluating rail as a long-distance travel option. While the exact values will vary based on model, train travel is typically regarded as less carbon intensive than flying or taking a single-occupant passenger car.

Any readers from Europe will likely be appalled at the poor state of rail travel in the US, but I think that for anyone with the time, rail travel is much nicer than taking a plane. Sure it takes a lot longer, but the seats are much bigger, the luggage restrictions are very generous, and you avoid federal employees invading your personal space.

An abandoned train - An engine from the New York Central line and two passenger cars

An abandoned train on a siding we passed

I rode two different lines, The Cardinal and The Southwest Chief. The Cardinal was a lot smaller train, but the overhead bins were larger than those on The Southwest Chief. This was likely because the Southwest Chief’s double-decker cars had a large baggage area on the lower level of the train. There is a smaller baggage area at the back of the coach cars on The Cardinal.

The interior of an Amtrak observation car. Sideways seats face large floor-to-ceiling windows

An Amtrak observation car featuring large windows

There was a cafe car on both trains, and the Southwest Chief also had observation and dining cars. Since I’m cheap, I brought my own snacks and water, but the food is there if you don’t bring your own. The ride is sometimes bumpy, but you don’t have to worry about your drink or food flying up unexpectedly like you might with a flight.

There are some downsides, of course. Number one is that you still have small, airplane-style bathrooms and you’ll almost certainly have to visit them if you’re going any appreciable distance. There’s also a relative dearth of destinations when compared to air travel. As most people fly to get from place to place these days, Amtrak can only support so many routes. If I were writing this article fifty years ago, then I would likely have a different story to tell.

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car; windows dot the top deck of the car while the bottom features an entry hatch and ventillation grates

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car

Another con is the occasional smoke breaks where people can get off the train and get their fix. The ventilation aboard the trains seems sufficient, but in the first few minutes following a smoke break I was wishing I could crack the window. Luckily, I wasn’t seated too closely to any smoking passengers, and the smell quickly dissipated.

Photo showing the large, open Grand Hall of Chicago's Union Station including two golden, greco-roman statues guarding the entrance to the train departure area

Chicago’s Union Station is fancy

I don’t know if traveling via rail rises to the level of luxurious (it might in the sleeping cars, which are available on both trains I took), but it is certainly more pleasurable than any of my previous travels by plane. For shorter trips (KC to Chicago for example) it can even be faster than driving since you avoid all that mucking about in city traffic. If you are planning a trip in the future, consider seeing if the train can get you there. It’s not an option we think of here in the States, but I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Have you traveled by rail in the US or abroad? What’s the train like in your area?

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.

Symbiosis

Decentralization of power, both political and electrical, is one of the core tenets of solarpunk. As the meme says, we’ve had the technology to transition to a decentralized, clean economy for a long time. Centralization of political power controlled by centralized corporate interests has been the chief hurdle to climate action.

Symbiosis logo - it looks like a spindly sea creature (anenome?) with the word "symbiosis" written next to it

Symbiosis is a new grassroots organization in the United States dedicated to building direct democracy to address climate change and social inequities. As an offshoot of the Social Ecology Institute, the underlying philosophy of the movement is that the broken nature of human interaction has let to our broken environment.

In order to make a concerted effort against the established corporate and federal concentrations of power, Symbiosis is positioning itself as an umbrella organization to help coordinate action between municipalists, environmentalists, and post-capitalists across North America.

As has become increasingly apparent, single-issue action has been ineffective at moving the needle toward a climate solution. Only when we build a coalition of our allies can we challenge the status quo.

There is a congress in the works for September 2019 to bring everyone together to begin the work of building communities and systems for the post-capitalist future. For more information about Symbiosis, visit https://www.symbiosis-revolution.org/.


Disclaimer: I am involved with Symbiosis, but do not speak for them in any capacity. This is my interpretation of the group based on a short time of involvement.