Tag Archives: climate

Will solar energy replace fossil fuels? An expert seems to think so


A review of Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy — and our Planet — from Dirty Energy, by Danny Kennedy

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The basic facts are clear. The US must move to solar and other forms of renewable energy to slow down global warming; lower the environmental costs of extracting coal, oil, and natural gas; reduce the adverse public health impact of fossil fuel emissions; and end our dependency on overseas sources of petroleum.

But did you know that the move to solar energy is inevitable? That, sooner or later, the economic advantages of solar will be so compelling that the relatively few people today who still believe the coal and oil industries’ propaganda will eventually be forced to decide to install photovoltaic panels on their rooftops and commercial buildings?

That’s the message that emerges from reading between the lines of Rooftop Revolution, the paean to solar energy by Danny Kennedy, one of the avatars of the rising solar industry. Kennedy demonstrates with a wealth of statistics and a captivating narrative that the price of solar electricity from rooftop installations is on such a steep downward track, the pace of technological innovation in the industry is so swift, and the price of oil is on such an inevitable long-term rising trend, that within a very few years it will become impossible to ignore the widening gap in cost between electricity from solar and that from fossil-fuel generating plants — a gap in favor of solar.

Not so incidentally, Kennedy reports, “the tide turned in 2010 when fully half of new electric generation coming online globally was renewable. In the United States, renewables were 25 percent of new electric generation.” And “going solar by 2015 will be economically rational for two-thirds of the households in the United States.”

However, Kennedy makes it clear that he isn’t satisfied to let history run its course. The urgent need to lower global warming, and the potential of solar energy to create millions of desperately needed new jobs, together force him to advocate for public support to urge changes in state and federal energy policy.

In Rooftop Revolution, Kennedy makes a powerful case for the adoption of solar on the basis of its job-creating power alone: the solar energy industry hires roughly twice as many people as the fossil fuel business per dollar invested. And the total number of jobs in the solar industry is growing at a ferocious pace while employment in the fossil fuel sector is shrinking.

As the author makes clear, a sensible federal policy of incentives to promote solar and not to encourage the use of fossil fuels could greatly speed up the move to solar energy. However, the powers that be in Washington DC have decided otherwise. Despite all the cries of foul from the US Chamber of Commerce and the oil industry that the government is giving away the store to the solar industry — they point to Solyndra as “proof” — the facts tell us a much different story. In fact, the oil, coal, and natural gas industry has received federal subsidies in the last decade that are more than an order of magnitude greater than those granted to renewables (about 10 times for nuclear, 11 times for natural gas and petroleum, and 22 times for coal!).

About that Solyndra case, by the way: the company was the only one of more than 40 firms that received loans under the same program and proceeded to fail, and the loan program had already set aside more than five times the loss from Solyndra as a reserve against bad loans.

Kennedy quotes Jeremy Rifkin’s assertion that “The great economic revolutions in history occur when new communications technologies converge with new energy systems.” This statement, which encapsulates the thesis of Rifkin’s 2011 book, The Third Industrial Revolution (reviewed here), meshes with Kennedy’s thinking in his description of the changing character of the electricity market. As the number of solar-equipped buildings on the grid increases, the role of the power companies will start to shift, employing them as brokers of a sort, managing the flow of the surplus electricity to fill in gaps elsewhere on the grid. However, Rifkin envisions this becoming the predominant or sole role of the power companies by mid-century; if Kennedy believes that, he doesn’t indicate so in Rooftop Revolution. Instead, he dwells on the technical challenges facing the industry to incorporate surplus solar energy amounting to even less than half the total power in the system. The technology to accomplish that is almost market-ready, Kennedy points out, but it’s not there yet.

Rooftop Revolution offers an appealing overview of the present and prospects for solar energy, written in an engaging conversational style and brought to life by the author’s autobiographical asides and his brief profiles of a number of the leading lights in bringing the power of the sun to life on Earth.

Danny Kennedy is a co-founder and Executive Vice President of Sungevity, a fast-growing firm in Oakland, California, that installs custom-fitted residential solar systems around the US and now in The Netherlands as well. Kennedy was a campaign manager for Greenpeace for many years before launching Sungevity and is widely considered a leading authority on global energy issues.

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You received an erroneous post: here’s the correction

You recently received an email that included a short, abortive first try on writing a post about Jeremy Rifkin’s The Third Industrial Revolution. I screwed up. You’ll find the real post by clicking here.

Please accept my apologies.

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Afraid the end of the world is nigh? Here’s a hopeful message, and it’s brilliant


Review of The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, by Jeremy Rifkin

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

More than half the children born today in the United States or Europe will live to see the 22nd Century. In theory.

However, if you’re unreservedly optimistic about the future of today’s young children, chances are you haven’t been paying attention. In the face of global warming, overpopulation, resource limits, and the growing number of species going extinct, it’s difficult to look far ahead without wondering whether the human race can truly meet the existential challenges we face.

Jeremy Rifkin thinks we can. He is both a realist, and, if at least one of his many books can be believed, an optimist. In The Third Industrial Revolution, he lays out a comprehensive platform on which the human race can build a sustainable future. His vision of the future is nothing less than brilliant.

To be sure, Rifkin isn’t predicting that his vision will take hold. He’s hoping it will. The Third Industrial Revolution is, above all, hopeful.

Rifkin’s vision is complex and wide-ranging. Within the 300 pages of The Third Industrial Revolution, he delves into energy, communications, transportation, history, economics, thermodynamics, paleontology, philosophy, psychology, education, and numerous other subjects. It’s a dazzling display of erudition.

The author notes that the Second Industrial Revolution from which we’re now emerging was dominated by the telephone, the automobile, and fossil fuels. That’s hard to dispute. The Third Industrial Revolution is being built on the foundation of the Internet and renewable energy, leading humanity forward into a post-carbon era – and that’s the part that requires the reader to “suspend disbelief,” as the writers of science fiction ask us to do.

In this new era, Rifkin writes, “the conventional, centralized business operations of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions will increasingly be subsumed by the distributed business practices of the Third Industrial Revolution; and the traditional, hierarchical organization of economic and political power will give way to lateral power organized nodally across society.” For example, in place of most large electric generating facilities, every building will generate its own energy. Any surplus will be sold to others through trading networks managed by the successors to today’s electric utilities. Rifkin estimates that the process of building out this Third Industrial Revolution will take 40-50 years, roughly the same amount of time that previous economic upheavals required. This assumes, of course, that global warming and other threatening trends will allow us that much time. Rifkin believes they will, and I’m hoping he’s right.

“As we approach the middle of the century,” he writes, “more and more commerce will be overseen by intelligent technological surrogates, freeing up much of the human race to create social capital in the not-for-profit civil society, making it the dominant sector in the second half of the century.” This assertion derives from an earlier book Rifkin wrote, The End of Work.

It’s easy to dismiss this vision as utopian and unattainable, as all utopian visions are. However, Jeremy Rifkin is no idle dreamer. As he explains at great length in The Third Industrial Revolution, this vision has been bought whole by the European Union, the Utrecht region of the Netherlands, and the cities of Rome and San Antonio, among many others. Rifkin, his staff, and a growing number of highly placed collaborators in both industry and government offices have been at work since the publication of the book in 2011 helping to develop custom-tailored regional plans consistent with this vision. Rifkin’s successful ongoing engagement with the European Union is especially impressive – and, he reminds us, “the European Union, not the United States or China, is the biggest economy in the world.”

European officialdom, specifically including such luminaries as Angela Merkel, are now in the process of shifting their economies to incorporate what the author calls “the five pillars” of the Third Industrial Revolution:

(1)   shifting to renewable energy;

(2)  transforming the building stock of every continent into micro-power plants to collect renewable energies on site;

(3)  deploying hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure to store intermittent energies;

(4)  using Internet technology to transform the power grid of every continent into an energy-sharing intergrid that acts just like the Internet . . .; and

(5)  transitioning the transport fleet to electric plug-in and fuel cell vehicles that can buy and sell electricity on a smart, continental, interactive power grid.

This economic transformation will bring profound changes to our lives and our surroundings. “Vertical economies of scale became the defining feature of the incipient industrial age and gigantic business operations became the norm . . . The distributed nature of renewable energies necessitates collaborative rather than hierarchical command and control mechanisms.” And all this change is consistent with the new pedagogy beginning to take hold in many schools around the globe, which emphasizes collaboration rather than competition, problem solving rather than rote learning, and what Rifkin calls “biosphere thinking,” which places humanity within the context of the web of life on Earth. (Perhaps you’ve even noticed that people under the age of 18 tend not to think the way we older adults do?)

“If it is difficult to imagine a change of this kind, think of how preposterous it must have been to a feudal lord, his knights in arms, and his indentured serfs to conjure the possibility of free wage earners selling their labor power in national markets, each a sovereign in his own right in the political sphere, all bound together by a set of agreed-upon rights and freedoms and a sense of national loyalty.”

It’s hard to disagree with that!


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Animal cruelty, pigs in shit, and the end of the human race


A review of Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a vegetarian. However, living as I do in Berkeley, California, from time to time I find myself in the minority at dinners and potlucks. So, as you might imagine, over the years I’ve come to hear most of the arguments against eating animals. 

One thing has always puzzled me about the torrent of passion that invariably erupts when I question why I, or anyone else, should become a vegetarian (much less a vegan): apart from a few rejoinders that the practice of limiting my diet to plants will improve my health, extend my life, and make me a better person overall, most — maybe 80 percent of the verbiage — concerns cruelty to animals.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like furry little animals as well as the next person. Over the course of my long life, I’ve had dogs, cats, and rabbits as well as a few less cuddly animals such as turtles and fish as (dare I say it?) pets. Nor do I kick dogs or other helpless beasts when I’m angry or frustrated with other human beings.

But why do so many people justify vegetarianism on the basis of animal cruelty when the practice of raising animals for food in factory farms promises to drown our country in shit and spew so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that it may eventually inundate low-lying coastal cities like Berkeley and make our planet uninhabitable for the human race? 

Where’s your perspective, people? Cheez! We’re already eliminating a million species a year from the biosphere by encroaching on animal habitat and screwing with the climate, and you’re worried about hurting chickens and cows?

Do I want to hurt chickens or cows? Of course not! I’ve even petted a heifer or two myself over the years. But still . . .

To give due credit, Jonathan Safran Foer does explain some of the environmental consequences of factory farming in Eating Animals. But his foray into the hidden depths of this tragically misconceived industry is almost exclusively focused on — guess what? — animal cruelty. His descriptions of the way animals are treated are purposely graphic and sometimes hard to take. PETA will love this book. If you don’t have an iron stomach, you might not.

Eating Animals is Foer’s first venture into book-length nonfiction. It’s his fourth book. The novels that preceded it, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, have attracted critical acclaim, including a number of literary awards, and both are being adapted to film. (He also produced a strange  work of fiction that was more a sculpture than a book.) For what it’s worth, I tried reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but couldn’t get past the first few pages. However, Eating Animals is brilliantly crafted. Foer’s writing style, perhaps even his personality, come through loud and clear. He’s obviously a brilliant young man, and if he can avoid falling prey to the silly experimentalism of some of his early work, he’s got a great career ahead of him.

Oh, by the way, are you wondering why I haven’t become a vegetarian? Well, that’s another story . . .


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An eminently readable book about how experts make sense of the world (or don’t)

A review of The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Statisticians rarely become superstars, but Nate Silver is getting close. This is the guy who writes the FiveThirtyEight.com blog for the New York Times and has correctly predicted the outcome of the last two presidential elections in virtually every one of the 50 states. But Silver is no political maven weaned on election trivia at his parents’ dinner table: he earned his stripes as a prognosticator supporting himself on Internet poker and going Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s (Moneyball) one better by developing an even more sophisticated statistical analysis of what it takes to win major league baseball games. And, by the way: Silver is just 34 years old as I write this post.

The Signal and the Noise is Silver’s first book, and what a book it is! As you might expect from this gifted enfant terrible, the book is as ambitious as it is digestible. Written in an easy, conversational style, The Signal and the Noise explores the ins and outs of predicting outcomes not just in politics, poker, and sports (baseball and basketball) as well as the stock market, the economy, and the 2008 financial meltdown, weather forecasting, earthquakes, epidemic disease, chess, climate change, and terrorism.

Fundamentally, The Signal and the Noise is about the information glut we’re all drowning in now and how an educated person can make a little more sense out of it. As Silver notes, “The instinctual shortcut we take when we have ‘too much information’ is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.” What else could explain why Mitt Romney was “shell-shocked” and Karl Rove was astonished by Romney’s loss in a presidential election that every dispassionate observer knew was going Obama’s way?

Silver asserts that “our predictions may be more prone to failure in the era of Big Data. As there is an exponential increase in the amount of available information, there is likewise an exponential increase in the number of hypotheses to investigate . . . But the number of meaningful relationships in the data . . . is orders of magnitude smaller. Nor is it likely to be increasing at nearly so fast a rate as the information itself; there isn’t any more truth in the world than there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data is just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.”

Sadly, it’s not just in politics that bias clouds judgment and leads to erroneous conclusions. “In 2005, an Athens-raised medical researcher named John P. Ioannidis published a controversial paper titled ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.’ The paper studied positive findings documented in peer-reviewed journals: descriptions of successful predictions of medical hypotheses carried out in laboratory experiments. It concluded that most of these findings were likely to fail when applied in the real world. Bayer Laboratories recently confirmed Ioannidis’s hypothesis. They could not replicate about two-thirds of the positive findings claimed in medical journals when they attempted the experiments themselves.”

In general, Silver’s thesis runs, “We need to stop, and admit it: we have a prediction problem. We love to predict things — and we aren’t very good at it. . . We focus on those signals that tell a story about the world as we would like it to be, not how it really is. We ignore the risks that are hardest to measure, even when they pose the greatest threats to our well-being. We make approximations and assumptions about the world that are much cruder than we realize. We abhor uncertainty, even when it is an irreducible part of the problem we are trying to solve.”

There’s more: Silver relates the work of a UC Berkeley psychology and political science professor named Philip Tetlock, who categorizes experts as either foxes or hedgehogs (in deference to an ancient Greek poet who wrote, “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”). Hedgehogs traffic in Big Ideas and often hew to ideologies; these are the people who talk to the press and are frequently found on TV talk shows. Foxes are cautious types who carefully examine and weigh details before reaching conclusions. Not surprisingly, Tetlock found that “The more interviews that an expert had done with the press . . . the worse his predictions tended to be.”

In other words, Be afraid. Be very afraid. If the people who supposedly know what they’re talking about often really don’t, how can the rest of us figure out what’s going on?


Filed under Nonfiction, Science

A technology maven’s vision of humanity’s bright future

A review of Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Peter Diamandis envisions a world in which humanity triumphs against all its challenges, from climate change, overpopulation, and poverty to the planetary deficits in energy and water.

This is not science fiction. It’s an eye-opening survey of what one celebrated technology visionary perceives as a feasible future for our species.

As Diamandis writes, “Abundance is a tale of good news. At its core, this book examines the hard facts, the science and engineering, the social trends and economic forces that are rapidly transforming our world. . . The point is this: When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they’re mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview.”

Diamandis is unusually well qualified to write this book. He is a Harvard-trained physician and an aeronautical engineer with a master’s degree from MIT. Ever since the age of 8, he has been preoccupied with space exploration. He has founded or co-founded a half-dozen businesses and organizations involved in that field and is widely credited with being the seminal figure in jump-starting the private space exploration business with the $10 million Ansari X Prize that led to the flight of SpaceShipOne.

In Abundance, co-written with Steven Kotler and published February 2012, Diamandis veers far from the course he set in space, settling down to earth to explore how humankind can leverage emerging technologies to confront its most pressing problems. Though Diamandis’ focus is squarely on the exponential growth in speed, capability, and spread of information processing technologies, he is not a gadget freak. He recognizes the social and political context in which technology is brought to light, although he may downplay the ferocity of humanity’s innate resistance to change. He writes about “game-changing” technologies, such as the “Lab-on-a-Chip . . . a portable, cell-phone-sized device [that] will allow doctors, nurses, and even patients themselves to take a sample of bodily fluid (such as urine, sputum, or a single drop of blood) and run dozens, if not hundreds, of diagnostics on the spot and in a manner of minutes.” He cites other potential breakthrough technologies now being developed by such luminaries as inventor Dean Kamen and biogeneticist Craig Venter.

For anyone but a Luddite, Abundance is exciting to read. Diamandis clearly believes that the technological advances he writes about hold promise of a much brighter future for humanity despite the anticipated growth in the world’s population to nine billion by 2050. (He even points to growing “in vitro” meat as one solution to the fast-rising demand for protein by ever more prosperous people.) For a science fiction fan such as myself, it’s difficult not to get starry-eyed.

However, the flaw in his line of reasoning is that, no matter how promising these new devices and processes might be, it’s not practical to assume that they’ll be quickly adopted around the world. That Lab-on-a-Chip sound wonderful? Great! But how many years will it take to put one billion copies of that device into the hands of the nurses running rural health clinics in Western Kenya and Uttar Pradesh and everywhere else in our wide, wide world? And how much will that cost? And will the spread of the device be rapid enough to prevent what other futurists see as the inevitable pandemics of new communicable diseases? Similar questions arise about nearly every one of the marvelous inventions cited in Abundance.

Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation and cofounder of Singularity University, laid out his vision of abundance in earth’s future in a brilliant TED2012 talk. The themes he introduced onstage at TED are explored in depth in this book.

To give some sense of the exalted circles in which Diamandis travels, here are some of the trustees of the X Prize Foundation: Larry Page, Elon Musk, James Cameron, Dean Kamen, Ratan Tata, Ray Kurzweil, Arianna Huffington, and Craig Venter, every one of whom would figure in anyone’s list of the brightest and most innovative thinkers and doers in the world.

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Another great sci-fi novel from one of the most gifted young talents in the field

A review of The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The time is the not-too-distant future, about a century from now. The rising seas have proven to be the most drastic effect of runaway global climate change, with most of the world’s coastal cities now under water up to at least the second story of the towers that dominate them.

The action takes place in and around the ruins of Washington, DC, now part of the Drowned Cities that lie on the mid-Atlantic and southeast coasts of what used to be the United States of America. Everywhere in the region, private armies roam about in constant warfare with one another, their ranks dominated by the child soldiers they have forcibly recruited from the area’s surviving population. In the eye-for-an-eye society that has emerged, few live to adulthood.

Most of the world’s population ekes out a primitive living in places such as this. Only the relative few who live within the confines of Island Shanghai, Beijing, Seascape Boston, and a few other cities continue to flourish behind sea-walls, protected from invasion by the genetically enhanced armies ranged around them.

Years ago, the people of China sent a peacekeeping force to the Drowned Cities to forge peace among the warlords’ contending armies. The effort failed. Left behind when the peacekeepers evacuated Washington, DC, was Mahlia, the teenage daughter of a Chinese general and a local woman — a “half-breed,” a “castoff,” a “war maggot.” This is Mahlia’s story.

Not long after her father abandons her and her mother, Mahlia is set upon by soldiers from the Army of God and, simply because she is who she is, her right hand is cut off. A younger boy, hiding nearby, creates enough of a distraction to allow her to escape with her left hand intact. She calls the boy Mouse.

Together, Mahlia and Mouse encounter one of the “half-men” — a monstrous, bioengineered soldier named Tool, a blend of superior human intelligence and body shape with the face of a dog and the strength, speed, cunning, and ruthlessness of the world’s most able predators. Their meeting proves fateful, and is the pivot on which the plot turns in this beautifully written and fully realized post-apocalyptic novel.

Marketed as a book for young readers, The Drowned Cities is science fiction at its best for fans of any age. The only way in which this novel falls short through adult eyes is that it avoids obvious references to sex. (Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.)

In a relatively short writing career to date, with just five published books to his name at age 40, Paolo Bacigalupi has won every major award in the science fiction field and was a Finalist for a National Book Award. His is an extraordinary talent, with great promise for many more enthralling stories to come.

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