The Little Engine That Could – Store Clean Energy


In Greek mythology, the story of Sisyphus endlessly rolling a boulder uphill is meant to be a cautionary tale. Gravity, in this case, worked against the poor chump. But the smart folks at Advanced Rail Energy Storage North America (ARES) asked: Why not make gravity your friend?

ARES has pioneered a train full of rocks that climbs up a hill, only to roll back down again and repeat the process, Sisyphus style. But instead of a metaphor of futility, this new train technology offers a breakthrough opportunity in clean energy storage.

It isn’t easy to find feasible solutions for storing grid-scale renewable energy loads for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Pumping water through turbines only returns about 70 percent on energy inputs, while the big battery business comes with its own set of environmental and cost concerns.

That’s what makes the ARES technology all the more exciting. The group repurposed train cars originally meant for (ironically) Australian ore mining to use gravity and friction to store renewables. Each car can haul up to 230 tons of rock up a hill (heavier is better since it will generate more energy when it inevitably rolls downhill).

Here’s how it works: When electricity is at low demand, surplus energy gets sent from the grid to power a chain that hauls the weighted rail cars uphill. Then, when energy demand climbs, the train car’s motor becomes a generator as it rolls downhill, and the momentum pushes the stored energy back through the grid via regenerative braking. Scientific American reports:

 ”They go up, they go down, Slinky fashion,” said Francesca Cava, chief operating officer at Advanced Rail Energy Storage North America, the company behind the Nevada project. “For the most part, the technology we’re using is over a hundred years old – we’re not waiting for any scientific breakthroughs to be profitable.”

The benefits are that it’s less expensive than other storage solutions like pumping hydro through turbines, and it has a small environmental footprint — no water, no emissions, and no synthetic methane needed. ARES says that the energy stored can stabilize the grid and help make the power generated by renewables less intermittent.

The new railcars have been piloted in California, which recently approved a plan to use energy storing technologies to meet the goal of having 33 percent of its power supply from renewable sources by the year 2020. Now ARES has big plans for a large-scale commercial venture that could help the state get on track with its energy-on-demand needs. If this pilot program is successful, other states and countries could soon be riding this gravy train to clean energy storage.

Source: Grist

Climate Change Is Creeping Into Our Crops

Climate change could put back the fight against hunger by decades but our global food system is woefully unprepared to cope with the challenge, said Oxfam today. The warning comes as governments gather in Japan to agree a major new scientific report, which is expected to show that the impacts of climate change on food will be far more serious and will hit much sooner than previously thought.


Washington DC – infoZine – Oxfam’s briefing paper, ‘Hot and Hungry: How to stop climate change derailing the fight against hunger’ analyses ten key factors that will have an increasingly important influence on countries’ ability to feed their people in a warming world. Across all ten areas, Oxfam found serious gaps between what governments are doing and what they need to do to protect our food systems. The results also show that while many countries – both rich and poor – are unprepared for the impact of climate change on food security, it is the world’s poorest and most food insecure among them that are least prepared and most at risk.

The ten gaps, “failing” policy areas that will undermine the world’s ability to feed itself in a warming world, are:

International adaptation finance (score: <1/10): Rich countries promised to help poor countries adapt to a changing climate but have only provided around 2 per cent of the money poor countries need.

Crop irrigation (score: < 1/10): In California irrigation covers over 80 per cent of arable land. In Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, where farmers are confronting cyclical droughts, irrigation covers less than one per cent of arable land.

Crop insurance (score < 2/10): Just 1 per cent or less of farmers in poor countries such as Malawi have crop insurance compared to 91 per cent of farmers in the US – making it harder for them to survive when climate shocks destroy their harvests.

Agricultural research and development (R&D) (score: 2/10): Global seed diversity has declined by 75 per cent in the last 100 years, depriving farmers of crop varieties better suited to changing weather patterns. Poor countries spend a sixth of the amount that rich countries spend on agricultural R&D.

Social protection (score: 3/10): Just 20 per cent of people across the globe have access to adequate social protection schemes, such as free school meals or cash transfers, when food is unavailable or too expensive.

Weather forecasting (score: 3/10): Information from weather stations helps farmers avoid crop failure. In California, there is one station every 2,000 square km. In Chad there is only one station every 80,000 square km – roughly the size of Austria.

Gender discrimination (score: 5/10): Women make up 43 per cent of the agricultural workforce in developing countries but discrimination makes it hard for them to adapt. For example, women rarely own the land they farm so it’s hard to change their farming methods to deal with a changing climate.

Food stocks (score 5/10): World grain reserves are at historically low levels. If extreme or erratic weather wipes out harvests in key producing countries, food prices could skyrocket, triggering major food crises.

Agricultural investment (score: 7/10): Only four of the 20 African countries Oxfam looked at have delivered on their commitment to spend 10 per cent of their national budget on agriculture.

Humanitarian aid (score: 6/10): Climate change could mean more food crises but humanitarian aid is already failing to keep pace with demand – the difference between the amount of aid which is needed and the amount provided has tripled since 2001.

Oxfam’s analysis also highlights that a number of countries such as Ghana, Viet Nam and Malawi that are bucking the trend by taking action in areas such as social protection, crop irrigation and agricultural investment. This is helping them to outstrip countries such as Nigeria, Laos and Niger on food security, despite sharing similar levels of income and climate risk.

Source: InfoZine

If NYC Was Completely Sustainable, This Is What It Would Look Like

New masterplan II Dec19

New York City is many things, but sustainable it is not.

The people of New York City require some 4 million acres of food-producing land — roughly the size of the entire state of Connecticut — just to produce all the food they eat annually, according to Terreform Research Group, a sustainable architecture firm. That’s a problem, especially since the energy used to transport foods from around the globe to American dinner plate is a significant contributor to climate change.

Even food grown within North America travels more than 1,200 miles on average from where it was grown. Those so-called “food-miles” are why researchers at Terreform set out to determine what the biggest city in the U.S. would look like if itcould produce all the food and energy needed to power itself.

And in a city with so little available space, it’s no surprise that figuring out how to pack all that food production within the city limits proved quite a challenge.

What they developed was the New York (Steady) State project, a self-described “thought-experiment” that envisions a wholly self-sufficient New York. In this dream scenario, the city meets the needs of its citizens by repurposing structures into food-producing towers.

Their architectural renderings reflect a New York that produces all that food within the five boroughs using a “cradle-to-cradle” system with minimal pollution. (The team assumed that New York’s 8.5 million residents each require 2,500 calories per day.)

For now, the tremendously ambitious plan remains a pipe dream. But the design firm’s president, Michael Sorkin, said it provides the city with an “encyclopedic” roadmap to a more sustainable future.

“[The New York (Steady) State project] allows us to truly test the limits of the possibility for direct action to save the planet,” Sorkin wrote in an email to HuffPost. “Our investigation takes place at every scale, from the window box to the apartment, to the building, block, neighborhood, and city.” Here’s some of what they envision:

Green roofs would cover nearly every Manhattan building.

green roofs

City block courtyards would be surrounded by walls of vertical, outward-facing farms.

apt towers

These vertical farms, or “food towers,” would have outdoor terraces where livestock could roam.

food towers

They would also be constructed on top of existing train lines, so that food can be directly loaded into converted trains and delivered to residents.

linear towers

A refurbished bus rapid transit station on Fulton Street would help minimize dependance on cars and taxis.

bus stations

Some roadways traffic would be replaced by community gardens, like on Amsterdam Avenue in upper Manhattan.

amsterdam ave

147th Street in Harlem would be repurposed for food production and distribution.


And this center in Brooklyn would serve as a hydroponics education center, teaching a sustainable method of growing plants in water without the use of soil.

brooklyn education

Source: The Huffington Post

A GMO-Eating Bug?! This Could Get Interesting

If you’ve been on Twitter or Facebook this last week, you might have seen the headline: Worm beats GMOs! Shockingly, this was just one incremental development in a long-unfolding story. Here’s what you should know to understand what’s going on here.


GMO Bt what?

OK, background: The bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis makes this compound that kills a small group of insects and seems to be harmless to everything else. Farmers have been using the stuff for the past century, and organic farmers have long relied on it. But if you use something long enough, evolution will figure a way around it. Scientists in 1994 found that some insects had evolved a resistance to Bt. This was before genetic engineering had entered the picture. Then, genetic engineers figured out how to get certain plants to produce the Bt compound, and the EPA approved it in 1995. So now we have both organic Bt spray and GM Bt crops, and insects figuring out how to deal with all of it.

Wait, didn’t I hear about this before?

Yes, we’ve known since 2009 that corn rootworms had evolved a resistance to plants genetically engineered to produce Bt.

So what’s new here?

Well there are lots of Bt compounds, each one is slightly different, and biotechnologists had hoped to stymie worm evolution by having plants produce several varieties at once. The chance that a bug would have the tools to defeat several Bt forms at once would be very very low, according to the conventional wisdom. But this new study shows that the corn root worm has evolved resistance to multiple Bt compounds.

Does this mean Bt GMOs are a failure?

There is a clear failure here against the Western corn rootworm, but it’s still effective against other insects, and Bt is in a lot of plants besides corn. It’s even possible to save Bt for use against the Western corn rootworm, but it would require  farmers to cooperate and change up their strategy for pest control: If we were very choosy about using Bt crops, and mixed in lots of other techniques, the population of resistant bugs would recede. And, really, that’s what we should be doing anyway. Evolution always finds a way — there are even corn rootworms that are resistant to crop rotation — but using lots of different techniques is the best way to keep insect resistance at bay.

What’s the takeaway here?

Don’t take your technological tools for granted. We should be using them carefully and setting up incentives to maximize their utility. In many places in the U.S., cotton farmers have done a really good job of using Bt as an integrated pest management tool, rather than planting all Bt all the time, and it’s allowed them to cut back on pesticides. Instead of this boom and bust cycle where we latch on to a new technology and use it up, we’d be better off if we used each new innovation carefully.

Source: Grist

Take A Good Hard Look At The Fishing Industry

That fish dish at your favorite neighborhood bistro may be hiding a gruesome secret.

“When you buy fish at a grocery store or restaurant, you might also be getting a side order of sea turtle or dolphin to go with it,” said Dominique Cano-Stocco, Oceana‘s campaign director of responsible fishing, referring to the large number of dead sea creatures tossed by fishermen each year.

According to a new Oceana report, United States fisheries discard about 17 percent to 22 percent of everything they catch every year. That amounts to a whopping 2 billion pounds of annual by-catch — injured and dead fish and other marine animals unintentionally caught by fishermen and then thrown overboard. This includes endangered creatures like whales and sharks, as well as commercially viable fish that may have been too young or too damaged to bring to port.

“By-catch is one of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. today,” Cano-Stocco said. “It’s one of the largest threats to the proper management of our fisheries and to the health of our oceans and marine ecosystems.” Due to underreporting, by-catch numbers are probably an underestimate, she explained.

Released Friday, Oceana’s report strives to highlight the need to document by-catch numbers and develop better management strategies to prevent the high level of unnecessary slaughter in our oceans.


Bull shark trapped in fishing net
The report identifies nine of the worst by-catch fisheries in the nation. These fisheries — defined as groups of fishermen that target a certain kind of fish using a particular kind of fishing gear in a specific region — are reportedly responsible for more than half of all domestic by-catch; however, they’re only responsible for about 7 percent of the fish brought to land, the report notes.

Some of these fisheries reportedly discard more fish than they keep; others are said to throw out large amounts of the very fish species they aim to catch. California fishermen who use drift gillnets (walls of netting that drift in the water) to capture swordfish, for example, reportedly throw out about 63 percent of their total catch.

Between 2008 and 2012, about 39,000 common molas, 6,000 sharks, as well as hundreds of seals, sea lions and dolphins, were seriously injured or killed in the California drift gillnet fishery, Oceana notes.

According to the report, trawlers fishing in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico for shrimp also have an appalling by-catch record, discarding about 64 percent of their total catch. Trawling, which involves the dragging of nets along the water’s surface or along the seafloor, is notorious for causing harm to a wide variety of marine life, including endangered sea turtles. In 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated that up to 50,000 sea turtles could be killed every year in southeast shrimp trawls, per the report.

All of the fisheries in the Ocean’s “worst by-catch” list use either trawls, gillnets or longlines (lines with baited hooks) to catch fish. These three fishing gears are some of the world’s most unsustainable and destructive, said Cano-Stocco, who added that fisheries that use these gears should either transition away from them entirely or adopt better management practices. Trawl fisheries, for example, could use turtle excluder devices (which are designed to allow sea turtles to escape nets if captured) to prevent sea turtles from getting trapped, she said.

seal pup

Entangled seal pup
To start a process of change, however, Cano-Stocco says there needs to be more accountability on the part of fisheries. To ensure this happens, she says, more trained observers need to be on the ground, keeping tabs on the work being done.

These observers — who are assigned by the National Marine Fisheries Service to ride along on fishing trips and document information about catch, fishing location and entanglements — play an important role in monitoring by-catch. They also help ensure fishermen are adhering to current fishery regulations and are implementing the most sustainable techniques available.

“There’s evidence that fishermen don’t do [things like using turtle excluder devices] if they’re not being watched,” Cano-Stocco said.

Only 1 percent to 5 percent of fishing trips are currently getting observer coverage at most U.S. fisheries, per the report.

“Once you get good data, you can make better decisions,” Cano-Stocco said. “Whether transitioning gear or changing the management process, better reporting of data is going to lead to a win-win for consumers and fishermen. It’s ultimately all about finding balance. We want to promote fishing but we want to ensure that we’re doing it sustainably.”

For more information on the by-catch problem in the U.S. and Oceana’s recommendations, scroll down to see a detailed infographic created by the nonprofit:

bycatch infographic

Source: Huffington Post


These Shelters Are Making Big Waves


More than 40 million people worldwide have been displaced from their homes and left to find shelter in strange lands.

Maybe they find a tarp, or a tent, but their quality of life almost always remains dismal. To close this gap in need, Jordanian-Canadian architect and designer Abeer Seikaly designed a new kind of shelter.  One that allows refugees to rebuild their lives with dignity.

Seikaly, now living in Amman, Jordan is well poised to design a dwelling for refugees given that her ancestors in Jordan probably toggled between nomadic and sheltered life in the desert for centuries.


“The movement of people across the earth led to the discovery of new territories as well as the creation of new communities among strangers forming towns, cities, and nations,” writes Seikaly in her design brief. ”Navigating this duality between exploration and settlement, movement and stillness is a fundamental essence of what it means to be human.”

But today, a great deal of migration is no longer voluntary, as wars and climate change force people out of their homes – often with very little money. The collapsible woven shelters, which are conceptual but proven to work, would allow these people to carry their homes with them.


Comprised of a structural woven fabric that “blurs the distinction between structure and fabric,” the shelter expands to create a private enclosure and contracts “for mobility.” It also comes with some fundamental amenities required by modern people, including water and renewable electricity.

The outer solar-powered skin absorbs solar energy that is then converted into usable electricity, while the inner skin provides pockets for storage – particularly at the lower half of the shelters. And a water storage tank on the top of the tent allows people to take quick showers. Water rises to the storage tank via a thermosiphoning system and a drainage system ensures that the tent is not flooded.


Well ventilated and lit, the shelter opens up in the summer and huddles down during cold winters. But most importantly, it allows refugees to have some semblance of security, some semblance of home.


“This lightweight, mobile, structural fabric could potentially close the gap between need and desire as people metaphorically weave their lives back together, physically weaving their built environment into a place both new and familiar, transient and rooted, private and connected,” says Seikaly.


“In this space, the refugees find a place to pause from their turbulent worlds, a place to weave the tapestry of their new lives. They weave their shelter into home.”

Is Our Society Really Doomed? We Certainly Hope Not!

NASA Study Concludes When Civilization Will End…
And It’s Not Looking Good for Us

Originally published by Tom McKay for PolicyMic

Civilization was pretty great while it lasted, wasn’t it? Too bad it’s not going to for much longer. According to a new study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, we only have a few decades left before everything we know and hold dear collapses.
The report, written by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center along with a team of natural and social scientists, explains that modern civilization is doomed. And there’s not just one particular group to blame, but the entire fundamental structure and nature of our society.
Analyzing five risk factors for societal collapse (population, climate, water, agriculture and energy), the report says that the sudden downfall of complicated societal structures can follow when these factors converge to form two important criteria. Motesharrei’s report says that all societal collapses over the past 5,000 years have involved both ”the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor].” This “Elite” population restricts the flow of resources accessible to the “Masses”, accumulating a surplus for themselves that is high enough to strain natural resources. Eventually this situation will inevitably result in the destruction of society.
Elite power, the report suggests, will buffer “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners,” allowing the privileged to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.”
Science will surely save us, the nay-sayers may yell. But technology, argues Motesharrei, has only damned us further:

Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.

In other words, the benefits of technology are outweighed by how much the gains reinforce the existing, over-burdened system — making collapse even more likely.

The worst-case scenarios predicted by Motesharrei are pretty dire, involving sudden collapse due to famine or a drawn-out breakdown of society due to the over-consumption of natural resources. The best-case scenario involves recognition of the looming catastrophe by Elites and a more equitable restructuring of society, but who really believes that is going to happen? Here’s what the study recommends:

The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth.

These are great suggestions that will, unfortunately, almost certainly never be put into action, considering just how far down the wrong path our civilization has gone. As of last year, humans are using more resources than the Earth can replenish and the planet’s distribution of resources among its terrestrial inhabitants is massively unequal. This is what happened to Rome and the Mayans, according to the report.

… historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases).

And that’s not even counting the spectre of global climate change, which could be a looming “instant planetary emergency.” According to Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Neil Dawe:

Economic growth is the biggest destroyer of the ecology. Those people who think you can have a growing economy and a healthy environment are wrong. If we don’t reduce our numbers, nature will do it for us … Everything is worse and we’re still doing the same things. Because ecosystems are so resilient, they don’t exact immediate punishment on the stupid.

In maybe the nicest way to say the end is nigh possible, Motesharrei’s report concludes that “closely reflecting the reality of the world today … we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.”
Writes Nafeez Ahmed at The Guardian:

“Although the study is largely theoretical, a number of other more empirically-focused studies — by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science for instance — have warned that the convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a ‘perfect storm’ within about fifteen years. But these ‘business as usual’ forecasts could be very conservative.”

Well, at least zombies aren’t real.

13 Foods You Should Always Buy Organic


Potatoes often retain pesticides even after they are washed and peeled. Almost 80 percent of potatoes contain pesticides.

Babies are the most vulnerable to pesticides, and they eat a lot of this.

Non-organic peanut butters are high in pesticides and fungus and contain aflatoxin, a potential carcinogen.

Dairy cows are routinely fed hormones, antibiotics, and pesticide-covered grains, all of which can end up in your milk. The higher the fat level of the milk, the higher the level of pesticides. And toddlers drink lots of whole milk.

Apples are near the top of the high-pesticide-level list. They’re also a favorite of kids; apples, apple juice, and applesauce are among the most common foods eaten by children ages 1 to 5, according to a USDA survey. So buy organic if you can.

Animal feed is often laced with antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones. Residue from these chemicals may still be present in meat. The use of antibiotics in food production could contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

About 97 percent of nectarines have been found to contain pesticides, according to the USDA.

Spinach and lettuce have lots of surface area for pesticides to cover. More than 83 percent of spinach contains pesticides.

Nearly 94 percent of peaches and pears contain pesticides. Peaches are number one on the Environmental Working Group’s list of foods with the most and the highest concentration of pesticides.

Thin skins make fruits particularly vulnerable to pesticides. Some 90 percent of strawberries contain pesticides.

Peppers absorb pesticides like a sponge. About 68 percent of peppers contain pesticides and many are imported from countries with looser standards than the US has.

Pesticides may pass from chickens to eggs, and from there to the many foods you make with them. Organic eggs com­e from birds that eat organic feed and are not pumped up with growth hormone or dosed with an­tibiotics.

Some 86 percent of these grapes contain pesticides. And it’s pretty hard to peel a grape.

Source: Readers Digest