Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Solstice Everyone!

Special Announcement: Solar is Now Cheaper than Coal

Yes, that's right. The race has been on for the company who could break the United States of their coal addiction, with even Google jumping in to get it started. A Silicon Valley start-up called Nanosolar has cracked the code and developed what the blog Solve Climate is calling "the iTunes of solar." They shipped their first solar panels at $1 a piece. How did they manage to make solar panels so cheap? They focused on the manufacturing process instead of working on the technology, as so many others who are trying to lower the cost. Nanosolar had developed a way to speed up the manufacturing process, by printing solar cells on sheets of aluminum. Bot only does this breakthrough speed up the process by a hundred fold, it also reduces the amount of material by as much. Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen is reserving the first three commercially-viable panels. One is staying on display at company HQ; one has been donated to San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation. And the other is on sale at eBay, according to the article.
Check out the original story in Solve Climate, and have a chuckle at how much people are willing to pay on eBay for the limited edition release of the $1 solar panel.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Value of a Tree

I asked in the last article the question "How much is a tree really worth?"
A few weeks ago I found myself asking that very same question while working on a project just west of Yosemite, in Tuolomne county. I have been working as the ecological consultant and landscape designer on a 5 building college facility, nestled beneath a mature oak forest. We've been designing what we hope will be the coolest Child Care Facility ever, where kids will have a connection to nature and a desire to protect it and other natural places when they get older.
We're shooting for LEED certification on this, and the oaks are a key aspect of the 'greenness' of the project. In fact without them, our goal of eliminating the need for summer air-conditioning and reducing our cost to build and maintain the facilities would never be possible.
These are amazing trees, most sporting trunk diameters of three feet of more, and canopies that stretch out as far as 50 feet! Many of the trees are spaced so closely together that they have combined their shapes to form single arching canopies, their roots just as surely entwined with one another. With summer temperatures reaching sometimes in the hundreds for days at a time, these oaks will provide much needed shade for the buildings.
Building a structure in a mature forest is no easy task. It is well known that oaks trees suffer greatly form the impacts of development, from damage to their roots to alteration of the way water moved on the land they have grown up on. There are many different professionals who work as a team when planning any building project, and this one has the added responsibility of ensuring the health of these oaks. Normal projects involve altering the land dramatically, as when trenching to lay utilities, grading to make flat surfaces for foundations and handicap accessibility. Here we are not able to do any of that without first considering the effect on the oaks. Our buildings will be unique and attuned to their habitat, with special features such as piers over roots, which I like to think of as buildings on their tiptoes, that allow the buildings to rest on the land without altering it.
We are now in the process of awaiting permitting, and eventually the plans will go for public bid. It is an unfortunate fact that in the contracting world, the low bidders are the ones who get the contracts. This often means cutting corners wherever possible, including 'accidentally' losing trees to reduce the labor time needed to move materials and equipment carefully on a site. With all this special design put into preserving trees, the architect and I decided to write into the specifications penalties that would make construction think twice about causing our mascots any harm. I found I was crouched over my specifications asking myself, "How much are these trees worth if we had to replace one?"
I started reviewing the tree protection specification from other LEED buildings. Not much help there, this is a quiet revolution we're waging with this project. The numbers I came up with, when applied to my project, gave the average value of their cooling services at about $25,000 each, a negligible loss considering the value of the project itself. Then I factored in the service of providing the key element in the landscape and what that would take to replace. Then the value of keeping the campus lake free of soil runoff by stabilizing the hillsides. I got some figures on replacement of the trees, and was astounded to find the price of a mature oak at half the size would cost $36,000. This is just the price of tree and installation, without any of the administrative costs factored in.
In the end, the architects and I decided on a number that would make each tree worth around $100,000, though this value is by no means complete. I wince to think of any value attached to an organism that has taken so long to reach this size. I think of the Miwok Indians who must have planted these trees and then nursed them to maturity, knowing that future generations would be able to harvest the acorns, an essential part of their traditional diet.
Evaluating ecosystems services is a great technique to preserving functioning, intact ecosystems because it helps people realize their monetary value in this profit-driven economy. A growing body of economic and scientific evidence shows that humans simply cannot design systems that perform these core services better, be it filtering our air and water, providing the necessary pollination for more than 2/3 of our food supply, or even growing the natural products we get from the forests and oceans. This is another important tool in our arsenal when we as designers and scientists wage the quiet revolution.

Monday, December 17, 2007

How Much is a Tree Worth?

As an ecologist I never thought I'd be in such high demand!
Today while perusing my blogs I found this short piece on Costa Rica and their new program to reduce their carbon emissions to zero by the year 2021. An ambitious plan for a country that has lost more than a dozen amphibians due to habitat loss.
Costa Rica is a land known for its natural beauty, rainforests, and 5% of the world's species. Ecotourism is one of the leading industries in this tiny country, but one must not forget that the main economic force guiding this country is agriculture.
According to the article in Treehugger, "Just days ago, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias planted the 5 millionth tree of the year near his office in the capital San Jose...By the end of 2007, Costa Rica will have planted nearly 6.5 million trees, which should absorb 111,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year."
While this may be a wonderful idea, one must ask: What kind of trees are they planting, and how could they possibly take place of all the trees felled each year to make way for soybeans and other crops?
"Costa Rica is facing a wood shortage and must now import wood from other countries to meet domestic demand. And currently, there are no incentives for allowing abandoned agricultural land to regrow naturally into forest, so farmers are either shifting their agricultural land use to or planting native or exotic tree species for reforestation incentives," according to rainforest advocates at
And just how much carbon can a new tree absorb in comparison to a mature forest? The EPA, who I trust as the right arm of the Bush administration (yes there is some sarcasm here), claims, "
Carbon sequestration rates vary by tree species, soil type, regional climate, topography and management practice. In the U.S., fairly well-established values for carbon sequestration rates are available for most tree species. Soil carbon sequestration rates vary by soil type and cropping practice and are less well documented but information and research in this area is growing rapidly. Pine plantations in the Southeast (US) can accumulate almost 100 metric tons of carbon per acre after 90 years, (Do we have 90 more years?) or roughly one metric ton of carbon per acre per year," and they go as far as to say that carbon sequestration capabilities are reduced as a forest matures, as if to say plantations are better than natural forests. Costa Rica and the US aren't the only countries with faulty logic.

Officials from the Indonesian ministry of agriculture and the palm oil industry have been touting that palm plantations sequester more carbon than native rainforests.
Not so, according to Mongabay.
" As is the case with any plant, oil palm trees do sequester carbon sequester carbon as they grow -- carbon is a basic building block of plant tissue. Nevertheless, the process of clearing forest in order to establish a plantation releases more carbon than will be sequestered by the growing oil palms. So while a new oil palm plantation may grow faster -- and sequester carbon at a higher annual rate -- than a naturally regenerating forest, in the end the oil plantation will still store less carbon (50-90 percent less over 20 years) than the original forest cover."

Not to mention that fact that these trees planted will not match the loss of habitat due to clear cutting of the rainforests.
Nice try, Costa Rica, but you still have a long way to go, including fair analysis of the full range of ecosystem services an intact forest provides- from clean air and water, to biodiversity and products from the forest. How much is a tree really worth?

For the abbreviated article on Costa Rica in TreeHugger