Saturday, May 5, 2007

Wind Power and its Effect on Humans and the Environment

Wind power has been hailed as an alternative to oil, and a big push is being felt in Capitol Hill to fund these power sources that produce no carbon in their energy production. Little has been done to research the impacts wind turbines will have on the environment, until the White House Council on Environmental Quality began requesting more information from several agencies. A report released on Thursday suggests windmills aren't terrible bird killers, despite the common misconception held by many people. The report was released by by the Academy of Sciences' National Research Council, after concerns that wind generators would disrupt migration patterns and put many threatened species of birds at greater risk. The report found that a negligible number of migratory birds are effected by turbines, and in fact the greatest risk to bird populations are cats, windows and powerlines which when combined account for nearly three billion deaths a year. However, localized raptor populations were impacted by windmills due to their tendency to seek out windy sites from which to hunt for prey.
The scientists on the research team expressed the most concern over bats, since their analysis revealed more bat deaths than expected. Initial studies suggest that the electromagnetic fields created by turbines lure the bats to wind fields and into the spinning blades of turbines, but there are many other hypotheses as well. Compounded by unrelated declines in many species of bats on the east coast, this is bad news for the elusive night creatures. The study reported up to 41 bats killed for every megawatt of power from forested ridge tops on the east coast, while in the Midwest the numbers fall to less than 9 deaths per megawatt.
Another subject of debate with turbines is their impact on the aesthetics of the hillsides they populate. There have been suggestions that uniformity will call less attention to them.
I myself wonder why all this hub-ub about aesthetics. We live with power lines, pavement, pollution, and people are concerned that hillsides filled with turbines will create an eyesore? Get real- just adjust your paradigm of what defines beauty! The real question is, how will wind power scale if our power needs continue to grow? How will wind power effect the necessary winds of local climates?
The NAS study points out the necessity for further research to weed out the real cause of turbine-generated bat deaths and raptor habitat, as well as further development of turbine blades that will be more appealing to the American public. Improvements have already been made over the years resulting in higher efficiency, less unwanted noise, and less risk to animals, and we've only just begun.
NAS report
for related article at SF Chronical
for a comprehensive article on wind turbines

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Sustainable is so 1956

The Crown Hall at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) was recently discovered to be sustainable upon completion in 1956, though subsequent changes to the building had decreased its functionality.
Mies van der Rohe designed the building to reflect the Modern style that was en vogue at the time, but used techniques that were clearly ahead of his time when it came to natural lighting and radiant heating. Over the years the radiant heating had gotten old, and had been replaced with cheaper, less efficient systems. Trees along the south west side of the building had been cut down to expand the driveway, and natural light that was once welcomed on the hand-drawing tables and classrooms had become a nuisance when students turned to using computers. Recently, (IIT) hired environmentally friendly design firm Atelier Ten to evaluate the old building and determine what steps were necessary to improve the performance of the building without changing the aesthetics.
What they uncovered was evidence that simple design with the intention of efficiency had made Crown Hall a sustainable building even by our current standards. Once the original systems had been returned to their functions, all that was left was to increase the amount of control students had over lighting, windows, and heating. The energy efficiency increased by 50% simply with these measures.
With intentional design and proper maintenance, the green revolution is beautiful, affordable and not some distant technology yet to be discovered. It's 1950's Modern.

full article at NY's AIA newsletter eOculus

Monday, April 30, 2007

Why Care about the Farm Bill?

Congress is set to make key decisions in the 2007 Farm Bill that will have far-reaching impacts on food and the environment. edible San Francisco writer Bonnie Azab Pwell interviews Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) co-founder Ralph Grossi and tells us why we all should be involved, whether you're a farmer or not.
The last time Congress sat down and hammered away at the Farm Bill was 2002, at a time when Global Warming was still a debate at Capitol Hill. This time around, it is clear that we need to find alternatives to oil, and many lobbyists are pushing for greater funding for alternative fuels such as ethanol and biodeisel. This rush to push these energies may seem like everyone's starting to get it that something must be done, but are bio fuels the magic answer?
Not likely, say many experts. According to Grossi, "Biofuel's impact on the environment will be significant. Land that is currently been strictly in conservation use, under the Conservation Reserve Program, will be under a lot of pressure to go back into row-crop production. We expect that a few million acres will probably migrate back into crop production. That's a loss, particularly to wildlife habitat. Second, because of the high proces driven by renewable fuels primarily, it is now profitable to grow crops on less productive land. We'll see some more migration of cropping into fragile landscapes...those landscape are not in production for a reason: they have low productivity and require a lot more fertilizer, or have high erosion rates..."
Grossi believes a big overhaul of the Farm Bill is in order. Currently, there is a subsidy built into funding commodities that don't sell as well in the marketplace, and often farmers are chosing their crops based on those subsidies rather than on their market values. This taxes the whole system that was intended to be a safety net should farmers have a bad year. Grossi beleives that if prices were set at marekt rates, subsidies could go towards other areas, like land conservation.

Unfortunately I couldn't find the article online, but if you'd like a hard copy of the Spring issue, go to

Frans Lanting Photographs the Ages of Life on Earth

For those of you who have been following my blog, you may recall my piece on the Long Now Foundation. These guys have a monthly lecture series where scientists, economists, and other experts in their fields give us a long view of a subject. I am so glad I went to this month's lecture, presented by National Geographic nature photographer Frans Lanting.
Lanting presented photos from his new book, 'Life: A Journey through Time' and gave us a narrative of what ancient lifeforms and the planet looked like in different stages of time.

I'll let Stewart Brand tell you the rest, as he is far more eloquent than I, and has been doing this since before I was born.
"It began on a New Jersey beach. Frans Lanting was photographing horseshoe crabs for a story about how they are being ground up for eel bait and at the same time their blood is used for drug testing---a $100 million industry. The crabs have primordial eyesight, which they employ mainly for finding sex partners. Photographing the horseshoes having a spawning orgy one spooky twilight, Lanting felt like he was suddenly back in the Silurian, 430 million years ago...

So Lanting and his wife Chris Eckstrom set out in search of "time capsules," places on the present Earth where he could find and photograph all the ancient stages of life. A two-year project expanded to seven years.

On a live volcano in Hawaii he found the naked planet of 4.3 billion years ago--- molten rock flowing, zero life. "Your boots melt. You smell early Earth." On the western coast of Australia he shot a rare surviving living reef of stromatolites, made of the cyanobacteria who three billion years ago transformed the Earth by filling the atmosphere with oxygen. Lanting took pains to photograph without blue sky in the background, because the sky was not blue until the cyanobacteria had generated a planet's worth of oxygen.

Life's journey through time is a story of innovations, Lanting said. Lichens were the first to colonize land, followed by shelled creatures who could carry ocean inside them--- crabs, turtles, and snails. In Australia Lanting photographed mudskippers---amphibious fish who use their pectoral fins to crawl around on mud and even climb trees.

Dinosaurs once browsed on land plants that defended themselves with ferocious spiky leaves. A survivor of that battle is the Araucaria tree in Chile. Lanting planted one in his garden near Santa Cruz and photographed it there.

Study of the first feathered reptile, the archaeopteryx, suggested that the contemporary bird with the most similar flight style is the frigatebird, and Lanting photographed one looking like an airborne fossil in the Galapagos Islands.

Asteroids and climate change made new niches and new innovations. Following the Cretaceoous extinction 65 million years ago, mammals deployed their toothed jaws. Drier climate 25 million years ago created grasslands. When the forests dried, some apes took to walking upright in the savannahs of Africa. And some of those got around to analyzing DNA and noticing that life's entire history is written there.

Lanting ended his dazzling show with two demonstrations. One was an 8-minute segment of an hour-long orchestral version of "Life's Journey Through Time," composed by Philip Glass, with a brilliant multi-media version of Lanting's photos. The music and the image dynamics gain complexity stage by stage in synch with the growing complexity of life. (It would be glorious to see this performed locally with the San Francisco Symphony. The ideal occasion would be the opening of the new California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park next year.)

Lanting also did a quick demo of the timeline version of his photos (and videos) on his website. The level of its sophistication drew cheers and applause from the Web-savvy San Francisco audience. See for yourself:
--Stewart Brand"

The Long Now Foundation -
Seminars & downloads: