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Hurricanes keep bringing blackouts. Clean energy could keep the lights on.

When Hurricane Irma scraped its way up the Florida peninsula, it left the state’s electrical grid in pieces. Between 7 million and 10 million people lost power during the storm — as much as half of the state — and some vulnerable residents lost their lives in the sweltering days that followed. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of electrical workers from around the country rushed to the Sunshine State to repair damaged substations, utility poles, and transmission lines.

But in Palm Coast, on Florida’s eastern seaboard, midway between Daytona and St. Augustine, Jim Walden never lost power. As he and his wife listened to debris clattering off their roof, 24 solar panels and 10 kilowatt hours of battery storage kept their lights on and their refrigerator cool. Over the ensuing days, as electric utilities struggled to return power to Florida’s storm-wracked communities, the only thing Walden and his wife missed was their air conditioner (which would have drained their batteries too quickly).

“It worked flawlessly,” Walden says of his solar-plus-storage system. “We had plenty of power for the fans to keep us cool and the lights when you walk into the bathroom at night. The wife would even run her hairdryer off of it.”

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Walden’s setup — which draws power from the sun during the day and dispenses it at night, with or without the help of the grid — is an illustration of how we might reimagine our electrical system to be more modular, resilient, and renewable-powered. We’ve already been struggling with the question of how to build (or rebuild) our grids to better accommodate solar- and wind-generated energy. But this month’s run of record-making Atlantic hurricanes has made finding an answer — one that will help us better weather the storms of the coming century — even more urgent.

Questions about reliability have dogged renewable energy from the beginning. Simply put, when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you’re not getting any energy from those sources. Our grid, by contrast, is set up to provide constant, unwavering power around the clock. We’re only just starting to address the challenge of reconciling these two basic facts in one functional system. (Hint: The solution involves batteries). But according to a Department of Energy report, wind and solar power have not made the U.S. power grid less reliable, even as the amount of renewable energy loaded onto it has shot up.

But the grid is getting less reliable overall. Thanks to perpetual delays in updating old infrastructure, the United States sees more power outages per year than any other developed country — costing an annual $150 billion in lost productivity.

And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Even as Florida’s lights turn back on, the Atlantic keeps serving up hurricanes like Maria, which left all of Puerto Rico in darkness that could last as long as six months. Overall, the average number of annual weather-related power outages doubled from 2003 to 2012, a Climate Central report found.

One basic improvement the United States could make to its power grid is moving power lines from above-ground utility poles to protected underground conduits. This is how Germany rebuilt its grid after World War II, and now it suffers very few outages, says Blake Richetta, the U.S. VP for German clean-energy company sonnenBatterie. The country has fewer than 12 minutes of blackout per customer per year, compared to the 244 minutes that plague Americans.

But moving America’s 300,000 miles of transmission lines underground would be an epic investment of time and labor — just the sort of massive infrastructure project we’ve been putting off.

Florida utilities did invest in some storm-hardening of their power infrastructure in the past decade, replacing wooden poles with concrete ones and placing them closer together as a response to hurricane damage in 2004 and 2005. The state’s largest investor-owned utility, Florida Power & Light, spent $3 billion on improvements over the last decade, including an $800-million smart-grid project completed in 2013 with backing from the Department of Energy. The initiative involved deploying more than 4.5 million smart meters, sensors, and flood monitors, all networked together to give the utility real-time information on how power is moving around the grid.

Those moves helped lessen the damage Irma caused, according to Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy. During the hurricane, several power substations were able to shut down when flooding monitors indicated equipment was at risk, saving the utility several days of work and possibly millions in equipment repair.

Still, Silagy’s company had to deploy around 20,000 workers in camps across the state to patch power plants and transmission lines in the days after the storm. And a utility spokesperson told ABC News that parts of the electrical grid on Florida’s west coast will require a “wholesale rebuild.”

“This is going to be a very, very lengthy restoration, arguably the longest and most complex in U.S. history,” VP of Communication Rob Gould said.

Clearly, Florida — and the rest of the country — still needs to do much more. And according to Jim Walden, it’s going to require a change in attitude for many Americans.

“It’s amazing to me that we live in the Sunshine State, and it’s hard to get people interested in solar power whatsoever,” he explains.

Walden himself got interested because he wanted to save money on his electric bill. Later, with the help of a $7,500 federal tax incentive, he installed his own battery storage to become more self-sufficient, especially during power outages.

The solutions to our collective energy troubles, however, will also need to be collective. One way that could look is scaling up from individual battery-powered homes to networked storage hubs that could act as regional power sources, flexibly responding to the changing demands of the grid.

As one urban resilience expert, Thaddeus Miller, told ProPublica, increasing the defenses of our cities and systems will require deeper changes than any we’ve embraced so far. “Fundamentally, we must abandon the idea that there is a specific standard to which we can control nature,” he said.

That means, for instance, changing the way we think about resilient infrastructure. Rather than working to prevent flooding at all times with high-investment levees and reservoirs, we could work to build facilities that are better at weathering flooding without being totally compromised. These “safe-to-fail” approaches would leave less of a mess after a storm blows through.

Because storms are going to blow through places like Florida, and they’re likely going to get stronger.

“We lose electricity quite often here, believe it or not — there are thunderstorms that can come up and knock power out,” Walden says. “Just to have electricity during those times is a great comfort.”

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Hurricanes keep bringing blackouts. Clean energy could keep the lights on.

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Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with record-breaking rains.

“If you just look at the energy sector, we need about a trillion a year,” Barbara Buchner says about the gap between between our climate goals and the amount of investment in developing solutions.

To spur those needed investments, Buchner’s group, The Lab, just launched a new crop of projects aimed at making it easier for investors to put money into green investments. Projects include partnerships between hydropower operators and land conservation and restoration efforts and “climate smart” cattle ranching initiatives in Brazil, as well as more esoteric exploits in private equity and cleantech development.

There are three main barriers that keep investors away from innovative projects, Buchner says: lack of knowledge of new projects, perception of higher risk, and an unwillingness to go in alone on unproven projects.

Breaking down these barriers is important because that climate investment gap can’t be closed by government spending alone.

“It’s the backbone, it’s the engine behind overall climate finance,” Buchner says of these early, targeted projects by governments and non-governmental organizations. “But the private sector [investors] really are the ones that make the difference.”

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Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with record-breaking rains.

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Mexico City was built on land that’s prone to severe earthquake damage.

Less than two weeks after the second-biggest earthquake in Mexico’s history, a second quake hit, causing more than 200 deaths and toppling buildings around the country.

The 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck Tuesday afternoon just a few hours after Mexico City held earthquake drills to mark the anniversary of the country’s deadliest shock in 1985.

“It’s very horrendous,” Guillermo Lozano, humanitarian and emergency affairs director for World Vision Mexico, told the L.A. Times. “Most of the people were at work and children were at school.”

The soft soil underneath Mexico City tends to amplify the damage from quakes. The megalopolis is built on ancient lakebed filled with wet clay deposits that experts compare to jello. When seismic waves pass through, the lakebed jiggles, causing even more violent shaking aboveground.

Seismologists say it’s unlikely that Tuesday’s quake is related to the 8.1-magnitude one that shook the country Sept. 8, since they struck hundreds of miles apart and occurred weeks, not minutes, apart.

It’s been a hectic month for North America, from hurricanes to wildfires. But unlike intense superstorms, at least earthquake devastation is one thing we can’t blame ourselves for, right?

Well, it’s more complicated than you might think.

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Mexico City was built on land that’s prone to severe earthquake damage.

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Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke

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Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $5.99

Publish Date: July 3, 2001

Publisher: CRC House Publishing NIC

Seller: CRC House Publishing INC


Childhoodís End is one of the defining legacies of Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other groundbreaking works. Since its publication in 1953, this prescient novel about first contact gone wrong has come to be regarded not only as a science fiction classic but as a literary thriller of the highest order.   Spaceships have suddenly appeared in the skies above every city on the planet. Inside is an intellectually, technologically, and militarily superior alien race known as the Overlords. At first, their demands seem benevolent: unify Earth, eliminate poverty, end war. But at what cost? To those who resist, itís clear that the Overlords have an agenda of their own. Has their arrival marked the end of humankind . . . or the beginning?   Praise for Childhoodís End   ìA first-rate tour de force.îóThe New York Times   ìFrighteningly logical, believable, and grimly prophetic . . . Clarke is a master.îóLos Angeles Times   ìThere has been nothing like it for years; partly for the actual invention, but partly because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim on humanity than its own ësurvival.í îóC. S. Lewis   ìAs a science fiction writer, Clarke has all the essentials.îóJeremy Bernstein, The New Yorker

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Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke

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The Science of Everyday Life – Len Fisher

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The Science of Everyday Life

An Entertaining and Enlightening Examination of Everything We Do and Everything We See

Len Fisher

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: May 1, 2011

Publisher: Arcade Publishing

Seller: The Perseus Books Group, LLC


Scientists are in the business of trying to understand the world. Exploring commonplace phenomena, they have uncovered some of nature’s deepest laws. We can in turn apply these laws to our own lives, to better grasp and enhance our performance in daily activities as varied as cooking, home improvement, sports—even dunking a doughnut! This book makes the science of the familiar a key to opening the door for those who want to know what scientists do, why they do it, and how they go about it. Following the routine of a normal day, from coffee and breakfast to shopping, household chores, sports, a drink, supper, and a bath, we see how the seemingly mundane can provide insight into the most profound scientific questions. Some of the topics included are the art and science of dunking; how to boil an egg; how to tally a supermarket bill; the science behind hand tools; catching a ball or throwing a boomerang; the secrets of haute cuisine, bath (or beer) foam; and the physics of sex. Fisher writes with great authority and a light touch, giving us an entertaining and accessible look at the science behind our daily activities.

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The Science of Everyday Life – Len Fisher

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The Evolution of Beauty – Richard O. Prum

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The Evolution of Beauty

How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us

Richard O. Prum

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $14.99

Publish Date: May 9, 2017

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC


A major reimagining of how evolutionary forces work, revealing how mating preferences—what Darwin termed "the taste for the beautiful"—create the extraordinary range of ornament in the animal world. In the great halls of science, dogma holds that Darwin's theory of natural selection explains every branch on the tree of life: which species thrive, which wither away to extinction, and what features each evolves. But can adaptation by natural selection really account for everything we see in nature?      Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum—reviving Darwin's own views—thinks not. Deep in tropical jungles around the world are birds with a dizzying array of appearances and mating displays: Club-winged Manakins who sing with their wings, Great Argus Pheasants who dazzle prospective mates with a four-foot-wide cone of feathers covered in golden 3D spheres, Red-capped Manakins who moonwalk. In thirty years of fieldwork, Prum has seen numerous display traits that seem disconnected from, if not outright contrary to, selection for individual survival. To explain this, he dusts off Darwin's long-neglected theory of sexual selection in which the act of choosing a mate for purely aesthetic reasons—for the mere pleasure of it—is an independent engine of evolutionary change.     Mate choice can drive ornamental traits from the constraints of adaptive evolution, allowing them to grow ever more elaborate. It also sets the stakes for sexual conflict, in which the sexual autonomy of the female evolves in response to male sexual control. Most crucially, this framework provides important insights into the evolution of human sexuality, particularly the ways in which female preferences have changed male bodies, and even maleness itself, through evolutionary time.      The Evolution of Beauty presents a unique scientific vision for how nature's splendor contributes to a more complete understanding of evolution and of ourselves.

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The Evolution of Beauty – Richard O. Prum

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The Future of the Mind – Michio Kaku

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The Future of the Mind

The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

Michio Kaku

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $11.99

Publish Date: February 25, 2014

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC


Michio Kaku, the New York Times bestselling author of Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future tackles the most fascinating and complex object in the known universe: the human brain. The Future of the Mind brings a topic that once belonged solely to the province of science fiction into a startling new reality. This scientific tour de force unveils the astonishing research being done in top laboratories around the world—all based on the latest advancements in neuroscience and physics—including recent experiments in telepathy, mind control, avatars, telekinesis, and recording memories and dreams. The Future of the Mind is an extraordinary, mind-boggling exploration of the frontiers of neuroscience. Dr. Kaku looks toward the day when we may achieve the ability to upload the human brain to a computer, neuron for neuron; project thoughts and emotions around the world on a brain-net; take a “smart pill” to enhance cognition; send our consciousness across the universe; and push the very limits of immortality.

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The Future of the Mind – Michio Kaku

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Florida Governor Rick Scott is figuring out his feelings on climate change post-hurricane.

“Clearly, our environment changes all the time,” the Republican leader said after touring Irma’s devastation. “And whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is.”

It’s good to see Scott pondering those wacky ideas we’ve all heard floating around: Human-caused climate changemore intense hurricanesrising sea levels, etc. Coming to terms with climate change is a journey we all must pursue at our own pace! It’s not urgent or anything.

So what is Scott feeling sure about? Let’s hear it:

This is a catastrophic storm our state has never seen,” he warned on Saturday before Irma hit Florida.

“We ought to go solve problems. I know we have beach renourishment issues. I know we have flood-mitigation issues,” he said in the wake of Irma.

“I’m worried about another hurricane,” he shared with reporters while touring the Florida Keys this week. We feel ya, Scott.

Big ideas! Perhaps a fellow Florida Republican could illuminate their common thread.

“[I]t’s certainly not irresponsible to highlight how this storm was probably fueled — in part — by conditions that were caused by human-induced climate change,” Florida congressman and Grist 50er Carlos Curbelo said this week.

In fact, it just might be necessary.

Continued – 

Florida Governor Rick Scott is figuring out his feelings on climate change post-hurricane.

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Hurricane Jose may be headed toward New England.

“Clearly, our environment changes all the time,” the Republican leader said after touring Irma’s devastation. “And whether that’s cycles we’re going through or whether that’s man-made, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one it is.”

It’s good to see Scott pondering those wacky ideas we’ve all heard floating around: Human-caused climate changemore intense hurricanesrising sea levels, etc. Coming to terms with climate change is a journey we all must pursue at our own pace! It’s not urgent or anything.

So what is Scott feeling sure about? Let’s hear it:

This is a catastrophic storm our state has never seen,” he warned on Saturday before Irma hit Florida.

“We ought to go solve problems. I know we have beach renourishment issues. I know we have flood-mitigation issues,” he said in the wake of Irma.

“I’m worried about another hurricane,” he shared with reporters while touring the Florida Keys this week. We feel ya, Scott.

Big ideas! Perhaps a fellow Florida Republican could illuminate their common thread.

“[I]t’s certainly not irresponsible to highlight how this storm was probably fueled — in part — by conditions that were caused by human-induced climate change,” Florida congressman and Grist 50er Carlos Curbelo said this week.

In fact, it just might be necessary.

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Hurricane Jose may be headed toward New England.

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Florida’s best defense against natural disasters is nature

The highest point in all of Florida is a hill that tops out at 345 feet above sea level, just south of the Alabama border. Much of the rest of the state lies far, far below that — like, 340 feet below — a peninsula jutting into the Caribbean around the same height as the Caribbean. It’s the last place you’d pick to ride out a hurricane, given the choice.

But that’s the choice Florida’s 20 million residents had to reckon with last week, as Hurricane Irma barrelled toward the state, breaking records and flattening towns across the Caribbean. Many expected it to be the costliest disaster in U.S. history — not just because of the Irma’s towering strength.

Florida is seemingly made for disaster. Its sprawling cities have been built up quickly and extensively, at the expense of the ecosystems that act as a natural defense against the worst of a hurricane’s blow. There’s nothing to stop a hurricane like Irma from wreaking havoc wherever it goes, but dunes, wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs can all play an important role in absorbing some of the destructive energy of a storm. Unfortunately, over the past century, the Sunshine State has lost the majority of all these natural shock absorbers, trading them for arable land and new developments.

As Florida and Texas start to rebuild from the blows dealt by Irma and Harvey, many are weighing how best to fortify vulnerable coastal cities, even as rising sea level brings the threat of flooding closer and closer.

“If you live near the water, the difference between a crashing wave and a slowly moving chop against the walls of your home can be everything,” says Rob Nowicki, a post-doctoral researcher at Florida’s Mote Marine Lab.

Houston’s mayor made a plea for funding to construct a massive sea wall, or “coastal spine,” to protect the region from dangerous storm surges in the future. “We cannot talk about rebuilding” he said, “if we do not build the coastal spine.”

This bunker-building approach to natural disaster — which Nathanael Johnson wrote about in Houston’s struggle to control floodwater — is prone to occasional, catastrophic failure, especially as climate change continues to shift the baseline on our expectations of what a storm can do. The problem is, for Florida, these kinds of concrete-heavy projects aren’t really an option.

“What distinguishes all of South Florida is that it’s got this porous limestone base,” says Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities. No matter what barriers you put between yourself and the sea, water will be able to seep around it. In Miami Beach, king tides regularly flood up through the city’s storm drains, hurricane or no. At the most dire moments before Irma made landfall, Miami — with an average elevation of 6 feet above sea level — was predicted to see as much as 10 feet of storm surge.

When Irma made a last minute swerve inland, pushing the storm surge away from populated coastal cities, much of the predicted damage was avoided. Still, Miami and Jacksonville saw several feet of flooding, power outages, and overwhelmed infrastructure.

Other cities, like Tampa and Sarasota, remain especially vulnerable because they sit on the on the edge of very shallow seas, Dawson says. That means when storms sweep in from deeper ocean they pile up some extremely high, extremely powerful waves ahead of them. Although Tampa only ended up with a couple of feet of storm surge from Irma, initial forecasts were chilling; if the storm had veered a different way, nine to 15 feet of surge might have slammed into the city.

Shoreline habitats like dunes and wetlands can block storm surge, usually the deadliest part of a major hurricane, because they slow down dangerous waves and prevent water from moving as far inland as it would without them.

A recent study in Nature’s online journal calculated that wetlands saved New York $625 million in flooding damage during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, by absorbing both storm surge and rain.

“As a rule of thumb, you can expect larger and more prominent ecosystems to provide more protection,” says Nowicki.

The same swamps and mangroves that would help protect Florida from storms are also what helped keep people and development out of the sparsely populated state until the 20th century.

To make South Florida habitable, the Army Corps of Engineers dug 2,000 miles of canals and levees starting in the 1930s. Beaches were bulwarked, channels were dredged, subdivisions snaked their way into former marshland, and Disney World appeared in a puff of pink smoke (I assume). Along the way, Florida’s natural wetlands receded and its once-stunning coral reefs all but disappeared. Florida is now the third most populous state, behind California and Texas.

In the last few years, Florida Governor Rick Scott has overseen large budget cuts to the department in charge of researching and preserving these ecosystems, enabling the kind of risky coastal development that puts people too close to dangerous storms. And President Donald Trump recently reversed an Obama-era mandate that federally funded construction projects abide by a higher flooding standard to take sea level rise into consideration. All of this leaves Florida in a poor position to weather future storms.

Then there’s the question of Florida’s coral reefs. Offshore reefs can’t stop surge from coming inland the way dunes and wetlands can, but they sap energy from the waves washing over them. Coral cover in the Caribbean, including in Florida, has decreased by 80 percent, leaving low-lying shorelines less protected than ever.

Mote Marine Laboratory, where Robert Nowicki works, is focused on research into how to restore Florida’s degraded reefs by growing and planting new coral colonies onto former reef sites.

“While much of our living coral is gone, the skeletons remain,” Nowicki explains. The structure of a reef, even a dead one, will continue to act as a brake on waves for a while, but over time the skeletons break down and, without live coral to rebuild them, turn into rubble.

This kind of outplanting project is based on the way foresters restore damaged forests by raising trees in nurseries and then distributing them into the wild. It’s labor-intensive and slow, yet Nowicki says it’s the best bet for rebuilding these damaged reefs, and their storm-buffering services, before they’re gone for good.

“Getting living coral back on the old skeletons,” he says, “is a kind of race against time.”

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Florida’s best defense against natural disasters is nature

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