Archive for the ‘Solar’ Category


Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

I’ve been driving an electric car for the past 10 years.  It’s fast and reliable, and it’s very gentle on Mother Earth.  Ten years ago, we electric car owners were considered weird ducks.  Today, everyone is eagerly awaiting the new generation of plug-in hybrids.  Ah, what a difference a decade makes.

When the auto industry began to seriously focus on the prospect of producing electric cars, you can easily trace the path that their thinking took (I call it “auto-think”).  First off, they took one look at lead/acid cars like my Sparky and immediately crossed them off the list of viable options.  A 40 mile maximum range, a 4-hour recharging time, and, for some of them, a 25 m.p.h top speed restriction.  Dead on arrival, right?

Well, not so fast, guys.  To begin with, Sparky can blow the doors off your Toyota.  He’s very, very fast (you other electric car driver know what I’m talking about), and he can cruise the freeway with the best of them.  The only thing he can’t do is drive from Olympia to Seattle (65 miles) without stopping.  Range — -that’s the single reason why the auto industry went looking elsewhere for an answer to its gas problem.

Like every lead/acid driver, I have spent considerable time thinking about the range issue.  How can I get from Olympia to Seattle without stopping (or stopping only for a few minutes — -like for a cup of coffee or something)?  Let’s address the second idea first.

There is a little-known phenomenon in the electric car world called “dump charging”.  It’s used in the electric vehicle racing circuit where a quick charge is needed for the next race.  It is simply a DC to DC charge (one set of batteries simply “dumps” its charge into a depleted set of other batteries).  It takes about 7 minutes to accomplish, and restores the depleted batteries to about 95% of capacity. 

Now let’s assume, for example, that I left Olympia with the morning commute, headed for Seattle.  I’d be looking for a charge along about the time I hit the Tacoma Mall (about 35 miles from my house).  For years now, I have looked over at the Krispy-Kreme outlet at the Mall and thought,  “If only they had a set of batteries over there, I could scarf down a couple lemon-filled donuts while Sparky took a dump.”  What would happen, I have thought, if not only Krispy-Kreme, but Starbucks, and Jack-in-the-Box had DC charging stations all over the place?  I could go anywhere and everywhere in my spiffy little bug.   

But actually, there’s a better way.  Think: bumper cars.

We’ve all ridden in bumper cars at the fair.  What a great way to release all that pent-up aggression.  But did you ever wonder why those cars had antennas sticking out of them?  When I was a kid, I always thought that it was strange — -there weren’t any radios in the bumper cars, and the antennas were always too tall for the ceilings.  It wasn’t until much later that someone explained to me that there was another antenna dragging on the floor under the car, and that that was how the car ran — -that it takes two wires to make their motors run (one from the floor and one in the ceiling). 

Actually, in Seattle, we have busses that operate that same way, only they go around town with their two antennas attached to a pair of overhead electric wires..  Those busses have been crisscrossing the city since long before I was born (1945). 

That all started me thinking:  why don’t they install a couple of electric wires of some sort along the freeway from Olympia to Seattle — -or all the way from Seattle to Portland, for that matter?  Or everywhere the freeway goes.  You could start small — -Tacoma to Seattle, for instance.  Sparky’s batteries can get me from my house to Tacoma.  From there, I’d just hook up and head for Seattle.  It would be great!  As demand increased, you could extend the lines in both directions — -say, even to Canada. 

And here’s the really cool part:  not only would the freeway lines allow Sparky to make it all the way to Seattle, but Sparky’s batteries would get recharged in the process (very quickly if  the power supply were DC).  That means that I could leave my house and hook onto the freeway grid within 35 miles.  I could then drive to Seattle, unhook, and go anywhere within a 35 mile radius without needing a grid — -farther if there were a Krispy-Kreme out there offering a dump charge.  Heck, I could even drive to Arkansas once they extended the grid there. 

Come on, it can’t be all that hard.  I mean, aren’t we going to create some fancy new electric grid anyway?  We don’t have to extend the Sparky grid everywhere right away (though we would over time) — -we could start slow and grow.  And we wouldn’t end up becoming slaves to Bolivia.

Bolivia?  What does that have to do with anything?

Well, guess what, Yankee fans?  Our great auto industry channel-lock thought process is about to switch our present pusher/addict balance of trade from the middle east to a land-locked little country in South America.  It’s all because of something they have and we don’t:


When the auto thinkers decided that the lead/acid range issue was too much of a problem, they started to look for a battery that could give you much more mileage.  That line of thinking leads to just one place: the lithium-ion battery — -you know, that expensive little thing that runs your cell phone and your computer and occasionally catches on fire.  It’s the only battery now available that offers the promise of extended range in an electric car.  One electric car, the Tesla Roadster, claims a 220 miles/charge range.    But that battery pack can set you back a lot of money when it has to be replaced.

But the auto thinkers have struck a compromise:  they’ll get you 40 miles on a smaller lithium battery pack, and then a good ol’ gas engine will kick in and take you the rest of the way.  It’s the logical end product of the auto-thought process.  They’re hoping that you and I will be happy thinking we’re really helping Momma Earth by cutting down on our gas consumption, and at the same time, the auto companies will be able to keep building gasoline engines.  The problem is that the Suadis will just keep pumping it out of the ground because our ever-growing population will rise up and take up the slack.  End result: nothing really changes — -except the climate. 

But what does all this have to do with Bolivia? 

Well, Bolivia happens to be where the lithium is.  And guess what?  Just like the Middle East, the Bolivians don’t like us very much, either.

The sad truth is that most of the world’s lithium is found in just one place, Bolivia.  Kind of sounds like oil all over again, doesn’t it?  To be sure, it can be found in other places (like Tibet — -maybe that’s why the Chinese decided to annex the country and kick out the Dali Lama).  We even have some here at home, but not very much.  You can read about this most vexing question in a recent New York Times article.

My point is this:  we need to rethink this whole electric car thing.  We have an entire infrastructure already pumping out lead/acid batteries — -made by American workers, I might add (did I mention that lead/acid batteries are one of the most re-cycled products around?)  And since they are only planning on getting 40 miles from the lithium pack in the new hybrids, why not settle for the same thing from lead /acid?  

And where do we find the energy source for Sparky’s new freeway grid?  Well, I know of a nuclear power plant about 93 million miles away that can supply our entire planet with an endless flow of truly clean energy (did I mention that it already comes in DC?). 

So, perhaps we should all stop and think this thing through before we rush out and embrace the auto-think solution to our energy problems.    




Monday, December 22nd, 2008

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” — -Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

“Greed, for want of a better term, is good.” — -Gordon Gekko’s speech to the shareholder’s meeting of Teldar Paper, Inc. (played by Michael Douglas in the movie, “Wall Street”).

These two statements define the polar bookends within which humanity has sought to advance from the campfires of the Stone Age to the skyscrapers of the Modern World.  Today, we stand beneath the victory arch of Capitalism, its competing rivals lying discarded along the road of history — -Communism, National Socialism, even the humble commune of the 1960’s.  But if you look closely, you will see that today, we are also standing in the rubble of Gekko Gone Wild — -we are being  treated to the spectacle of  a shattered world economy that has been brought to its knees by exploding greed.   The problem is that the infant seeds of renewable energy must hope not just to germinate in this rubble pile, but to take hold and prosper.  As a nation, as a planet, and as a species, we must ask ourselves the critical question:  Can we afford to place solar, and wind, and all of the other renewable seeds in Gordon Gekko’s hands?

The answer is:  “Not a good idea.”

I first began my involvement with solar energy in the spring of 1974.  I was part of a small group of dreamers (Solar Steam, Inc.) that thought we could solve much of the world’s ills by creating a cost-effective solar energy collector.  To that end, we built a 28 foot solar concentrating dish which was completed in 1979.

 (Note the 30 year-old version of yours truly, complete with brown hair and beard).

A second, larger 40 foot dish was completed in 1985.  The dish was highly innovative and effectively converted sunlight into high grade industrial process steam. 

(That’s high-grade, industrial quality steam pouring out the end of that hose — -a very marketable product for which millions of dollars are paid annually by American industry.)

We unveiled our marvelous invention to the world that same year and stood back, waiting to sign up the investors and customers.  No one came.  The investors were too busy making larger profits elsewhere, and the customers needed the cost savings of “economy of scale” production (which required investors to achieve).

In April, 1988 I created United Solar Technologies.  My goal was just what the name implies: an attempt to unite a number of competing solar companies into a single effort so that investors would recognize that somewhere within the company’s participants there was a true winner.  Our first project was to establish that solar energy could compete with any source of energy on the planet, whether it be coal, oil, or even natural gas.  To this end we went looking for a suitable site for our demonstration.

We settled upon Tehachapi Prison in California.  With laudable assistance from both the California Energy Commission and the California Department of Corrections, we were able to enter into a long-term (30 year) energy purchase agreement with the DOC.  Under its terms, we would be paid 95% of the money the state would have paid for the same energy from burning natural gas.  This point cannot be stressed enough:  Tehachapi has demonstrated that solar energy IS CHEEPER THAN BULK-RATE NATURAL GAS (THE CHEAPEST OF THE CHEAP)!

The entire purpose of the Tehachapi project was to demonstrate to the FINANCIAL COMMUNITY (the Gordon Gekkos of this world), that they could make a very respectable return on their investment by installing solar projects.  We were able to show that Tehachapi could return more money than an equal amount invested in the U.S. Treasury “long bond” (the 30-year bond — -then at 8.3%!) by competing directly with bulk rate natural gas (then at $4.30/MMBTU).  Right out of the starting gate we established ourselves as the world’s cheapest source of energy!

Once again we turned around to take the orders from the investing community.  Once again, no one was there.  As one high-roller explained to me later, “Why would I want to tie my money up for 30 years when I can get 20% a year or better right now?”  Remember those heady days of the mid-90’s?

We tried to do follow-on projects with the DOC, but the initiative eventually fell victim to bureaucratic red tape, and no further prisons were ever solarized.

Taking my cue from the Tehachapi experience, United Solar reloaded and dove into the creation of the ultimate solar collector, the PVT (photovoltaic/thermal concentrator).  The upshot of this unique collector is that it produces both electricity and industrial process heat simultaneously.

Again, with the help of the California Energy Commission, our first prototype was unveiled in the spring of 1995.  It held the clear promise of amortization in under 5 years (sooner, if the electricity is used to displace gasoline in an electric car like Sparky).  For a detailed examination of the PVT and the ECONOMIC thinking that went into it, see the final report to the California Energy Commission.

Once again we turned to the line-up of investors.  Gone — -off to lay their money on, Inc.

All of this brings the focus to the impact of the investment community on the whole issue of renewable energy, and solar in particular.  Right now, you can hear the sound of a stampede heading our way as people are waking up to the realities of a world caught on the dual horns of a global climate crisis and a finite oil supply.  Let me share with you some of my concerns as the Gekkos approach:

1.  The price of the land:  Right now, the best solar land is virtually worthless — -it’s made up of hard-scrabble desert land that nobody wants and no one can use.  That is going to change once solar energy rises to its feet.  Gordon Gekko is going to see “gold in them thar hills”, and he will buy huge tracts of land at pennies an acre only to turn around and wring agregious profit from his far-sited investment.  My point here is simple: solar can rise to meet all of our planet’s needs if it is carefully and thoughtfully deployed.  DO NOT SADDLE SOLAR WITH THE BURDEN OF BUYING THE LAND IT SITS ON, especially at inflated Gekko prices.  In my mind, it is imperative that government act to acquire prime solar land (by eminent domain if need be).  It must be held for the common benefit of all of us.

2.   “Return on Investment”:  At the heart of Gekko’s world is the concept of “return on investment”.  It is this single concept that has hobbled solar energy from its very inception:  “Why should I invest in solar when I can make 20% on something else?”  Over the course of the last several blogs, I have tried to raise an awareness of the true power of solar energy as the path to energy freedom.  In “Suggestion No. 5: Try Solar Alchemy”, I pointed out that a solar device starts to produce real capital the very minute it is deployed — -dollar bills drop to the pavement the moment the sun rises.  But the problem is:  where  are the dollar bills going to go?  My personal experience from Solar Steam, through Tehachapi, and finally the PVT is that Gordon Gekko is going to want the first dollar…and the second…and the third.   In fact, Gekko is going to want assurances that he is going to have a guaranteed return on his investment BEFORE HE EVEN AGREES TO INVEST HIS MONEY.   It is this very fact that has prevented solar energy from rising to take its place as the primary energy source for the planet.  The real truth is that solar cannot effectively come to our rescue as a species if it has to do it by riding through the Valley of Gordon Gekko.  The greater the demands that you put on those infant solar collectors, the less able they are to rise to their feet.  When you ask a collector to pay off the land it sits on and then satisfy the demands of “greed is good” Gekko, you will find that, like the Solar Steam dish, the Tehachapi trough, and the PVT, it will never come into existence in the first place.

Yet there is another way.  Plug in the Sermon on the Mount.  To give, for want of a better word, is good.

I touched on this in my last blog, “Suggestion No. 7: Pennies from Heaven”.  If I were to buy a solar collector and place it in the desert, and just let go of it, those dollars that drop to the ground when the sun rises CAN GO TO CREATING MORE SOLAR COLLECTORS.  It is as simple as that.  Just imagine if every man, woman and child in this country were to GIVE a solar collector to the cause — -a mighty field of collectors would begin to rise up like a conquering army, producing more soldiers by the minute, each of which would go to work immediately producing more soldiers.  We would become awash in energy.  Eventually, there would be more energy produced than we could use, and all of those solar dollars would have to find a new purpose — -like cleaning up the earth of all of the petro-pollution that has taken place over the past century, or, perhaps, providing free health care.

And all of this because we choose to sit on the slopes of the Mount of Olives as opposed to the boardrooms of an island beside the Hudson.



Friday, December 19th, 2008

I don’t know about you, but I don’t stoop down to pick up pennies any more.  And judging from the increasing number of them gracing our sidewalks and parking lots, I’m not alone.  You can’t buy anything with them — -it takes a whole pocket-full to score a pack of gum at the checkout counter of a 7-11.  When I get home at night, I generally toss them on the nearest countertop where they accumulate until they’re transferred to a jar in the closet to await some undefined day in the future when I lug the jar off to a bank to confront a reluctant teller who doesn’t want anything to do with them.  In short, pennies are kind of a nuisance. 

But a penny here and a penny there, and after a while you’re talking about real money.

In my first suggestion blog to our new government (Suggestion No. 1: Put Solar Panels Where the Sun Shines) I proposed that the government open up solar farms where people could install their panels and maximize their investment — -ie. zones of maximum sunlight.  I would like to expand that solar field with this supplemental suggestion: start building a solar field paid for by gathering up all the pennies left over after every transaction in America.  If I buy a Big Mac and fries for $4.32 at my local golden arch, three pennies get shipped off to the PFHSP (Pennies From Heaven Solar Project).  If my rich neighbor buys another Jaguar XKE for $92,865.04, his left over penny joins my Big Mac three and together, they head for the California desert.  Eventually, you’re talking about a lot of solar collectors.

And here’s the really cool part: our Big Mac/Jaguar solar panel is pregnant.  The minute it is installed and points at the sun, it starts to have babies. Solar panels (and wind generators) start producing capital immediately upon activation (see Suggestion No. 3: Try Solar Alchemy).  A cardinal rule of the PFHSP is that ALL MONEY PRODUCED FROM THE PROJECT MUST BE REINVESTED IN CREATING MORE SOLAR PANELS.  Eventually our Big Mac/Jaguar panel will produce enough money to buy a Little Mac/VW.  And like the happy family that they are, Big Mac and Little Mac start immediately to work on Tiny Mac.  The time it took to buy Little Mac is now cut in half because both Big Mac and Little Mac are contributing.  Tiny Mac soon shows up in record time and immediately joins with the family in producing Micro Mac.
And so on.  And so on.

What you end up getting is a happy geometric progression.  And it all happens because I like hamburgers and my neighbor likes fancy cars.

Now, of course, there’s going to be chunk of bureaucratic hassle involved in setting up a collection system for all those pennies, but I have no doubt that it can be done.  People might even be willing to dump their loose pocket pennies into the mix (or their squirreled away closet jars).  But the point is this: it’s an easy way to jump start the global solar transition.  It can be done.  It should be done.  And it rids my pocket of that bothersome pile of change that’s always banging up against my leg.  Who knows, I might even stoop down and pick up a penny or two if I knew it was going to go to a good cause.


P.S.  A note to any government official who looks covetously at that river of pennies headed south toward the desert.  DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!  It’s the Rio del Sol and is not intended for any other purpose.   May the curse of a thousand Tibetan monks turn your Johnny Walker Black to elephant urine should you touch a penny of it!


Sunday, December 14th, 2008

I started out my last blog, “Fear, Damage, and Big Ben Rothlisberger”, with the intention of pointing out that the natural human reaction to a severe economic downturn is fear — -that the inclination is to pull our money out of the market and then run to the bank and turn our cyberspace dollars into real greenbacks.  I wanted to note that when one person acts like that, it’s called fear.  When everybody acts that way, it’s called a panic.  In pursuing that end, I did some mild research into the historic “Panics” that have reared their  ugly heads over the past century and a half.  I was quite stunned by what I found.

First and foremost, the panics seemed to come with regularity, like some sort of a viral financial flu.  1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1929….not exactly clockwork, but regular enough to recognize that they seem to be an unwelcome fact of life in a free-market reality.

But what struck me nearly speechless was the repeating pattern in the causes of the panics, and the extreme similarity to what is taking place in our present dilemma.  Every single one of them was brought about by undue speculation of one sort or another, most of them by speculation in real estate fed by a willing flow of capital to feed the frenzy.  Speculation lights an ember, excessive profit blows the ember into a flame, and eventually a stampede of greed whips the flame into a raging forest fire.  When the bubble finally bursts, houses are burned up in foreclosures and people are left to stand in unemployment lines and food kitchens.  Untolled damage is done.  But eventually people start to rebuild their lives until a new ember appears just beyond the conscious memory of those who lived through the last one.

As I reviewed the history of the panics, I kept asking myself why a supposedly intelligent species would allow such a thing to keep happening.  Do people get so blinded by the lure of profit that they can’t see a bubble when it’s staring them in the face?  I have to say that that is precisely the case.

Think back to our own experience over the past decade.  Remember the “ Bubble”?  There was a time when I probably could have created a company called and made a killing off it.  It was crazy!  Then, “Pop!”

Then came the real estate bubble.  I have to say that I was a participant in this one — -at least I was on the winning side of the equation.  While others were salting away their retirement cash in stocks, I was buying cheap rental units.  My plan was to fix them up, one at a time, and sell them off as needed to meet my needs in my “golden years”.  I started the fix-up stage just about the time the remnants of the cash started looking for another place to land — -and land was the place to land.  Infomercials began to extol the virtues of buying cheap houses, tossing on some paint and “flipping” them for massive profit. 

I recall clearly my first rental to be harvested:  I had paid $37,000 for it in the 80’s.  When I started the repair phase, I intended to put about $20,000 into it (plus a lot of free labor on my part).  I had visions of putting it out at $85,000.  That’s when the trash heap down the block sold for $110,000.  With a smile on my face, I began to think of a “For Sale” sign in front of my gem in the $125,000 range. While I labored diligently over a six month period, I saw houses exploding in value like popcorn all around the neighborhood.  I was only vaguely aware that the Federal Government was flooding the market with an ocean of cash that made it possible for anyone without a needle in his arm to buy a house.  All I knew was that my humble rental unit was taking off like a NASA shuttle.  I eventually sold it for $165,000.  I was ecstatic!  I couldn’t wait to get the other rental units going.

This went on for years!  I was able to pay off all my mortgages, tear up the credit cards,  buy a badly-needed dump truck for all my projects, and stash away a stack of bubble bills.  I even started looking for more of those dirt-cheap fixer-uppers.  And so was everyone else.  They didn’t exist any more.  The bubble popped some time in late spring of 2007, I think.  I was lucky — -I had a seat when the music stopped.

The rest is history.  We are all now standing in the middle of the bubble rubble.  And, of course, when the real estate bubble popped, the remnants of the money rushed over to the new gold rush: oil.  $60/barrel, $75/barrel, $100/barrel…$145!  “It’s gunna hit $250 by years end!”


I ask again: Why can’t we see a bubble coming?  And I answer again: We get totally blinded by the profit of the moment.  There’s just something about having more money — -after all, we’re the species that puts melamine in baby formula. 

So this brings me (at last) to my simple point.  The new Administration and the new Congress are poised to appoint czars to govern everything from energy to the automotive industry.  I think what we really need is a Bubble Czar.  We should appoint some well-educated guy to the post and put him in an isolated room with a computer that feeds him information about where all the money’s going.  He can’t be allowed to buy anything himself — -just watch what’s going on.  A bubble can’t be that hard to spot.  I’m not saying that he should be ready to do anything about it — -that should be up to the policy makers.  His sole task should be a blow a whistle or sound an alarm or something.  Whatever it is, it should be an “Official Alarm”, requiring the policy people to do something — -like put a bubble tax on the transactions in the alarm zone. 

The point is that bubbles are bad for humanity.  Bubbles lead to bubble rubble.  It’s time we stop them before they grow.  I am particularly concerned about an “alternative energy” bubble laying waste to our very real need to accomplish a global transition in this critical arena.



Wednesday, December 10th, 2008



When I get frustrated, things in my immediate vicinity are at risk of being broken.  That is why I don’t allow golf clubs or baseball bats in the computer room.  That %&#@! machine is a constant source not just of frustration, but outright rage at times.  For me, the equation can be written: frustration = broken things.


I bring up this personal failing because, right now, there’s another emotion out there preparing to unleash untold wreckage from one end of this globe to another: FEAR.  The Dow is tanking, unemployment is headed through the roof while property values go through the floor.  World governments are running around frantically throwing money they don’t have at every wobbly institution that’s big enough to wear the label “indispensible”.  Fear is in the air, and it holds the very real possibility of giving way to an escalated emotion: PANIC.


Historically, what’s happening today used to go by that very name: panics. 


The Panic of 1819:  This was the first of a succession of financial crises that shook the country from 1819 through the Great Depression of the 1930’s.   It was brought about by factors which may sound uncomfortably familiar:  a flood of easy credit  from the banking industry (and backed by the government) led to reckless land speculation and rapidly increasing real estate values.  A deluge of imported goods entered the country, outpacing exports, resulting in a precarious balance of trade that siphoned off massive capital from  the nation.   When the bubble finally burst, the result was a tidal wave of bankruptcies, mortgage foreclosures, bank failures, and massive unemployment.


The Panic of 1837:  The 1819  pattern was repeated 20 years later.  Once again, rampant land speculation was spurred by reckless lending practices of the banking industry.  The result was the same: bank failures, mortgage foreclosures and mass unemployment.


The Panic of 1857:  Once again, reckless land speculation fueled the crash of 1857.  The crisis was actually brought about by the failure of a large insurance company, Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company (can you spell AIG?)  Foreclosures and unemployment followed until the outbreak of the Civil War brought an ocean of government spending to the rescue.


Is any of this starting to sound familiar?


The Panic of 1873:  This time, it wasn’t land speculation but railroad speculation.  The bubble popped on September 18, 1873 when a large banking establishment that was promoting stock in the Northern Pacific Railroad declared its insolvency.  The same results followed.


The Panic of 1893:  Speculation again — -this time in industrial stocks.  Same results.


The panic of 1901: More of the same, this time fed by pyramid stock schemes that created fortunes out of thin air.


The Great Depression:  We all know about this one: stocks bought on margin, millionaires in every office — -th is bubble of bubbles spawned mass unemployment, home foreclosures and  bank failures.  All of it was so easy to foresee to anyone who had taken a look backward.


“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”


Isn’t that the phrase?  Well, it kind’a looks like we didn’t do much looking back either — -land speculation based on easy bank credit, stocks (even whole companies) bought on margin (we called it leverage this time), millionaires on every corner, a world awash in funny money.  And now our bubble has popped. 


It is not the intent of this blog article to point fingers or to go on ad nauseum about what has brought us to this unpleasant reality.  It is not the causes that concern me right now, it’s the effect.  It is the emotional reaction to this financial crisis and the potential for damage that is caused by that reaction.   Roosevelt’s oft-quoted phrase, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” has been told and retold so many times that we have forgotten what he was trying to say — -that it was fear that was doing all the damage in 1932-33.


We, too, stand poised to start breaking things.  And right now, the principal candidate for damage is the automobile industry.  Everyone seems ready to allow our nation’s ability to produce vehicles to go down the drain.  We must not allow this to happen.  We are going to desperately need an infrastructure capable of producing non-carbon burning cars.  Our future and the future of our children depends upon our ability to turn a corner on this critical issue.  If we trash the only industry we have that knows how to build cars (not to mention the tens of thousands of workers who actually do the work), we cripple our ability to create the very cars and trucks we will need to carry us out of a looming carbon holocaust. 


Enter Ben Rothlisberger. 


I’ve been watching the Congressional hearings on the “Big 3” automotive “bailout”.  And I’ve been reading the vitriolic emails that the general public has been sending to the networks:


          “Those (expletive deleted) C.E.O.’s were warned that they needed to build smaller cars, and they chose to go on building Hummers!” 

           “Let them go bankrupt!” 

           “Those %#@*&!!s deserve everything that’s happening to them!”


Well, Ben Rothlisberger, the quarterback of the ‘05 Super Bowl Champion Pittsburg Steelers, was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident in June of ’06.  He wasn’t wearing a helmet.  Is there any doubt that he had been repeatedly warned that about riding a motorcycle without a helmet?  Of course he knew.  And it’s equally clear that he chose to ignore the warnings.


My point is this:  if you had come across his mangled body at the intersection of the accident, would you have stood there and yelled, “You idiot!  You were told to wear a helmet!  You brought this on yourself!” If you had been there, would you have let him bleed to death?


The truth is that someone went ahead and put him back together, and he’s been a pretty good quarterback ever since.


Our auto industry hasn’t been wearing a helmet either.  Now we can all stand here and yell, “You idiots!”, and let the entire industry bleed to death from its self-inflicted wounds.  Or we can remember Ben Rothlisberger, and give the industry an I.V.  Maybe they won’t win any Super Bowls for a while, but they will be in the running.  And if they’re in the running, we’re all going to be winners.


It’s a bit scary out there right now. But let’s not let our fears turn to anger and panic.  It’s time to start the IV’s,  not kick the bleeding dummies.   




Saturday, November 15th, 2008

In the middle ages, early “scientists” spent years in medieval laboratories experimenting with crude instruments and processes in search of the holy grail of old world chemistry: a method for turning some common material into gold. These ancient alchemists labored in vain, of course, as not a single ounce of the precious material was ever produced.

If ever such a method was needed by the nations of this world, it is now. We are presently pouring billions (trillions?) of dollars into the economies of this planet in a desperate hope that we can restart the machinery of production that has propelled our civilization forward ever since Adam Smith cried out, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” The problem is that it’s not real money we are pouring into the tank, but “tomorrow money”.

Mankind rides a perilous plane whose engines are sputtering. It doesn’t take an aerospace engineer to tell us that if we don’t get those engines up and running soon, the plane is headed for an unpleasant encounter with the ground. So our governments are headed out onto the wings with their cans of make-believe gasoline, hoping that somehow, some future generation will come along and retroactively fill those cans with real hard-earned dollars. Oh, where are the alchemists when we really need them? If only we could create money out of thin air.

Well guess what, Yankee fans…we can!

I want you to picture an ancient alchemist laboring away in a modern garage — -think of a white-bearded Merlin hammering on a sheet of metal, and painting it with an exquisite coat of silver. He labors well into the night, and finally, he hauls his magic machine out onto the driveway and sits, waiting for the sun to come up. Slowly, the rays of the morning sun fall upon his magnificent invention. And lo and behold — -a gold coin drops to the pavement!

Merlin! You’ve done it! You’ve turned sunlight into gold!

Does it sound like fiction to you? A legend, perhaps? All too good to be true? Well, it is true. You can prove it to yourself by mounting your own solar cash machine on your roof — -put a solar thermal collector up there and watch your hot water bill drop like a stone. It will literally turn sunlight into gold. The $20 or $40 or $70 a month that you used to send off to your local gas or electric company now stays in your wallet. Sunlight falls on your roof and money appears in your wallet! It’s solar alchemy!

The same thing happens if you install a solar electric panel, or a wind generator. At then end of the day, real money shows up in your wallet.

So what are the considerations here? Clearly, if Merlin’s Magic Machine costs $100,000 and it only drops a dollar a day on the pavement, there wouldn’t be a big rush to buy one. Conversely, if it cost $100 and produced $10 a day, you’d better watch out for the stampede. So the very first consideration is this: can the machine pay for itself from the money it generates? Our experience with wind generators is a resounding “Yes!”. So, too, solar pays for itself over its lifetime, and then goes on to generate free money.

The implications of solar and wind alchemy are profound. Devices can be created and placed in the sun or the wind, and real capital is produced for mankind. The more devices, the more capital. This is a simple fact that our governments need to get a grip on. Instead of incurring debt for our grandchildren to pay off, try planting solar and wind seeds that will grow into money trees, ready to harvest by the time they are slammed with the credit card bill we have run up on them.

It is obvious that mankind is going to have to undertake a transition to a non-fossil reality. Our planet is going to die if we fail to act on this truth. What is important to recognize, and what I hope this blog comment brings home through its simple analogy, is that this transition is CAPITAL PRODUCTIVE! We are going to need trillions upon trillions of dollars in the future. If we simply start the process of harvesting sunlight and wind on a massive scale, the money will be there when we need it.

So, my dear government officials, don’t put imaginary gasoline in the sputtering engines. Try sunlight instead.


The Real Immigration Problem

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

I’ve been building a house in Mexico for the past 15 years — -my amateur stab at being an architect. I was there last week and woke up to find a very large grasshopper staring at me from the end of my pillow. It was green from head to toe (or whatever you call those things at the end of those creepy legs) and was about the size of a tootsie roll. In a decade and a half, I had never seen one in the house. That was Monday.

By the end of the week, I had seen plenty of them. First two, then ten, then twenty. It wasn’t that I was being overrun by a biblical horde of locusts, but it was unnerving in its own way. I asked around and found that others were surprised at the sudden alien invasion.

The whole thing got me thinking again about the impact of global warming on the insect world. Are there going to be a bunch more bugs in our future? Is our new, warmer world going to unleash some dreadful population explosion among the 8-leggers, an explosion that has been held in check by good old cold weather?

When I wrote Deathstroke, I introduced insects into the story line to address this serious issue. In Deathstroke, swarms of insects are capable of devastating whole regions of forested terrain. Even a cursory investigation into the issue demonstrates that the coming impact of insect infestation will not be limited to the pages of a novel.

In February of this year, The Independent, a respected British news journal, published the findings of an extensive study performed by Pennsylvania State University on the impact of global warming on insect populations.

The study focused on the evidence of insect damage to vegetation during the last great era of global climate change, the PETM (the palaeocene-eocene thermal maximum) which took place about 55 million years ago. During that period, as in our present crisis, CO2 levels spiked (they more than tripled in the PETM). The result was a dramatic increase in global temperatures (5 degrees Centigrade). What is significant, is what that did to the world’s insect populations. By examining the insect damage to vegetation found in the fossil record, the Penn State team discovered that insects devoured between 2 to 4 times the amount of vegetation that they had before the temperature spike.

The researchers cite two reasons for this extraordinary increase in damage: 1) the sheer number of insects exploded, and 2) the amount of foliage needed for them to survive increased dramatically.

The second basis provides some sobering consideration. The problem is that when CO2 levels increase, it becomes easier for plants to carry out photosynthesis. Though they produce more foliage, the leaves they produce contain less protein. As a consequence, the insects feeding on them have to eat substantially more plant material in order to survive. The result is defoliation on a massive scale brought about by more insects having to consume more food. Beyond the issue of increasing swarms of insects which is the focus of this notation, perhaps we ourselves should consider the implications of a diminishing protein component in our own food supply.

Beyond the issue of more bugs eating more plants, there is an additional finding that should be raising alarms in the temperate zones: insect migration. Ellen Currano, head of the Penn State team put it succinctly: “We think that the warming allowed insect species from the tropics…to migrate north”.

The implications for mankind are obvious: our population is exploding placing heavy demands upon our agriculture to support it. But increasing levels of CO2 are going to reduce the protein in our food supply. Just about the time we come to grips with that nightmare, there are going to be trillions of hungry new visitors to our plush growing fields. To be certain, no 700 mile fence line is going to stop that onslaught of alien immigrants.

Perhaps it is appropriate to leave this section with a phrase from the remake of the movie, The Fly:

“Be afraid…be very afraid!”


Saturday, November 8th, 2008

Congress intends to pass another economic stimulus package to get our economy up and running. Let’s not make the same mistake as the last one.

Last time, we all got a check in the mail from Uncle Sam which we could spend any way we wanted. Though I haven’t seen any studies on where the money went, I’ll bet a good share of it ended up in China, thanks to Walmart, Home Depot and a thousand other shopping outlets that trade in “cheapest” products. No doubt countless billions ended up in Saudi bank accounts.

I suggest we do it different this time. Instead of giving cash away, give away insulation.

There are tens of thousands of homes and businesses out there that burn foreign oil every winter just to keep their occupants warm. I drive by them every December morning and see their roofs glistening wet instead of frost-covered — -a tell-tale sign that there is inadequate insulation inside or none at all. As long as the government is going to “give away” money, I suggest they do it in a manner that gives money back.

Consider an oil burning home. If you vigorously insulate it, it will burn less oil. It is as simple as that. But the implications are profound: Every month, month after month, year after year, less oil is imported to heat that house. That means that less money is being shipped from the U.S. to the Middle East (you know, that part of the world where Americans are held in such high esteem). And ask yourself, if money isn’t being sent off to Saudi Arabia, then where is it going? Well, J.Q.Public will have a few extra dollars in his pocket each month to spend on stimulating the economy (or maybe even putting in a savings account!). And this will go on month after month, year after year. And did I mention, there will be less CO2 rising from J.Q.’s house month after month, year after year?

This simple solution ends up killing an entire flock of birds with one stone: 1) it reduces our dependence on foreign oil and helps our balance of trade; 2) it gives J.Q. a tax-free raise that continuously stimulates our economy forever; 3) it gives the insulation industry a giant shot in the arm, and very importantly, 4) it reduces global warming.

It should become immediately apparent that insulation is just the simplest avenue available to Congress to create real stimulus. The same result can be achieved by giving away solar collectors that would turn off hot water tanks from Seattle to Sarasota. Again, CO2 is reduced, fewer oil tankers ply the Atlantic, and J.Q. rushes out to buy a new Chevy “Volt” with the money he saves on his oil bill.

Win. Win. Win

So, Congress, as long as you’re going to give money away again, try putting it where the sun shines.



Saturday, November 8th, 2008

The first time I visited Buchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, I came in by boat. There’s a little path that leads up from the bay, and, for whatever reason, boaters get in free. But what struck me more than the cost of admission, was a certain tree at the top of the path — -a giant Sequoia. The plaque at the base of the tree identified its planting as some time in the 1960’s. I remember looking up in astonishment — -it was huge! I was in college when they planted it as a sapling, but it was already bigger than any Douglas Fir or Western Hemlock I had ever seen (outside of the giants in the Olympic Rain Forest where they are 300 years old or more). Clearly, a giant redwood from northern California does very well on the Washington/B.C. coastal zone.

Many times since then I have wondered just how tall that tree would grow to be if everyone left it alone until it died of old age. Sequoias can live for thousands of years. It was years later, after I became conscious of my carbon footprint, that I started to wonder just how many Sequoias could recapture all the carbon I had burned over my lifetime if they were left alone for the next two millennium. Would one do it? Or two? Or ten?

That started me thinking. Why don’t we all start planting trees to recapture all the carbon we are burning over the course of our lives? In my part of the planet, we could plant Sequoias — -they grow fast and capture carbon at warp speed. The beauty of it all is that long after my ashes are feeding some other plant, my Sequoias would just keep plodding along, sucking in all the carbon I had spewed out over a lifetime, exhaling pure oxygen in its place. Who knows, perhaps in a thousand years or so someone might put a plaque on my tiny forest that says, “Richard Kelley’s carbon has been recovered”. Obviously, if I planted a thousand trees, it might only take a century or so to erase my debt.

That all started me thinking more: What if every child in school were to plant a Sequoia each year from kindergarten through high school…or an elm, or an oak, or whatever grows in their part of the country? And what if nobody were allowed to touch any of those trees…ever. Eventually, a mighty “Children’s Forest” would begin to grow across the land. Slowly, over time, we would begin to replace the vast forests that once grew before we showed up with our saws. Now obviously, someone is going to have to pay for the land — -I suggest that government might be a candidate here. But better than that, why not have the children themselves invest in their forest? I can see bake sales and Saturday car washes and bottle drives (do they still have bottle drives?). I mean, how much does it cost to buy enough land to plant a tree?

I might suggest that the kids consider buying land in the Amazon basin. There’s lots of it there that hasn’t got any trees right now, and I’m told the land is pretty cheap in those places.

I do foresee a problem. As the trees grow over time, saliva will eventually start dripping from the tip of chain saws. This will require legislation to protect the kids’ trees. In our state, that might prove easy — -plant Sequoias and pass legislation making it illegal to cut, transport, process, or sell or buy them in any manner. Sequoias don’t grow naturally in the Northwest, and a logging truck moving down I-5 with a load of redwoods would stick out like a sore thumb. Perhaps the same is true with a Banyun tree in Nebraska. So, by planting non-indigenous trees (yet trees that are guaranteed to thrive), the chain saw lust can be curbed if not eliminated. A healthy jail sentence and fine might add to the protection of the trees.

A children’s forest doesn’t necessarily have to be in some isolated stretch of land. I can foresee urban children’s forest with trees strategically planted to provide shade to buildings over time, reducing the need for air conditioning in the hot summer months (kill two birds with one stone, ya see). And urban forests are kind of hard to cut down and haul away without being seen.

So imagine little Sally standing at the base of a giant redwood, peering upward at the branches spreading out hundreds of feet above her. “My great, great grandpa planted that tree ,” she might say to Tommy, before the two turn to run after their classmates, their Sequoia seedlings grasped firmly in one hand and a planting trowel in the other.



Saturday, November 8th, 2008

A decade or so ago, my best friend, Rick, won Washington State’s Teacher of the Year. He was being recognized for his pioneering work in the field of computer science. He had constructed an elaborate computer learning center for his school district. What was unique about the center was that it wasn’t designed to teach children how to use computers — -it was created for the express purpose of teaching teachers how to teach the children to use computers. It may seem strange in today’s world, but when Rick embarked on his computer center, we were all trying to acquaint ourselves with that strange voodoo world called dos. Rick was one the first to recognize that teachers have to learn a subject before they can be expected to teach it to kids.

A similar reality exists today in the world of renewable energy. Our political candidates have just spent the past two years declaring that our country has to free itself from imported oil and that we need to convert the nation to operate on non-fossil sources of energy. The knowledge on just how this is going to be accomplished is apparently believed to exist out there somewhere, and that all that is needed is a for government to push a magic button and it will all start to happen (the push of the button is to accomplished with copious quantities of cash, of course).

The truth of the matter is that a global transition to a non-fossil reality is going to be an extraordinary undertaking. And it’s not going to be done overnight — -it’s going to take generations to accomplish. My question is this: is there really any concerted effort under way to teach renewable energy to the generations moving their way through our public school systems? More importantly, how many teachers are there out there that know the difference between a gallium arsenide solar cell and one made of amorphous silicon, and why the distinction is important. Do they know the difference between thermal and electric solarized energy, and what part of the spectrum produces each? Even more basic: can they quantify the energy savings of insulation based upon its R-value?

Are you starting to see the problem? If we are to have any hope of truly freeing ourselves from the toxic grip of fossil fuel, that means that we are going to have to educate ourselves on a massive scale. It means that we are going to have to teach our kids, and before that happens, we have to teach our teachers first.

And so my Suggestion Number 2 to the powers that be is this: Establish a meaningful nationwide program to teach teachers about renewable energy. This includes how to insulate homes, how to recognize energy-efficient appliances, how to install solar collectors (thermal everywhere, and electric where appropriate). Grade school teachers need to send their legions of children back into their homes looking for lights to turn out in a quest for gold stars on some flashy certificate. We need to teach our kids to think in terms of energy conservation using positive reinforcement to instill these and other values in them.

Let us recognize early on that the quest for a non-fossil world is nothing short of an arduous marathon. By the time it is accomplished, today’s kindergarteners will likely be drawing social security.