Archive for November, 2008


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.


Suggestion No. 1: Put Solar Panels Where the Sun Shines

Sunday, November 2nd, 2008

In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to focus in on suggestions for our newly elected president and congress regarding actions they might wish to consider in addressing the world’s climate crisis.

My first suggestion is to establish a program whereby citizens who live in less than optimal solar zones might still be able to install solar collectors in areas where their energy (and hence financial) return is maximized.

I have been driving “Sparky”, my electric car for the past ten years.It is fast, reliable, and financially a success, particularly at gas prices above $4/gallon.Last year, in an offering to CNN’s Youtube Debate, I proposed to ask the candidates the single question:

“Why aren’t we all driving on sunlight?”

The concept is simple:every electric car is capable of “running on sunlight” through the simple expedient of using solar panels to capture sunlight and delivering the electricity they produce to the batteries of the car.

In practice, it’s a bit more complicated than that.Several points need to be made here:

1) Can a car run on solar cells attached to the car?No.An important point needs to be understood — -there is only so much energy in a square foot of sunlight.Even if every square inch of a modern car’s surface were to be covered with some kind of “super solar cell” (one that could convert 100% of all the sunlight falling on it to electricity), it would not be able to supply the car’s energy needs.

2)How do you supply electricity to your car if your panels are at home and the car is on the road?You don’t.Driving on sunlight does not mean that a car is continuously hooked to its panels.Instead, it works like this:your panels collect the sunlight and convert it to direct current (DC).The DC current is then changed to AC current (the kind of electricity you use in running your home) by running it through an “inverter”.The inverter is then hooked directly to the electrical system of your home.What this does is to supply your home with usable electricity produced from sunlight.When this happens, your electric meter will actually slow down or even begin to run backward because you are not drawing power from your utility (“the grid”).In reality, you begin to build up a “bank account” of solar-generated electricity.The size of that account will depend upon how many panels are on your roof, and how much sunlight falls on them.Your electric car arrives home after work and you plug it in.It then withdraws the electricity you collected during the day and stores it in the car’s batteries for tomorrow’s commute.

3)What happens when the sun doesn’t shine?No problem.You install a large enough solar collector system to provide more power than the car can use when the sun shines to cover those days when no power is collected because of clouds.This is an important point to understand:a solar powered car is based upon annual solar collection, not daily solar collection.So your collector system is sized based upon the number of amp hours needed by your car in a given year.In Sparky’s case, he needs 2 amp hours of power to go one mile.If I intend to drive 10,000 miles per year, I need a system that will generate 20,000 amp hours of electricity in a year, most of which will be collected in the summer months.

It should become immediately obvious from this, that the amount of sunlight falling on the panels over as given year is the critical defining factor in the size of a solar system needed to create a truly “solar powered car”.This brings me to the specific point of this discussion:don’t put your panels where the sun doesn’t shine.

I live in Olympia, Washington.Several years ago, I was stunned to find that my city has less sunlight than any other major city in the world — -I was scanning a list of cities arranged by their solar standing, and there it was, drop dead last!My initial reaction was:Well, if I can demonstrate that solar works in Olympia, Washington, then that will show the world that it can work anywhere!Maybe that makes a great PR point, but it makes a terrible financial one — -it would only demonstrate how expensive it is to drive a solar powered car.

So that brings up the central point for policy makers:the government needs to establish a mechanism whereby a person who drives an electric car in Olympia, Washington, can buy solar panels and install them in Yuma, Arizona…or Needles, California.I submit that government needs to obtain large tracts of solar-rich land and create a “solar farm” where individual citizens can install solar equipment that sends electricity into the grid so that they can in clear conscience declare that the electricity they are pulling off the grid at their house is indeed “solar energy”.It makes no real difference that the specific electron that enters Sparky didn’t actually come from my Yuma solar panel — -the important point is that, on a national basis, I am putting as much electricity into the system as I am pulling out.

There are many advantages to this concept.

1) By centralizing the solar collectors of car owners from all over the country, a single maintenance man can service a large number of customers, reducing the maintenance costs of owning solar collectors;

2) A standardized model of collector can be decided upon which will result in the benefits of specialized large scale production (economies of scale);

3) Individual power inverters (one of the expensive components of a stand-alone system) would be replaced by large scale inverters, thereby substantially reducing this cost center;

4) Eventually, individual solar panels will be replaced by community solar collection systems (solar generating plants) which will further increase the return on the solar dollars invested.

It should be immediately apparent that this concept would not be limited to electric car owners.It is equally applicable to homeowners and businesses that want to “operate on sunlight”.While government is the logical candidate to be the entity to facilitate the creation of these solar farms, it can just as easily be accomplished by a co-op of car and/or home owners.

One thing that government can do, as a matter of policy, is to insure that the money paid per amp hour from an owner’s panel be equal to that he must pay at home when he withdraws his electricity from the local grid.In other words, retail for retail.Indeed, it seems like a great candidate for a tax-type credit that would encourage all of us to convert our cars, our homes and our businesses to solar.