Saturday, April 2, 2011

Destructive Palm Oil Plantations are Ruining Tropical Ecosystems

Many people are getting behind the idea of biofuels: oils and alcohols coming from plants grown in tropical and continental regions around the world. It helps stave off our addiction on limited fossil fuels that pollute more when used, and are growing more and more expensive every day. However, the way we grow biofuels is very low-tech, and often removes more resources from the earth than by simply drilling for oil or natural gas. In the tropical rainforests of southeast Asia, old-growth forests that support rare and endangered tropical species are being torn down in order to grow palm trees. While they bill it as sustainable reforestation of deforested lands, and a way for the poor to make money, these plantations do not support any of the native species that the ocne thriving rainforests once held. Heres an image of a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. You tell me that this looks like a rebuilt rainforest
Now, it is true that millions of poor people in developing countries are relying on palm oil plantations for newfound income. The World bank instituted a moratorium in 2009 on loans for new plantations, in order to look at the pros and cons, but on Friday they lifted this ban, and reinstated loans for new palm oil operations. This is cause for alarm. There are better ways of supporting the World's poor. Join investment programs in small merchants, sustainability programs promoting native exports rather than imported foreign palm trees, and smart city growth in order to build businesses and grow to become more developed countries. If these developing nations rely solely on foreign investment for a single source of income, they may end up mistreated, run by cartels, and abused in the world economy for their cheap labor.

We need to become more aware of the destruction of rainforests and look more closely at the "remedial" programs that may really be hiding the ugly truth: Palm oil plantations are doing no good to our tropical ecosystems.

What you can do to help: look for products that use palm oil. The most common are health and beauty products such as shaving gel/foam and liquid soap, as well as cooking oils. Peanut and sunflower oils are the ecological choice, they can be grown in the US locally without environmentally expensive transport costs. Do your part!

Source Article

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wind Energy may be Losing Steam

Recently, two wind farms have been halted in Wisconsin, a state that has been in the spotlight for the past couple months thanks to a raging inferno of union protests and backhanded politics. Away from the petty politics however is an issue about Wind Energy. Two farms to be built by Midwest Wind have been put on hold due to an unstable political and regulatory atmosphere. Apparently, the laws regarding placement of wind turbines near private property are seen as "too lax" by lawmakers, who claim that placing wind turbines near houses lowers property value. This flies in the face of recent findings that wind farms as a whole do not lower home values, no matter how close they are to development. Additionally, republican lawmakers are making the bunk argument that wind turbines cause unpleasant noise and are an eyesore, despite no real evidence of raised noise levels outside of the wind farm properties themselves. All of the evidence against wind farms are purely anecdotal, but the fighting about whether or not wind turbines may not even matter.

The thing is, Wind power is ephemeral. When the wind blows, power is generated. When it stops, that power goes away. Without adequate power storage, the total energy available for the electric grid drops, and if too many houses rely on wind energy, rolling blackouts can occur. Wisconsin is a continental state, far from any open ocean where the wind blows almost constantly. In the Netherlands, a never-ending wind off the north sea provides bountiful power to residents, but in the central US, its hard to find locations that can benefit from wind power. Many farms are being proposed simply as business ventures, buying into green and renewable energy sources. I think that we should give wind power a backseat though. Solar power is dramatically increasing in its technological capabilities. While wind power has been around for centuries, solar is really just starting to take off. With new polymers and materials able to collect and harness more of the Sun's energy, we can gain more power from less space, and have a reliable source of renewable, perfectly clean, and stable energy. With the promise of new technology, I believe we could accept wind power as an alternative, but only where it is highly reliable, such as coastal areas, while the big expanses of the midwest and western U.S. could  benefit from large-scale solar farms using newly developed photovoltaic materials. New inventions in solar power are raising money, and fast, and providing an open market for new innovation. Long story short: Solar Power is the Future.

High Electricity Bill? It's Probably due to your Gadgets!

Recently, the United States Energy Information Administration conducted a survey of American homes to find out  how and where Americans use their energy, comparing energy use to data from 1978. Unsurprisingly, the amount of energy used by personal electronics (computers, phones, video games, televisions) has jumped, but what IS surprising is that space heating energy use has dropped by 39%, and that Energy consumption by electronics  DOUBLED!
Article Source: Fast Company

Now, when you read the news, you often hear about high oil prices straining home energy budgets, but the real problem we should be worrying about is how much energy is being converted into electricity for our gadgets, devices, and appliances. Many people still aren't aware that phone chargers, computers, televisions, and appliances suck up power constantly as long as they're plugged in, often drawing more power per day when idling then when being used! Luckily, there are successful awareness campaigns going on educating people on the high cost of appliances in our homes, but it doesn't seem to be sinking in. Not enough people are unplugging their devices at night, powering down their computers, or running their refrigerators at 39 degrees, instead of 33. I think we should all take an hour or two out of our hectic lives to go through our homes, surveying where electricity is being sucked up, especially when our electronics aren't being used. If you are done playing xbox, unplug the power brick, and if you're done checking our e-mail at night, shut down your computer and unplug the cord. Its that simple. Not to mention, it could help pay for higher energy prices, which are certainly in our future.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Landslides in California Should Serve as a Warning

We may be pushing the limits of how we develop the land. It seems to be that land developers may be getting too greedy and neglecting the dangers of shaping the land to meet their desires for building houses and collecting money from homeowners. Recently in Hercules, CA on the east side of the SF Bay, 8 homes have been condemned due to a waterlogged hill sliding down and destroying retaining walls abutting the properties. We see this all too often: Homes in California, built against steep hillsides, taken down and demolished after the rainy season slickens the soil and causes land and mudslides. Who can't recall seeing pictures on the news of multi-million dollar hoems in Malibu falling into the sea, and landslides covering hillside developments?

I think its time we take a look at how little we care about the land we are building on and using, and be mindful of where we develop. Building homes should be about the environment you are entering, not how much money a young professional couple is willing to plunk down in turn for a cookie cutter box on a steep hillside. Maybe we should look at more responsible, denser development. Clean, green apartment buildings that use less energy per square foot than massive homes that suck up Air Conditioning expenses every single day. Look at the city of Vancouver: often ranked in the top 5 best cities to live in, most of its residents live in high-rise apartment buildings with gleaming blue reflective glass, passive heating systems, and short, simple commutes.

Where would you rather live?

It's become so bad in the states that now China, who is fast on track to overtake the US in economic development, is building massive American-style subdevelopments made of multi-thousand square foot homes that suck up almost as much energy as American homes. We shouldnt be leading by this example. I say we should make an effort to ditch the suburban sprawl and create a more energy-efficient city-based society. That way, we can return the once sprawling farmland back to its original status, and bring people closer together, cut down on driving, increase productivity, and create a better energy society. Thats what i want.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Computers Replacing Doctors?

A computer program that predicts and tells you whether or not you're sick:

How do you feel about that? Telling a very complex computer algorithm (think of it as a very smart "I'm Feeling Lucky" Google search) your symptoms, and in return it tells you what you may have and whether or not you require hospitalization. Its the aim of the Heritage Provider Network. The aim of this is to cut costs of hospitalization, which i agree is a big point of the healthcare issue in our country, but I feel like it may stray from its focus. Using a scientific program can't really be substituted for a real doctor's opinion, and although doctor's may be and are wrong at times, often they can do a better job at diagnosing and treating a patient than an artificial intelligence. Also, why spend so much money developing a computer program that may or may not cut costs for hospitalization when we can simply rework the existing healthcare system that overpays doctors and sinks so much of our money into malpractice insurance and pharmaceutical fees.

Tell me what you think: Good idea, or bad science?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fake Leaves, Real Energy

This is just exciting: Scientists led by a physicist at MIT have created an artificial leaf that converts sunlight into hydrogen and oxygen to be used for electric power.

While it doesn't in any way LOOK like a leaf, it performs the same basic functions, and can be produced cost-effectively to be applied in developing countries to power households. At first i thought it was a way to create photosynthetic cellulose in a laboratory, but this is even better. Thanks to funding from Obama's Recovery Act, they have been able to produce a stable artificial leaf using silicon and cobalt catalysts that can be placed in a jug of water and in direct sunlight to provide electricity. Its a high-tech device with low-tech implementation, making it ideal for aiding those without power. One more reason to love science every day.

Heres a brief video explaining the technology

Putting out the Fire with Ray Guns!

I'd like to geek out for just a second:

We can extinguish fires with RAY GUNS NOW!

And now to be more serious:

A team of scientists recently announced that they were able to manipulate electric fields within open-burning fires using a 600-watt (about the same as a good sized car stereo) "ray gun" device (although i highly doubt it did look like a ray gun). In the article I found on this, the scientists claim it can be used to manipulate the shape of the flames, blowing a pathway through the middle of the fire allowing firefighters or victims to escape through, and that such devices can be installed in ceilings, on ships, and cause minimal damage. All of this without using water or hazardous foam...

But wait, wouldn't there still be some water to contend with? And wouldn't that water in some way give a certain danger of electrocution? Also, I see no evidence of proper experimentation, just an italian physicist at Harvard University talking about his dreams of manipulating fire like he was Moses. I think its a neat idea, but until I see some sort of demonstration of its safety and practicality, I won't believe it. On a side note, I just hit 100 followers! Thanks guys!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The End of Nuclear Power?

I really hope that those in charge of our energy supply make the right decision, and STAY with nuclear power. Ever since the catastrophe at the Fukishima-Dai Ichi plant in Japan, the main focus of news coverage has been how dangerous nuclear power can be. However, I think we should look at this differently. This plant has 6 very large nuclear reactors, housed in a facility that is over 40 years old, on the coast with little protection, and has withstood a THIRTY FOOT tsunami that has knocked out all 3 backup power supplies. Even through all of this, nobody has died from radiation sickness, and the highest levels of radiation measured outside the evacuated zone has been minor fractions below the federal limit for caution, let alone danger. Think about it this way: if you had a Coal Power Plant hit by such a force of water, you would wash thousands of tons of coal, tillings, and hazardous chemicals into the water supply, causing untold amounts of sickness and environmental damage. The same goes for Oil. Its almost as if we've forgotten about the Deepwater Horizon spill last year: a loose security door caused a massive explosion and the release of over a hundred million gallons of oil, covering beaches and leaving behind environmental damage that still hasn't been fully accounted for. I think we should do the right thing and choose the safer option for energy, one that emits zero greenhouse gases, provides cheap and long-lasting energy, and becomes safer every day with research.

New video from the Japanese Tsunami

Its been over 2 weeks since the horrific event, and now that we are all wrapped up around the nuclear pseudo-disaster (no radiation deaths or sicknesses reported yet), we seem to be forgetting the real disaster that has struck Japan: The tsunami. new video released today shows an overhead view as water rushes in through a river and pours into a once-vibrant coastal city. As the user who posted the video puts it: "Its the most daunting Tsunami vid I've seen", and I agree with him. All we can hope is that enough people evacuated or got to high ground before this hit. keep your thoughts with the people of Japan until they can recover and rebuild.