Tag Archives: transportation

Energy: A Human History – Review

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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!

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What is Solarpunk, anyway?

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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

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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?