Tag Archives: Environment

The Five Takeaways of Solar Power: Ian Howard

Ian Howard is someone who likes to get his hands dirty.

Before dabbling in solar power, Howard was a paratrooper, then a mountain guide, then a builder of IT infrastructure in Africa.  So, how exactly did he get into solar power?

“I had been interested in renewable energy since I was very young.  Growing up in Northern Ontario, I was, of course, interested in the environment and the outdoors.  However, solar in particular, I became particularly interested in solar while working in Africa, where  we used it to bring telecommunications to rural areas. Solar was a way for us to bring these technologies without burdening these communities with the cost of fuel for generators.”

Solar power is seen to be one of the alternatives to fossil fuels, the latter of which has caused much of the CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere.  While in the past, solar power was expensive and ineffective, over the past couple of years solar technology has become cost effective and efficient.

Howard now does consulting and as a partner with a solar start-up called Power Panel.  Below he provides his five takeaways of solar power. 

1.  The speed at which solar technology is developing is comparable to that of the microchip.

People often forget that solar technology is just that – technology.

“The most common misconception about solar that I encounter has to do with dated information. Solar is progressing at such a fast speed that the two year old information that is the basis of most preconceptions is really off the mark. Solar is changing almost as fast as microchips, and this is creating opportunities that are smashing down walls decades earlier than anticipated,” says Howard.

2.  Solar energy is a good defensive measure against unpredictable weather and high energy costs.

Solar energy was once the domain of off-grid, patchouli scented hippies.  It turns out, however, that solar power has greater application than most people think.  With the upgrade of electrical networks to “smart grids”, whereby power is distributed and two-way digital technology is used to deliver electricity from suppliers to consumers and vice versa, it could potentially be a way to pay very little for electricity.

“With only a few square meters of collectors on a roof, all of the hot water for a home can be heated by the sun. This equipment costs little more than most home entertainment systems, and provides sustainable energy for more than a decade.  It also provides some insurance against those few but painful occasions when the gas, or electric grids go down. I find it astonishing that people in Ontario who endured the ice storm years ago are not convinced of the need for greater resilience and autonomy in our systems,” exclaims Howard.

As it turns out, solar power is good for the environment, wallet, and self sufficiency.  Perhaps the hippies were on to something.


3.  Solar power works in cold climates.

When one sees stock photos of solar panels and solar power, they always seem to contain an array of panels in the middle of a desert.  Should people in cold climates, such as Canada, be using solar power?

“It is another misconception that colder climates are less suitable for solar. Cold is not the issue, but rather sunlight. The further from the equator one goes the less light there is in winter, but photovoltaics perform better when they are cool and the heat generated by solar thermal becomes yet more useful. In fact, the best places on earth for solar are in mountain areas, like in Northern Chile which have low temperatures but plenty of sunlight,” Howard explains.

How about solar panels getting covered in snow?  Wouldn’t that render solar power pointless in cold climates?

“Snow, of course, can block sunlight from getting to the panels. Typically panels are installed on an angle so snow can slide off the glass most of the time. For those cases where this doesn’t happen, there are a few innovations which allow the panel to be heated, melting snow and ice off their surface,” he says.


4.  Although solar is “clean” energy, making panels is quite resource intensive – however, over the life time of the panel, less resources are needed than fossil fuels.

In the creation of new technologies, a shift occurs in resource demand.  For example, with the increase in need for long-term energy storage, the amount of lithium-ion batteries needed is increasing.  As a result, the demand for lithium is also increasing.  Similarly, with the manufacture of solar panels, there will be a need for resources such as silicon, cadmium telluride, plastic, and copper-indium selenide.

“Solar does require materials, so using no energy will always be more environmentally friendly than using solar. Where solar excels, however, is in producing power where it is consumed. This obviates the need to build infrastructure to transport energy great distances such as other energy sources require, and thus has a much lower impact and reduces transmission losses,” explains Howard.

In regards to the increased need for resources, Howard admits that many solar companies are constrained for resources and often don’t think of the longer term implications for sustainable manufacturing.  There is a need to incorporate this thinking into future product designs.

5.  Government incentives for solar power tends to favour the “big guys”.

“At the onset of the recession, the idea of ‘green jobs’ spread faster than a cold in policy circles. Governments quickly inserted green into their economic recovery plans and this created a great boon for renewable energy, particularly in places where industry dominates.  Although there has been very favourable incentives and policy for renewables, this seems to have favoured big players. Government grants often go to the well prepared and staffed big corporations. So, this green policy boon has only strengthened the big players while the small players have been weakened by the credit crunch,” explains Howard.

For now, Howard continues to fight the good fight.

For more information about Ian visit his blog at http://vectorbravo.blogspot.com.

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The Five Takeaways of Deconstruction: Buffalo ReUse

Buffalo, like many other cities in America, was a once booming city of industry in the late 19th and early 20th century.  It was a manufacturing powerhouse, located squarely at the western end of the Erie Canal.  Cars, consumer goods, railroad cars, steel, grain storage, were some of the major industries here.

Grand theatres, office buildings, and homes sprung up to accommodate the growing middle class.  At one point, it even rivaled New York City as one of the wealthiest cities in the United States.  Beautiful buildings and parks proliferated all over the city, from such names as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Frederick Law Olmsted.  However, after the Depression, industries went out of business and never regenerated.  People fled to the suburbs, or to other cities.  Currently, Buffalo is a city estimated to have 268,900 residents, of which this number is declining.  Approximately 10,000 houses lay empty.

With empty houses comes a number of issues, including blight, crime, vandalism, and a reduction in community.  The city has plans to demolish 5,000 houses in the next couple of years.

Simply demolishing these houses and putting the rubble into a landfill seems to be the easy and quick short term solution.  However, what about the most efficient long term solution?  This is where deconstruction comes in.

“Deconstruction, or ‘green demolition’, is the process of taking down a building in the opposite way it was assembled, so that as much of the building material can be salvaged and reused.  We use a 10,000 pound all-terrain forklift, to complement human labour, and it has proven to be a more efficient, cost-effective, and economically practical approach than hand deconstruction,”  describes Rachel Matthews, Volunteer Coordinator at Buffalo ReUse, a not-for-profit social enterprise in Buffalo, New York.

From a materials perspective, the process of demolition by Buffalo ReUse is incredibly efficient compared to a conventional demolition.

“We can effectively reclaim up to 50% of the tonnage of a house that would have otherwise been discarded – including architectural detail, antique items, and good quality building material that you can’t find in houses today,” she explains.

Caesandra Seawell and Rachel Mathews of Buffalo ReUse provides the five takeaways of deconstruction below.

1.  Cities all over the US are beginning to realize the benefits of deconstruction.

With the ability to recover so many valuable resources from a large stock of old houses, former boomtowns in the Rust Belt have seen the growth of green demolition/salvage social enterprises.

“For example, in Pittsburgh there’s Construction Junction, in New York there’s Sustainable South Bronx, in Washington State there’s New Heights Construction, and in Baltimore there’s The Loading Dock.  Similar programs have also popped up in Portland and Detroit,” explains Mathews.

2.  Construction waste makes up about 20% of landfill waste in the US.

Without so much of a thought, many old buildings are demolished, reduced to a pile of rubble, and a new building is plopped into its place.  Debris is cleared away and dumped in a landfill.  Plenty of this building material is valuable and recyclable, such as wood, metal, concrete, paper and plastic.

3. The economics of demolition differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Seawell explains the costs of deconstruction versus demolition.

“The average two-story house costs between twelve to sixteen thousand dollars to demolish, whether it’s regular demolition or deconstruction.  This yields about 45 tons of rubble.  However, with deconstruction, the difference is that the owner gets a tax deduction for donating the materials that are salvaged and recycled – this is usually around $8,000 or so,” she explains.

“The cost of the deconstruction is based on a couple things – equipment rental, cost of throwing material in the landfill, whether or not there is asbestos in the building, sewing cuts and labour,” says Seawell.

Prices also vary between counties.

“The one challenge we have is the cost of landfill.  In Buffalo, a ton of debris costs about $25 to dispose, which is very cheap compared to other cities on the East Coast such as New York.  In NYC for example, it costs about $110 a ton, so contractors make sure to separate and divert materials.  So, conventional demolition is so popular in Buffalo because it’s so inexpensive and quick.  It costs $1,125.00 to use the landfill and bury a house, while if you were looking at NYC, it would cost $4,950 just to use the landfill.”

4.  Deconstruction is a great way to salvage a piece, or pieces, of history.

Beyond the economic benefits of deconstruction, the simple fact exists that deconstruction yields some really cool stuff.  Visiting ReSOURCE, I came across early 20th century door handles, 1950s light fixtures, stained glass windows, vases, paintings, chandeliers, sinks, and beautiful cabinets, copper ceiling tiles, and a bevy of other bric-a-brac.  Most of these things were constructed during a time where quality was important, and planned obsolescence was not a standard.

5.   Deconstruction is also a way to engage the community.

Buffalo ReUse has found that deconstruction has had a number of knock-on effects.  First, is that deconstruction has helped to remove abandoned houses, which are seen as liabilities in the city.  The organization has also hired and trained local people, many of them youth from low income neighbourhoods.  The store, ReSOURCE, has been able to sell low cost items for people in the neighbourhood.

The organization has also engaged its neighbours in urban planning, envisioning how vacant spaces would take shape in their community.

“Ideally, we want to transform all of the vacant lots in our target area into gardens, parks, safe pass-thrus, greenhouses, and other spaces that benefit and beautify the neighbourhood,” explains Seawell.

“On top of that, we also want to continue to plant trees, hold workshops, empower the community, and promote environmental stewardship,” she adds.

It is clear that Buffalo ReUse has some lofty goals and big ideas.  Like their deconstructions, with a little elbow grease they can make these things happen.

Thanks to Rachel Mathews and Caesandra Seawell in writing this article.  More information about Buffalo ReUse can be found at http://www.buffaloreuse.org.

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The Five Takeaways of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Captain Charles Moore

In the movie Wall-E, the title character spends his days dutifully compacting trash that generations of humans have left behind.  Much of it has barely degraded – things like shoes, toys, appliances, plastic fodder.  Today, far out in the Pacific Ocean, a similar landscape exists.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area in the Pacific Ocean, estimated to be the size of two states of Texas, filled with plastic garbage.  The flotsam and jetsam in the area are a concoction of trash thrown off of boats, garbage from the West coast of the US, and from the Asian Pacific rim.  It is a veritable graveyard of nets, plastic bottles, caps, dolls, syringes, boots, laundry detergent containers, balls, and practically anything else you could imagine.  There are also little pieces of plastic floating in between, chewed up by the power of the currents.

How did it all end up there?  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was not intentionally created.  It happens that The Great Pacific Gyre, a large high pressure system the size of Africa, circulates currents between the Pacific coasts, creating a vortex effect.  Debris accumulates and gets sucked into the centre of the Pacific Ocean.  The majority of the debris is made up of human created waste that doesn’t biodegrade – plastic.

Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, has been studying this growing garbage patch for the past couple of years.  A Long Beach native, he grew up with the ocean in his backyard.

At first, it wasn’t the garbage he wanted to research – it was bacteria.  After a surfing accident where his arm was almost amputated from an infection from flesh eating bacteria in the ocean, he knew he had to do something about the imbalance in the water.   However, lacking the equipment to study the bacteria, he decided to tackle a more visible issue.  Since the 1950s, he had seen pieces of plastic debris washing up on the beach in increasing numbers.

Moore decided to get more involved in the marine research effort beyond the citizen’s monitoring team he had been involved in, and started studying the debris in the Pacific Ocean, with the help of some prominent scientists in the area.

Moore describes the technique he has used to conduct his research:

“What we do is drag a net across the area to catch zooplankton – we have a net with mesh a third of a millimetre thick, and we drag it a few inches deep into the water.  This area is called the sea surface microlayer, where the sea surface meets the atmosphere.  There are certain animals who go down half a mile during the day and come back to the surface at night to feed – we wanted to see the effect of plastic particles on this life.”

Over the many years of study, Moore provides below some of the five takeaways he has realized about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

1.  The garbage patch keeps growing.

Moore can no longer place an estimate on the size of the patch – some people estimated it was the size of France – some say it’s the size of two states of Texas.

“We went 10,000 miles and all we saw was plastic.  We sailed 2/3 of the way to Japan and there was plastic coming from all directions – it was like a disgusting plastic cesspool.  No one really has a handle on the boundary, or what it might even mean.”

All that to say, that given our current rates of consumption of products encased in plastic, or made of plastic, this patch will only grow bigger.

2.  The ocean is becoming more and more dangerous to navigate through.

In the ten years that Moore has been studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it has gotten so muddled with plastic waste that you can’t safely go into the ocean.

“At night, I have to scuba dive under our boat to cut debris off of the motors so we can keep going – this involves risking the lives of my crew members, which is not what I want to do.  It’s becoming too dangerous to navigate over millions of square miles of the North Pacific.”

3.  Animals have started ingesting the plastic pieces.

“We have found that virtually every creature could be eating this plastic – we looked at seven or eight species of fish, several types of invertebrates, and some birds – they were all eating it.  It didn’t matter if it was a small or a large animal – all of the animals were on some kind of strange, plastic diet directly or indirectly.”  Since humans are at the top of the food chain, it might just so happen that the plastic container that we’re eating food from may actually one day be in the food we’re eating.  If it’s not already.

4.  The garbage patch is one of many things contributing to death in the oceans.

Already, there have been stories in the news of entire coral reefs dying out, marine pollution, and massive overfishing.  The garbage patch only makes things worse.

Larger species of fish, such as tuna, or large mammals, such as whales, already have high levels of mercury and PCBs concentrated in their bodies.  On top of this, the plastic pieces tend to concentrate these chemicals, so when animals swallow these plastic pieces, this adds to the chemical concentrations in their bodies.  This is particularly troubling in countries that rely heavily on marine proteins, such as in Japan., where cases of mercury poisoning or Minimata disease seem to be on the rise.

On top of that, the plastic is adding to ocean warming.

“The plastic pieces act as a heat sink – they are like little tiny heaters that block the transpiration of gas, and also concentrate the sunlight.”

Ocean warming is seen as a precursor to dying oceans.

5.  There isn’t an easy way to clean up the garbage patch, but there is a way to slow it down.

Unfortunately, we can’t hire a few barges to vacuum up the mess, since there is now sea life thriving among the garbage patch.  Secondly, the large size and remoteness of the patch makes it difficult to even know where to begin.

However, Moore suggests that there are a couple things we can do to slow the patch from growing, and over several millennia the ocean will have to heal itself.

“First, which is not so easy, is insist on a zero waste philosophy.  In an era of diminishing resources, it’s immoral to use so much when we’re coming to the end of our ability to feed, house and clothe humanity.  From a closer perspective, we should also use less plastic or buy things with less packaging.  Essentially, packaging has a very short shelf life – products only need to be protected from air and moisture for a short period of time.  Plastic as it is currently made, lasts forever – it could very well be that the plastic we make now will last longer than we do.”

Certainly, if we don’t do something, plastic could very well be the artifacts we leave behind for future generations, or for lonely trash compacting robots.

More information on Captain Charles Moore’s research can be found at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation website.


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