Seeing Is Important: The Alberta Tar Sands

We hear a lot of debate about the Keystone Pipeline and the future of oil extraction from tar sands as part of the global energy future. Fron the comfort and isolation of our modern lives it all sounds pretty abstract–with lots of numbers and projections getting thrown around.

But no matter whether you are for or against the big move into tar sands as a next phase of the energy economy (though you should read NASA scientist James Hanson’s take if you think oil from tar sands sounds like a good idea), it’s useful to actually see what tar sand oil extraction is all about, and what it means for a natural landscpe. Thankfully, photographer Ashley Cooper has been documenting exactly that.

Does this–transforming, so far, 725 140,000 of a potential 4,800 square kilometers of Alberta from forest to something otherworldly–look like humanity living in harmony with the earth (full slide show is here)? Isn’t there something intrinsic to this vision that screams out: “STOP! THINK!”

That changes the oil sands debate a lot, no?

You can see more of Cooper’s work documenting climate change here.

Cold Fusion: It’s Baaaackk

Scientists have been chasing this Holy Grail for decades. Here is the latest claim of success:

Italian physicist and inventor Andrea Rossi has conducted a public demonstration of his “cold fusion” machine, the E-Cat, at the University of Bologna, showing that a small amount of input energy drives an unexplained reaction between atoms of hydrogen and nickel that leads to a large outpouring of energy, more than 10 times what was put in.

The first seemingly successful cold fusion experiment was reported two decades ago, but the process has forever been met with heavy skepticism. It’s a seemingly impossible process in which two types of atoms, typically a light element and a heavier metal, seem to fuse together, releasing pure heat that can be converted into electricity. The process is an attractive energy solution for two reasons: Unlike in nuclear fission, the reaction doesn’t give off dangerous radiation. Unlike the fusion processes that take place in the sun, cold fusion doesn’t require extremely high temperatures.

Naturally, there is a lot of skepticism, as there should be. But whether it is cold fusion, or some other fantastical and revolutionary method to generate energy, this is the sort of unexpected, unpredicted, game-changer that we should all hope for. Because the energy equation powering humanity right now isn’t working out very well.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a nice column today on how steady advances in solar power could transform our energy future–particularly if the coal and natural gas industries had to include the costs of environmental and health damage in their prices (course all the lobbyists employed by those industries are spending plenty of money to make sure that is exactly what DOESN’T happen).

Tech Silver Bullets (Part 2)

Speaking of whether tech might just be our salvation, here are two quick hits to consider.

One of the iPods creators, Tony Faddell, is developing a thermostat that learns, according to WIRED:

But even before he moved back to the U.S. he was mulling over his next step. Many assumed that the 42-year old technologist would continue his brilliant career in consumer electronics. He might even become a contender to run an existing multi-billion dollar business—in electronics, in mobile, maybe even Apple.

Instead, he told Dani, he was going to build a thermostat.

what?

Fadell explained his concept: Untold tons of carbon were being pumped into the air, with people losing billions of dollars in energy costs, all because there was no easy, automatic way to control the temperature. But what if you could apply all the skills and brilliance of Silicon Valley to produce a thermostat that was smart, thrifty and so delightful that saving energy was as much fun as shuffling an iTunes playlist?…[snip]

…Today comes the payoff, when Tony Fadell’s company introduces the Nest Learning Thermostat. It is available for preorder at Best Buy and Nest.com, and will ship in November. Units are already streaming from assembly lines in the Chinese factories that churn out advanced digital gadgets.

The Nest is the iPod of thermostats. A simple loop of brushed stainless steel encases a chassis of reflective polymer, which encircles a crisp color digital display. Artificial intelligence figures out when to turn down the heat and when to jack up the air conditioning, so that you don’t waste money and perturb the ozone when no one is home, or when you’re asleep upstairs. You can communicate with the Nest from your smartphone, tablet or web browser.

Sexier than an iPod?

Never thought I’d get excited about a thermostat, but we are in crazy times. And if you want to hear some really crazy, yet oddly inspiring and hopeful, visions for how technology can start saving the world instead of destroying it, I urge you to sit back and listen to Justin Hall-Tipping:

Chart Of The Day

Americans like things BIG: cars, serving portions, houses.

So how much more space per capita does the average American new home have compared to the rest of the world? Plenty.

(Chart via http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/)

Next it would be interesting to know how much more energy per capita our large houses consume, but you get the picture.

We are entering an age in which we need to scale back. A lot. Good to know that there is plenty of excess to trim.

Check out the world’s smallest house, which measures in at 96 square feet.

How low can you go?

Here, take a tour:

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