Tag Archives: energy

Rewiring America – A review

Saul Griffith wants to point out something that we in the science and engineering community have known for awhile: we already have the technology to solve climate change, we just lack the political will. Griffith’s new book, Rewiring America, is a deep dive into one course of action that would eliminate most fossil fuels from the American economy by 2035 and save households bundles of cash in the process.

I started engineering school in 2005, and while there was a growing amount of research into alternative energy at the time, we already had a pretty good idea of what would be needed to transition our economy away from carbon-heavy resources: electrify everything. Fifteen years later, the costs of solar, wind, and electric vehicle technologies have fallen exponentially. The best time to start investing in electrifying everything was during the 70s oil crisis. The next best time is now. As atmospheric carbon concentrations grow, we need to accelerate our efforts to decarbonize. Griffith and OtherLab‘s extensive analysis of US energy distribution shows the gains that can be made quickly by electrification.

One thing often ignored by opponents of climate action, but thoroughly explored in Rewiring America, is that electric motors and generation systems have a much higher overall efficiency than systems dependent on fossil fuels. Just by switching our current lifestyle to all electric, our overall energy consumption would drop by half in the United States.

An old meme from The Onion

Most of my quibbles with this book are because I’m not the target audience of the book. I don’t need convincing that climate change is serious and that we have to do something about it. I’m incredulous about Griffith’s claims that we don’t have to change our lifestyle or his handwaving with regard to the availability of certain critical materials, but Griffith is trying to reach out to the people on the fence who’ve been told by deniers that climate change is either a hoax or is too expensive to tackle. These climate delayers are a bigger problem than climate deniers, since the vehement denial of climate change is coming from a very small segment of the population. Most people agree that there is a problem, but don’t want to take action because they don’t believe it will affect them personally. Griffith skirts around equity and monopoly power while pouring on a heavy coating of patriotism to appeal to this audience that is on the fence about taking action on climate change.

One of the least appealing parts of the book was the incessant call for a war effort and lauding American exceptionalism. Griffith certainly isn’t the first to use this language, but it is getting a little old, not just for me. The book is US-centric, with only occasional references to what could happen worldwide, but we’re also the only country with a major political party that denies the science of climate change. We need this book more than anyone else right now.

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0
Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Most people want the same basic things, but in the current polarized political environment we don’t even speak the same language. I think Griffith is doing a good job of trying to bridge this gap by focusing on the no-compromises parts of the energy transition: cleaner air, quieter cities, and more comfortable living. As a solarpunk, I don’t think we can ignore the equity or the structural problems that lead to the climate crisis to begin with, but Griffith’s plan gives us a starting point to have an honest conversation about climate action.

Have you read Rewiring America? Do you think it has the potential to kick people off the sidelines of climate action?

Radrunner Plus First Impressions

A silver bike sitting on a trail in a wooded area.
My new ebike on a trail in Charlottesville

As you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of bikes. That said, I haven’t ridden much in recent years, which has been a bit of a bummer and something I’ve been intending to change.

Due to an unexpected windfall earlier this year, I was finally able to buy an ebike, and gave a quick set of first impressions in an attempt at video for Solarpunk Station. You can check it out here on Diode Zone.

Let me know what you think about doing more videos in the future!

More on malls

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Bellevue Square Mall courtesy of Debs (ò‿ó)♪

I’ve written previously about how malls could provide the bones of solarpunk co-housing, and Grist recently produced a video about how some communities, most notably Seattle, are re-purposing their old malls as community hubs, as they were originally intended. Ellen Dunham-Jones from the Georgia Institute of Technology gave a more in-depth look at retrofitting malls in her 2010 TED Talk and in this interview with WIRED. As malls everywhere experience hard times due to the “retail apocalypse,” is this our chance to reorient these monuments to capitalism into something more community-minded?

FashionSquare

An old map of Fashion Square Mall

Here in Charlottesville, Fashion Square Mall has been emptying out like so many others. Sears left in March 2019 and nothing has come to replace it. Instead of letting it sit vacant, you could retrofit apartments in the main store and put a makerspace in the old auto shop. I couldn’t find a square footage estimate of the store, but if we assume it’s around 50,000 square feet (~4600 square meters) and 10,000 square feet are set aside for the makerspace and community areas, it seems reasonable that you could still fit 50 to 60 apartments in the 40,000 square feet remaining.  With a mix of sizes from micro-apartments to three bedrooms, you could make some decently affordable housing for single people, families, and elders.

With the old store now affordably housing 100 or more people, people could start new businesses in empty store fronts like a food co-op or local restaurant. As the actual people in the mall slowly take over from the fleeing corporate interests, perhaps enough capital could be raised to purchase the mall from its current owners and turn it into a collectively-owned property.

Fashion Square Mall on the map

Fashion Square Mall on the map

Further development could include depaving some of the parking lots, adding rooftop solar panels, and building more housing in the former parking areas. Since a solarpunk future has a reduced dependence on personal automobiles, an improved frequency of bus service to the mall as well as improving connections to the local Rivanna Trail system would be critical. A car sharing station could round out the transportation options for our little collective.

None of these changes are particularly earth-shattering on their own, but each little adjustment to bad zoning and land use decisions inherited from the last century gets us a step further on the road to a sustainable future.

Is there a property in your area that could be turned to more positive uses? Let us know below!

 

Cities as ecosystems

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

With the start of the new Comprehensive Plan here in Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big picture of the city. I’ve been involved with bicycle advocacy here in town for awhile now, and I’ve felt that was definitely something worth fighting for since cycling, walking, and other active forms of transportation benefit both the environment and human health. Also, when you look at bicycling in the US, you have a bimodal distribution of users — people who have to cycle and people who choose to ride. Bike advocates have traditionally been from the latter group due to middle class people having more spare time to be active in local politics.

The more I’ve worked in transportation, the more I see that we need to seek synergies when fighting for equitable, sustainable, solarpunk futures. Poverty and homelessness are often portrayed as the fault of the poor, the result of laziness or bad luck. The truth is that the systems built into our society and built environment put up barriers to certain groups of people that are easy to overlook from a privileged perspective. How can we start to see things as systems, and not a collection of isolated parts?

We have a template to draw from in nature. In a natural ecosystem, there is no waste, just an endless flow of energy and material from one organism to the next. What if we started to look at our cities as ecosystems? How could we build synergistic effects between parts of our built environment?

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Garden courtesy of cuprikorn

Take a city park as an example. In traditional design, you’d select a plot of land, stick some trees and grass there, and call it a day. You might go so far as to add some playground equipment if you were putting it in a residential area.

Approaching a park from an ecosystem perspective, however, would allow for a much more vibrant community experience. We have a park here in Charlottesville that isn’t reaching its full potential because while it borders two different neighborhoods, a busy street separates one neighborhood from the park. Parents don’t feel safe crossing with their kids, so they don’t go to the park. If we took the whole ecosystem into account, safe crossing to and from the park would have been an integral part of its design. As discussed extensively in The Nature Fix, exposure to nature is immensely beneficial for mental and physical health. Poor design has a tangible, detrimental effect on equity.

Taking things a step further, the green space of parks also affords an opportunity to work on sustainability. Charlottesville is in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and has an important role to play in reducing pollution that flows into the Bay. In addition, stormwater management is becoming an increasingly important aspect of urban design as climate change makes storms more variable and rainfall less predictable. As a way of integrating ecological density, we could add native plantings to encourage pollinators as well as rain gardens and permeable pavement for managing stormwater.

By taking some additional steps in the design phase of a project, we enhance the equity, sustainability, and beauty of the city all at once instead of requiring separate projects to achieve a less resilient and integrated design. The same approach could be used when approaching transportation or housing. Taking the system as a whole into account when making planning decisions will allow us to more carefully shepherd our resources and do the most good with our limited community resources.

What opportunities for ecological systems thinking are there in your area? Let us know below!

Tidalpunk, logistics, and degrowth

Grist recently ran an article about a Costa Rican project to build a carbon neutral shipping fleet using traditional wooden boat building techniques including sails as the primary means of propulsion. Maria Gallucci writes that the worldwide commercial shipping industry moves 10.7 billion tonnes of material every year, predominantly by diesel powered megaships.

This seems particularly problematic when we look at the 262 million tonnes of municipal waste generated in the US alone every year. The article about the Costa Rican fleet said sailing vessels wouldn’t be able to make up a large proportion of the shipping fleet, but the question I had was, “Do we really need to be shipping this much stuff?”

While capitalism is based on unending, cancerous growth, there is a growing community of people around the world investigating how dialing back the economy could be better for people and the planet. When coupled with a circular economy, the degrowth movement points toward a brighter, greener future like that envisioned in solarpunk. Decentralized, local production of goods using recycled technical and biological nutrients would lead to a more resilient and less energy-intensive supply chain.

Some front-line communities are already leading the charge against climate change by developing solutions that are much more relevant to their local environment than the one-size-fits-all techno-solutionism often argued for in the US and other western countries.

What do you think? Should we just find “sustainable” ways to keep consumption at it’s current levels, or should we reevaluate our relationships with material goods? Let us know below!

Rethinking batteries

close up photo of batteries

Photo by Hilary Halliwell on Pexels.com

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!

Keeping the end in sight

adult background ball shaped blur

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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!

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Energy: A Human History – Review

jacket_1_rev-small

Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 4: Magic

woman reading a book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[This is Part 4 of a series of posts. Here are links to Part 1: Repair, Part 2: Decentralize, and Part 3: Design.]

Despite marketing jargon, I don’t think that we’ve yet reached the point where our technology is “magical.” A cave person might feel differently, but smartphones, computers, and televisions are clearly tools in my eye. There are a few exceptions, but I want devices that more elegantly flow with our lives instead of us molding our behavior around the device.

In stories, magic feels more like an extension of the being wielding the power. Even when the power source isn’t from within the individual, magic is still channeled through the magic user, so they must be in tune with it, but not consumed by it.

Technology that “just works” is a step in the right direction, since few things are as un-magical as having to reinstall drivers. I think we can go farther though. For me, at least, it’s easy to get lost in the technology itself and lose sight of the end goal of the tech. To be truly magical, I think the device and interface need to melt away so we can focus on the real reason we’re using it. At their core, smartphones are devices for communication. How do we make meaningful communication with those we care about easier?

color conceptual creativity education

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Take the pencil. As long as it’s sharp, most people don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how much it weighs or how thin it is. It gets the job done and you don’t have to think much about the object itself. There are certainly applications like art where the hardness of the graphite is an important consideration, but for the majority of situations, the pencil is incidental to the outcome of wanting words or doodles on the page. The pencil is an extraordinary piece of technology because it works so well that we pay it barely any heed.

A few devices approach this simplicity: e-readers, Pebble smartwatches, smartpens, the Beeline bike navigator, the Typified weather poster, voice assistants, and most calculators. Maybe I just don’t have the headspace for multi-function gadgets, but for me, the more functionality you cram into a device, the more unwieldy it becomes. Perhaps some brilliant UI/UX designer will come up with a way to make the multi-function nature of the smartphone more seamless, but as of now, I find smartphones to be amazing but kludgy.

The people working on the Skychaser solarpunk comic are doing a great job of thinking of magical technologies. You should definitely check them out if this is something that appeals to you.

I don’t have the answers for finding the right balance of functionality and magic but wanted to explore some of the questions with you. Maybe you have some ideas of how to make technology a little more magical. If you do and want to share, please post something below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 3: Rethinking Design

[This is Part 3 of a series about solarpunk phones. Here are links to Part 1: Repair and Part 2: Decentralize.]

There are essentially two extremes to technological design: the all-in-one device or the single-tasker. Take, for example, the knife. There are lots of single purpose knives – paring, cleaver, steak, etc. There are also several different types of multi-function knives, the best known being the Swiss Army knife. Depending on what task you have at hand, you would select the best knife for the job. Out and about, sometimes the best way to go is to carry the Swiss Army knife, but since it’s a multi-function device, it isn’t usually the best tool for the job, even though a lot of the time it is pretty decent at several different things. Unfortunately, the more functions you cram into a Swiss Army knife, the less useful it becomes at any single task. There’s a certain break-even point where it just gets ridiculous.

Image shows 8 Swiss Army knives from left to right with an increasinly large number of functions.

Victorinox pocket knives by quattroman76 under a CC BY-ND 2.0

While smartphones can do a great many things, since they aren’t really designed to do one specific task, they end up sacrificing the ability to do any one thing really well. I wonder if we’ve lost something by trying to unify all of our devices. Our mobile technology has become a monoculture compared to the wide variety of form factors of phones before a single slate of glass became the norm.

Before the consolidation of iPhone-esque design hit the scene, some people thought the future would be a cloud of wearable devices, the Personal Area Network (PAN). While carrying a number of single-focus gadgets on a common network may not be the best solution for everyone, it could be game changing for some. Also, broader acceptance of PANs might lead to more innovation in the smartphone space with regards to form factor. While there are rumblings of foldable phones, I can’t help but think those are merely an evolution of the current iPhone-centric design school.

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Random sketches I made of different hubs/accessories for a PAN-based device

Modular, open source electronics architectures would be a step in the right direction, allowing designers to select off-the-shelf components for inclusion in many different types of devices. The closest things I’ve seen on the market would be the Fairphone, which we’ve mentioned before, and the RePhone Kit, which is an Arduino-compatible phone kit from Seeed Studio. It’s a neat little phone hacking platform that lets people build their own phones. Unfortunately, Rephone is only 2G data capable, meaning no data connection in the US. Motorola gets an honorable mention for the Moto-mods system that lets you add different features to your phone through a special port on the back of their Z-series phones.

Of course it isn’t solarpunk if we aren’t designing with the impact of the device in mind from the beginning. Dominic Muren’s  Skin, Skeleton, and Guts model for product design is one approach to this design problem. When coupled with the Cradle to Cradle idea of separate biological and technical nutrient cycles, I can imagine future devices where the skin of the device is a compostable fabric that can be changed to suit the style of the user, while the metal skeleton and modular, electronic “guts” could be reused in further technical cycles.

TL;DR

In short, when approaching the design of a solarpunk phone, I would want modular components to be at the core to allow for more diversity of form factors like there once was in the mobile space. Also, devices should be designed for the circular economy using safe and reusable/recyclable materials.

Do you have any ideas for what should go into a solarpunk smarphone? Would a PAN be too cumbersome, or do you find that the “Jack of all trades, master of none” nature of the smartphone isn’t worth the trade-offs? Let us know below!

Solarpunk Phones Part 2: Decentralize

antique broken cell phone communication

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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!

 

The Green New Deal and Solarpunk

If you’ve been following US Politics, you may have heard rumblings of a Green New Deal. My first encounter with the term was during the 2012 Presidential Election when Jill Stein noted the necessity of mobilizing the nation to combat climate change and improve the economy at the same time. Seven years later, the US has made little progress at the federal level in addressing climate change. The few exceptions to this are being contested by the Trump administration including CAFE standard improvements and the Clean Power Plan. With the IPCC’s October 2018 report saying we have 12 years to get our act together, it’s time to declare war on climate change.

For a very in-depth look at the Green New Deal, check out David Roberts’ piece at Vox. There are three main criteria for the GND as outlined by Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and reiterated by Sunrise Movement on Twitter:

As a solarpunk, it’s hard to argue with the goals of the Green New Deal. As a pragmatist, it’s hard to see much happening in the current political climate in regards to real climate action at the scale of the Green New Deal. It isn’t all gloom and doom though, as there does seem to be a glimmer of hope for the two biggest policy changes that I think will bring us closer to a solarpunk future: a price on carbon, and term limits for Congress.

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Pricing Carbon

As Sara E. Murphy points out in her piece at Green Biz, while the Green New Deal is the attention-getting piece of legislation, we’re likely to see significant push-back from the Republicans in Congress. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme is starting to see some traction on both sides of the aisle, however, such as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2018 with it’s mix of Republican and Democratic sponsors. Putting a price on carbon is the most straightforward way to get the private sector reducing emissions of carbon dioxide here in the US. Even many Libertarians see the logic in accounting for externalities, particularly when they impact people’s rights to the commons of the atmosphere.

While the federal government in the US has fallen behind in climate leadership, California has already enacted a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions, and there are many state and local initiatives working to stay on track with emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. One that is particularly exciting is the United States Climate Alliance, which will be adding even more members following the 2018 midterm elections.

Term limits for US Congress

Why am I including a possible Amendment to the US Constitution as something to help us reach a solarpunk future? This video from Term Limits for US Congress is a more detailed answer, but the long and short of it is that Congress no longer represents the people. With some recent polls showing that even the majority of Republicans support environmental protection and climate action, it’s increasingly clear that the old guard on Capitol Hill is out of touch with the majority of Americans. The newest members of Congress are a closer match to the actual demographics of the country, but we still have a long way to go to having true representation in DC.

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There are two mechanisms for passing a Constitutional Amendment in the United States. The first requires both the House and the Senate to approve the Amendment by a supermajority, at which point the Amendment must be ratified by 38 of the 50 states. Senator Ted Cruz has proposed a Constitutional Amendment that would limit Senators to two terms and Representatives to three terms, but getting career politicians on The Hill to fire themselves seems like a tough sell.

The second way to pass an Amendment, as laid out in Article 5 of the US Constitution, is for 34 states to call for a convention regarding a specific topic where they hammer out the proposed Amendment. Once ratified by 38 of the 50 states, it becomes part of the Constitution just like any of the other Amendments that have been enacted.

My wish list for 2019 would be that we get a price on carbon and term limits for Congress. It might be a tall order, but solarpunks are an optimistic lot, so there is still hope in the face of the strong institutional opposition to climate action.

Do you have any thoughts on what legislative pressure points might be best for affecting climate action in your area? Sound off below!

 

Cradle to Cradle – A review

Book cover for Cradle to Cradle - blue top and green bottom with mirrored vehicle silhouettes

Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is about envisioning a better way to manage human interactions with the natural world. The authors ask,

“What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?”

Starting from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, they analyze the design decisions that led capitalist society to the environmental crossroads it faces today. While things weren’t quite so dire in 2002 when the book was written, its analyses of the pitfalls of rampant industrialization are thorough and thought provoking.

The most refreshing part of this book though is it isn’t just a list of where capitalism went wrong and why we’re all doomed. Cradle to Cradle outlines ways in which designers, engineers, and scientists can work together to deconstruct the current way we make things and redesign our material lives to benefit the natural world. The main idea, which I find to be very solarpunk, is to look at how in nature there is no waste. Everything serves a purpose in the environment. The fruit of the cherry tree feeds birds and animals while those animals spread the seeds of the tree. The droppings of those birds and animals fertilize the ground where the cherry tree and its offspring grow so that they can offer more food. Everything has its place in the cycle.

In one project, a shampoo was redesigned from scratch to only have positive effects by carefully selecting every chemical going into it, including the bottle. Herman Miller had a new factory designed including natural lighting, more ventilation, and a “street” with plants inside to bring nature closer to the workers. As we saw with the Nature Fix, bringing humans and nature together has positive benefits for human health, and by bringing the outdoors in, Herman Miller was able to bring its new focus on environmental sustainability to the forefront.

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Photo by Luka Siemionov on Pexels.com

The book isn’t just anecdotes and feel-good aphorisms, it also includes a framework for how to approach design to ensure maximum good. One of the ongoing themes in the book is that so far, most industry has tried to do less bad to the environment when it cares at all, but it’s time to go a step further and see how we can take industry and make it improve the world around us.

A success story in this vein tells of a textile factory in Europe that worked to make a better upholstery fabric for office chairs. When the regulators came to check the factory’s wastewater (effluent), they were confused as the water coming out of the plant was cleaner than that going in.

The equipment was working fine; it was simply that by most parameters the water coming out of the factory was as clean as — or even cleaner than — the water going in. When a factory’s effluent is cleaner than its influent, it might well prefer to use its effluent as influent. Being designed into the manufacturing process, this dividend is free and requires no enforcement to continue or to exploit. Not only did our new design process bypass the traditional responses to environmental problems (reduce, reuse, recycle), it also eliminated the need for regulation, something that any businessperson will appreciate as extremely valuable.

One of the things I’m hoping to investigate further in 2019 is the circular economy, and I think the design strategies outlined in Cradle to Cradle are a good first step in this direction. I found there is a followup book called The Upcycle written in 2013 that I will be checking out from the library soon.

Have you read Cradle to Cradle or have thoughts on the circular economy? Let us know below!

2018 – A Retrospective

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When I started Solarpunk Station in January, I was hoping to address some of the more common criticisms of the movement. Namely, there’s not enough practical solarpunk, and that solarpunk is’t really punk, just a lot of pretty, utopic pictures without any substance.

In the upcoming year, I’m hoping to refocus and bring you more practical solarpunk projects. Writing a book review about the health benefits of nature is a lot easier than getting out in the woods to experience it. Writing about cryptocurrency is a lot simple than exploring the limits of distributed manufacturing technology.

Right now, I’m in the planning stages of two modest, but real projects that I hope to share in 2019. Do I hope to do more? Yes. But I need to start somewhere, and I’ve learned that when I try to start too big I might not be able to finish.

In the face of all that’s going on, I realize that trying to live more sustainability might seem pointless. I think finding a better way to live that is lighter on Mother Earth is something that I need to do for me. Trying to make more sustainable choices is something that helps me feel more in tune with the world around me. I’m no enviro-saint; I’m just trying to do the best I can and learning from my mistakes along the way.

Feel free to forgive yourself and learn. When you come across climate deniers or other people with belligerent world views, remember that ideals and ideas are mutable. I was once a climate skeptic, but after meeting with scientists at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) I was able to see why the concern was real.

Encourage open-mindedness in your opponents through empathy and understanding. Shouting matches rarely breed thoughtful discourse. That said, it’s not your responsibility to convert the world. There are toxic, dangerous people out there, so if something feels off, disengage. Don’t feel obligated to get yourself hurt trying to convince people that climate change is real. If you’re a brave soul who can go out to protests and direct action, more power to you. If you can write your elected officials or sign a petition, that’s great too. There’s no one way to win the fight for a solarpunk future, so do what you can, when you can.

I’m a maker, so I’m going to try to use my skills to make this world a little better. If you can, see what skills you have and think of ways you can use your powers for good. Feel free to share any ideas or questions below.

Solarpunk winters

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As we observe the winter solstice, my thoughts have turned to how solarpunks approach winter. As the days turn dark and cold, how does a society dependent on the sun continue to prosper?

Finland

If anyone knows about how to approach long nights, it’s the people who live at the poles. Finland, which was recently rated the world’s happiest country, has no shortage of darkness given it’s proximity to the Earth’s North Pole. In the northernmost parts of the country, the sun doesn’t rise for 51 days in the winter. Why are they so happy then? A stable government with minimal corruption is probably a contributing factor, along with free healthcare and college programs. In the Nature Fix, author Florence Williams suggests it’s the access to nature. Provided you don’t cut down anyone’s trees or damage their property, there’s no such thing as trespassing in Finland. Unlike in the United States where fences and no trespassing signs prohibit free passage, you can hike from one end of Finland to another without running afoul of the law. Also, the combination of low population density and relatively late urbanization, most of Finland’s population is only minutes away from a Nordic walk in the woods or one of the many wintertime diversions available to residents such as ice skating or cross country skiing. For more, check out this Buzzfeed article that is a nice summary of how Fins stay happy, no matter the weather.

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Wool

While the vegans in the audience will groan, I feel wool is one of the best resources we have when it comes to staying warm in the wintertime. Since wool is a material that can be harvested without harming the sheep, it seems like a win-win to me. It’s important to look at how you’re sourcing the wool when you get it, but wool from a well-treated sheep will keep you warm at the expense of them getting a haircut. Is wool cheap? No. But, it mother nature has taken millions of years plus a few hundred of human intervention to develop a fabric that breathes well, is the bomb at temperature regulation, and like all natural fibers, is biodegradable. That last part is important since so much of the microplastics in the ocean are coming from washing our synthetic fabrics. REI has a great article about sustainable clothing and textile choices for more info on wool and other options to stay warm in the winter/

Geothermal heat pumps

One way to make sure things stay toasty is with geothermal, or ground source, heat pumps. Often overlooked as a source of clean power, geothermal electricity generation isn’t something that works in all areas. Geothermal heat pumps work just about anywhere though to help keep things nice and warm inside with a minimal investiture of electrical power. In short, geothermal heat pumps replace the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system of a building and use the Earth as a heat sink. Since the ground is roughly 18 Celsius in most places, you can cool in the summer and heat in the winter with little energy expenditure. According to Wikipedia, these systems offer a 44-75% increase in efficiency over more traditional heating systems. The US Department of Energy has a good overview of the technology.

Solar fluid

In an interesting development announced last month, scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have developed a fluid that can store solar energy for up to  18 years. So, excess capacity in the summer could be stored into the winter from your solar array and retrieved when needed. Since the system is heat storage, it can be converted to electricity, or could be used as a means of storing summer’s warmth to heat your home in the winter. The original paper can be found here in Energy and Environmental Science.

Person wearing a black, white, and crimson cape patterned like moth wings. Cape is wider than armspan in width, makeing the wearer appear to have moth wings.

Moth Wings Cape by CostureoReal on Etsy

Lunarpunks

I would be remiss to not mention our lunarpunk cousins here when talking about the darkest time of the year. Lunarpunks are the night dwellers of solarpunk society. They are a subculture within our subculture, favoring the night. Biomimmicry of bioluminescent creatures, moth-themed cloaks, and gossamer fabrics fluttering in the night breeze are some of the aesthetic influences here. Winter would be the lunarpunk’s time to be more active, hosting all kinds of events in the cooler nights from art displays to street festivals.


Do you have any thoughts on what solarpunk winters might be like? Let us know below, or consider submitting a story to World Weaver Press’s call for stories for their Solarpunk Winters anthology which opens in January!

What is Solarpunk, anyway?

photo of smiling woman in white dress and brown boots posing in multicolored glass house

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The first thing you need to acknowledge when looking at solarpunk is that the world is on fire. The last few centuries of human development have taken a growth-at-all-costs approach to building up human society, and unfortunately, the bill is due. Solarpunk began as an attempt to imagine a brighter future wherein humans managed to transcend our current predicament and come out better for it on the other side. What began as a smattering of neat drawings and inspirational ideals is slowly coalescing into a movement to take back the Earth from the powers that would see it smolder.

Where is the punk in solarpunk? It’s in direct action to oppose ICE and police violence. It’s in the community energy coop putting solar panels on their roofs to save money. It’s the guerrilla gardeners throwing seed bombs into fenced-off abandoned properties. It’s in the schools where transgender students are welcome in the bathroom of their choice. It’s in the makerspace where people are finding ways to repurpose waste into useful and beautiful items. It’s remaking society into that hopeful future. The punk of solarpunk is in the now. The solarpunk future won’t happen without a concerted effort by a lot of people to fight the status quo and the powers keeping things that way.

Solarpunk doesn’t have one encompassing political or aesthetic vision. I think the most cohesive elements though are equity, environment, and appropriate technology. Equity is more complicated than simple equality, as it requires us to make sure everyone has what they need, which may not be the same exact thing as demanded by equality. For example, living with disabilities is more expensive and results in most disabled individuals having poor economic outcomes. While the exact method of providing an equitable society is something that will need experimentation, that goal is one of the central tenets of solarpunk.

Keeping the environment in mind as a stakeholder in all decision-making processes is another important theme in solarpunk. From the name, you can tell that solarpunk prefers a renewably-powered future, but reducing plastic waste, air and noise pollution, and waste are also environmentally-motivated goals of the solarpunk community. We’ve only got the one planet, so let’s make sure to keep Mother Earth in good shape. She doesn’t need us, but we need her desperately.

Appropriate technology is the idea that we don’t necessarily need “smart” everything in our lives. While solarpunk doesn’t eschew technology like some primitivists, solarpunk is interested in only using the appropriate level of technology for the task at hand and not making technology for technology’s sake alone.

If you’re concerned about climate change or the growing march of fascism across the globe, you might already be a solarpunk and not know it. To learn more check out the Scuttlebutt social network or look for #solarpunk on Mastadon or Tumblr. If you have any questions feel free to use the contact form on this website or comment below.

Bicycle Innovations

red cruiser bike parked on metal bike stand

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While cars have continued to iterate convenient features like cup holders and hill holding assist, bicycles haven’t really changed much since the safety bicycle was introduced in 1876. While some of that is because the diamond frame bike is actually a pretty cool design, it feels like unless it’s something to make a racer on the Tour de France go faster, the bicycle industry has ignored it.

As a solarpunk, I feel that bikes are a really great option for low carbon transportation for the able-bodied. What about people who need adaptive solutions? Luckily, one of the areas that there has been innovation in the bicycle industry is in adaptive bicycles. I didn’t really know much about them, but I stopped by a bike shop in Vienna, VA where they told me about some of the models they stock.

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Hase TRETS trike (image from Hase’s website)

Accessible bikes are available with electric assist and other adaptive technologies to make riding fun for people who might not be able to ride a more traditional bicycle. Handcycles are available for people who can’t use their legs to pedal, and Hase makes a popular recumbent/upright tandem that can accommodate a wide level of abilities. I was able to test ride the tandem, and while I think the handling would take some getting used to, it’s a very well-built machine.

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Hase Pino tandem (image from Hase’s website)

The rise of cargo and urban bikes will hopefully help with adoption of bicycles as a transportation method. This article at Bike Shop Girl, “What If Bicycles Were Designed Like Cars?” discusses how most cars are designed around the normal user, but bikes have been designed around racers for a long time. Ron George over at the Cozy Beehive has an article titled “Brainstorming Bicycle Design Ideas with an Example” further discussing the lack of innovation in the bicycle space.

When looking for practical bicycles, my wishlist would be:

  • Internally geared hub
    • Internal hubs are available from 3 to 14 speeds and pretty much eliminate all that mucking about with drive-train maintenance required with a regular set of gears (bonus points if it has a belt drive!)
  • Step through design
    • Nobody wants to have to swing their leg over the back of their bike or the center bar to get onto their ride.
  • Electric assist
    • While I don’t yet have electric assist for my bike, I’ve heard it makes a great difference in your ability to carry heavy loads (including other humans) or ride up hills. Being sweaty on arrival is a big turn off for many aspiring riders, so I think this is a good piece of tech to get more butts on bikes.
  • Racks and fenders
    • You should be able to carry stuff and not get splashed if it’s wet out.
  • Lights
    • Ideally charged via a dynamo or connected to your electric assist battery. They don’t sell cars without headlights, so why are they extra on a bike?

Granted, I’m a privileged person who doesn’t have any major physical problems. I really think tooling around town on a bike is super fun, so hopefully accessible bikes (and trikes) will be easier to find with time. I don’t think we should be forcing people to ride bikes to get around in a solarpunk society, but I think we should make it a lot better option. Investing in biking infrastructure and making bikes easier to adopt for newbies are the two main barriers to adoption here in the US. I’ve been riding for over a decade now, and I still find bike shops intimidating, so I think there’s a lot of room to grow. If you want to know more about making bicycling more inviting, be sure to check out Bike Shop Girl’s Shift Up Podcast.

Do you ride a bike? If not, what would make you feel more comfortable doing so?

 

A Survey of Climate Action in the US

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I recently found that the Weather Channel has a very exciting series of stories about climate change and adaptation on their website. There’s an article for each of the 50 US States talking about the challenges facing that particular area as well as innovative approaches locals have taken in adapting or mitigating some of those effects.

As a proponent of decentralization as a core tenet of a solarpunk society, I think this series does a good job of outlining ways that people can fight climate change on their own terms. I think everyone would be willing to admit that the US federal government isn’t going to be taking action anytime soon, so it’s up to us to fight climate change in our own communities and find innovative solutions to the problems brought on by the change that has already happened.

What are you doing to fight climate change in your home? Are there any awesome solutions from overseas that would be great transplants to the USA? Let us know below!

Solarpunk and energy fragility

A couple weeks ago we were treated to a 9 hour power outage here at home. It wasn’t a terrible experience, but it did remind me of how fragile our infrastructure really is. In the US, the American Society of Civil Engineers puts together a “report card” for infrastructure every four years. In 2017, US energy infrastructure scored a D+.

Large sections of the grid are reaching the end of their design life, and we don’t have enough funding dedicated to upgrading and replacing parts. Decentralized power generation such as solar and wind will help immensely as the power can be generated closer to where it’s used. This means when one part of the grid goes down, there still should be electricity in the others. Some communities have started investing in their own local grids, and you can convert some of your usage to solar even if you rent an apartment.

Since one of the main parts of solarpunk for me is decentralization, both political and technological, I think that having a more decentralized grid will lead to more resilient communities and services. Does your community have any programs right now to help people become less reliant on the grid? Let us know below!