Friday, February 01, 2008

Impressions Of Borneo

Photos Of Borneo ----------- The Borneo Project (Donate!)

Borneo - for most, perhaps, the name brings up nothing more than impressions of a vague, far-away and exotic place; others might associate it with headhunting tribes or wild orangutans.

For myself, I had memories of intriguing silhouettes on the horizon - massive jungle-clad spires rising from azure seas, cloaked in mist. Passing the island in transit from the Solomon Islands to Bali aboard a tall ship in my late teens, I resolved to return to Borneo.

In researching more about this fascinating place, I learned more of it's history and natural wonders. The world's oldest rain forest, rapidly being destroyed; incomparable scuba diving and snorkeling; local peoples whose traditions still could be experienced first-hand, yet are rapidly changing; and the chance to see rare wildlife such as the Orang-Utan.

Lately, too, I had read much about the impact of palm plantations on the destruction of rain forest in this part of the world. In the media, this destruction has been linked to the rapid growth of the biodiesel industry - calling into question the very notion that biofuels will help our societies transition to a more environmentally responsible future. As an advocate of a sustainable biodiesel, I wanted to see and understand the impacts first-hand.

A few weeks before the winter holidays, my wife and I discussed possible vacation destinations. At one point we asked each other where it was that we most wanted to travel to, regardless of the practicality. Borneo came to mind, and on a lark almost, we looked into airfares and cost. Surprisingly, we found that if we flew on Christmas day, we could get a really good airfare. So, with only 10 or 12 days to go, we booked our flights and feverishly prepared to fly halfway around the world.

What we found was perhaps one of the most active frontiers between wilderness and traditional cultures, and the modern industrial world. As with so much of this tension, much of this revolves around questions of energy, so I wanted to write a bit in my blog about what we observed.

First, allow me to situate Borneo in some context. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, larger than Texas, and is shared (not always peacefully) but Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. We visited the Malaysian part of Borneo, consisting of the states of Sabah and Sarawak, running across the northwestern portion of the island; with the exception of the Sultanate of Brunei, which is a small and wealthy pocket between the two states.

The interior of Borneo is the very definition of rugged. Never having been glaciated, the landforms are quite dramatic. The rain forest is home to many dangerous animals and even plants - including a tree who's sap can kill a man in minutes if it so much as touches a small open wound. Just moving through the forest is exhausting - even on a trail. The thin soil barely covers the uneven and razor-sharp limestone geology. Even on flat ground the pockmarked terrain conspires with thick tree roots that criss-cross the ground to create a forest floor seemingly designed to trip and twist the ankle of the unwary. The lowlands are largely submerged in a foot or two of tea-colored swamp, and are home to several different flavors of leech which inevitably attach themselves to inconvenient areas of the body. Massive walls of limestone rise at a punishing angles from the lowlands, creating ridgelines that are extremely difficult to traverse. A jungle trek in Borneo, even today, is an adventure.

This kept colonizers - first Indian Rajahs, then the English "white Rajas" - marginalized in their real control of the territory to the coasts. Many of the indigenous Dayak peoples that live in Borneo only had regular contact with the outside world (primarily missionaries) starting in the 50's. Headhunting was a regular activity of these peoples up until World War Two at least, with many invading Japanese soldiers losing their heads to traditional, barefooted warriors armed only with machetes and blowpipes (and it should be noted, many groups were systematically slaughtered by the Japanese in retribution). We met elders who had fought and taken heads as young men, and had the tattoos to prove it.

Because Borneo is so rugged, until recently all travel was on the river systems (river travel is still by far the easiest way to get around) and almost all of the peoples lived their lives on the rivers and forests immediately adjacent. As could be expected, the rain forest is a rather inhospitable place for outsiders wishing to exploit the resources. In contrast, for the indigenous peoples, the forest is their traditional supermarket, pharmacy, hardware store and lumber yard. Our guide, of Iban extraction, showed us dozens of unremarkable looking plants just off the trail, each of which had numerous uses. The semi-nomadic Dayak have lived in these forests for many centuries (at least) and their traditional culture is exquisitely intertwined with it. Our guide lives in an apartment, spends a lot of time of his cell phone, promptly answers his email, and flies between cities to meet his clients. Yet, as a youth, he learned to make fifty different kinds of traps and to hunt with a blowpipe. He estimates that he could survive for at least a month in jungle if he was dropped into it with nothing but the clothes on this back.

Nonetheless, exploitation of the forests has proceeded apace since the 1960's or so; beginning with logging of tropical hardwoods. The lowlands have been drained to allow access for bulldozers, lumber trucks and a massive amount of inexpensive labor (largely Indonesian workers). A lot of this logging is now on the third or fourth pass over the more accessible areas, with smaller and smaller trees being taken out. Now that the economically extractable timber is dwindling, much land is being cleared outright, primarily for palm oil plantations.

These plantations form the backbone of a tropical oleo-economy that may be as economically and ecologically significant as the corn and soy agricultural economy of North America.

Those of you that follow the debates over biofuels are no doubt familiar with palm oil. This crop produces very high yields of oil from its fruits. It is farmed as a monoculture, with oil extracted using industrial-scale processes to yield a wide variety of products ranging from edible oils to chemical feedstocks.

What most people seem unaware of, with all the hand-wringing about biofuels is that even without the influence of biodiesel, the spread of oil palm plantations seems inevitable.

Palm oil is a crucial source of cheap calories throughout the tropical developing world. Almost all fried food in Southeast Asia and India is cooked in palm oil, and proprietors of roadside stands and small restaurants thrive or fail by the market price of this commodity. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council indicates that 90% of palm oil is consumed as food, with the remaining portion used in non-food applications (including biodiesel). This is worth repeating - at present, less than 10% of the palm oil produced globally is used to make biodiesel. The vast majority is consumed.

While we were in Borneo, Malaysia was in a several day uproar over a rumor of palm oil rationing; of course, Malaysia is one of the largest producers of palm oil, but the export market had apparently squeezed domestic supply. Palm oil derived chemicals are found in many every day products like shampoo, cosmetics, and processed foods. Palm oil has even been proposed as (irony alert) an "environmentally sensitive" drilling fluid for deep-sea petroleum exploration .

However, that said, the demand for high-yield oil crops to serve biodiesel demand - predominately from Europe - has lead to something of a gold rush mentality among palm oil plantation owners, who are enthusiastically clearing land in preparation for exponentially increasing demand; it takes nearly 3 years from the time a plantation is put in until the point the palms bear the oil-rich fruit. The increasing demand for palm oil and lag time until the plantations bear inevitably leads to boom and bust cycles. The current high price of palm oil fuels two contentious debates with regards to bio-based energy - global warming impact (from forest clearing) and the food vs. fuel controversy.

Recently, the European Union proposed a sustainability certification scheme that would preclude the use of most palm-oil based biodiesel. This seems prudent and wise, but to date, is only a proposal.

So now to the situation on the ground, by air. As I noted, until recently, the only practical way to get around Borneo was by river. However, this is no longer the case. Malaysian Borneo is now served by an excellent and affordable network of airlines, mostly flying Airbus A300's on longer routes to the bigger airports, and twin-engine turboprops (Twin Otters and Fokker 50's) to the smaller destinations. Our experience with air travel in Malaysia is that it matches or exceeds one's experience in the US, both in terms of cost and comfort.

It is also an excellent opportunity to see the lay of the land. In many places, what you observe is oil palm plantations as far as the eye can see. The vastness of this is hard to overstate. One can see huge areas cleared to bare soil, with neat grids of access roads, ready to to be planted; and similarly, undulating rows of palms in various states of maturity, often surrounding isolated islands of jungle atop inaccessible spires.

On the ground, the experience is repeated. Driving from the airport in Tawau to the dive spot gateway of Semporna, about an hour away, one sees virtually nothing but these plantations. It is a sobering experience to think of the biodiversity that has been annihilated by these massive developments.

It is also difficult to overstate the impact on the Dayak both by the plantations and the logging. Many Dayak have moved to the cities and live very modern lives, and especially some Iban groups do enjoy political power and influence. Thus, there are certainly some cases where the indigenous groups have benefited economically - at least in the short term - by these activities. By and large, however, the lions share of the economic benefit has gone directly to the largely Chinese companies which run the logging operations and plantations, and indirectly to the mainland Malay who enable this exploitation from a political perspective. Most of the labor, as mentioned, is imported from Indonesia.

We visited a longhouse as part of a backpacking trip in Mulu park. This longhouse is a traditional structure where an entire village lives under one roof. In practice, this is essentially an enormous low-rise apartment building with a large common veranda in front.

The people of this longhouse still make much of their livelihood from the forest. The tourists that visit come to see the protected areas of the national park that abut these communities, even while some of the same people involved in the tourism trade illegally hunt wild boar inside the park boundaries (as they have for hundreds of years). One of the main cash trade activities is gathering wild fruit, particularly durian, from the jungle; as wild-harvested durian is considered to be the best of this sought-after delicacy and commands a high price in urban markets. The people who live in the longhouses still look to the forest, in short, for food, medicine, and building materials.

Thus, many logging concessions have met with significant protest by the indigeous people, including road blockades met with government violence. We spoke to one park guide who had been active in such a movement in his home village, who had been imprisoned and beaten. In turn, he and his compatriots fashioned handcuffs from sharp-edged jungle leaves and built a jail with walls of poisonous thorns, and informed the police that unauthorized incursions on their territory from them or any loggers would be similarly met with imprisonment.

In the end, such confrontation is only a delaying tactic, and this guide recognized that the only way to preserve the forest, is for the forest to produce economic activity for his village. Otherwise, there is temptation to fall prey to divide-and-conquer tactics on the part of the logging companies like substantial payoffs to prominent individuals to allow logging and plantations.

While one solution is official government protection of the lands, Malaysia has at times resorted to fairly heavy-handed tactics in the establishment of these national parks. For instance, on the outskirts of Mulu park there is a Penan "settlement" where the primary activity is sales of handicrafts (trinkets really) to tourists. The Penan are not there by choice. As a semi-nomadic people with a hunter-gatherer culture that has changed little since the Stone Age, they were judged by the government to not be compatible with the establishment of a national park and were enticed (or forced) from their traditional lands about 15 years ago. They were told to choose between being Muslim or Christian, the government built homes, a church (they chose Christian mostly because being Muslim would preclude them from hunting forest game), and a school and have tried to teach them to practice agriculture. They were the most economically and culturally depressed people that we met in Borneo.

Without a doubt, this sort of thing has lead to undeniable ethnic tensions in Borneo. Malaysia advertises and prides itself on being a multi-ethnic and harmonious state, but in practice relations seem strained at best. We met a ethnic Chinese taxi driver who told us not to trust any ethic Malays (as we would be ripped off); Malays who were horrified that we would hire an ethnic Chinese taxi driver (as we would be ripped off); and indigenous people who had no love lost for either group, or migrant Indonesian workers, and were deeply concerned about ethnic tensions and resource exploitation exploding into outright sectarian violence (as has occurred periodically in Indonesia). The ironic thing of course is that we were treated fantastically by everyone we met of every ethnicity; although of course, as Americans traveling in a majority-Muslim country, we were often offered direct opinions and confrontational questions about our government's foreign policies.

Even as the indigenous people fight to preserve and to have access to their traditional lands, it should be recognized that the tide of modernization is not, on the whole, leaving them behind. It was no coincidence that at the longhouse, we saw few men of working age; mostly old people, children, and some young women with families. One of the activities we participated in the longhouse was a presentation and participation in traditional music and dancing. During this, one of the few young indigenous men around was taking pictures of the dancing with his digital camera - he was clearly home on a break. We met a large number of youngsters that spoke flawless English and were getting ready for their big exams to get into secondary school and then, they hoped, into university. The interior of the apartments we saw were heavy with photos of graduates in caps and gowns; the resident's children and grandchildren. The longhouse itself - though poor by first world standards - had electricity, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and satellite TV in many apartments. The level of material wealth present - compared, for instance, to rural Africa - was very high.

That Malaysia - even in these outlying areas - is not a poor country comes back to the theme of this blog once again. The petroleum industry in Malaysia is the engine. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpar are one of the most impressive man-made sights I have ever seen in my life. These edifices were not built on palm oil profits, obviously.

Malaysia's "asian tiger" status is largely a function of oil wealth. Their policies are leading to significant investment in education for its citizens, and economic diversification (towards the semiconductor industry for instance) which is wise. However, there is a clear sense of striving towards ever increasing material wealth that is already dramatically impacting the preservation of cultural diversity, as Malaysians of all ethnicities embrace a homogenized cultural mieleu, seemingly centered on American pop music, Japanese fashion, and the most impressive shopping malls one could imagine. It seemed to me that perhaps the most popular recreational activity for young Malaysians of any ethnicity is to spend the day packed like sardines into a "cybercafe" where they play games (Counterstrike, Grand Theft Auto, and World of Warcraft seemed popular), IM, and watch YouTube. At about $1 per hour to enjoy air-con, entertainment, and socializing it is indeed a good value.

It is, frankly, an open question whether the rain forest of Borneo can be meaningfully preserved in the face of this dynamic. Hand in hand with this, preservation of traditional cultural knowledge is in question; of course, the Dayak of Borneo have and will continue to adapt their cultural response to circumstances. It is likely, as in other circumstances, that the young Dayak will realize that their cultural heritage is fading and will work to reconstitute their traditions and identities. Still, inevitably much will be lost - especially if the forest is destroyed.

Again, from the perspective of this blog, the question is whether renewable energy is working as a constructive and destructive force. For the Dayak that have installed micro-hydro run of river systems and now enjoy electrification, this serves to strengthen their local economy and this in turn helps them preserve the forest. Conversely, if the West sources it's biofuel feedstock from palm oil, Borneo's transformation may be irreversible and complete. In this case, the fate of the Dayak may follow that of other indigenous groups who's values, lifestyle, and location are not compatible with massive resource exploitation.

Let us hope that this does not come to pass.

As a closing note, I can recommend The Borneo Project as a group that is doing great to help the various groups in Borneo achieve sustainable economic activity and thereby preserve the rain forest. Please donate (link at top).

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Will Berkeley spark a solar revolution?

Yesterday, the Berkeley City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that will finance PV systems and energy efficiency improvements for homeowners in the city.

Though the plan was announced last week, I haven't had a chance to blog so this is as good a time as ever to write a few words about it.

When I first heard of this, it struck me as one of those "only in Berkeley" type things and rubbed my libertarian streak the wrong way, leading to ornery thoughts.

It's been a long time coming, right? How come the private sector can't get it together to provide financing for residential PV? It has always seemed like a fantastic opportunity for an entrepreneurial approach, so it seems like Berkeley is competing directly with private enterprise here.

But can you usurp private enterprise, if the service isn't really being offered by the private sector? I guess not.

I've come around. The way this is structured is actually brilliant and everyone wins.

So in a nutshell, the deal is that the City pays the upfront cost for the installed system. Then, an assessment is added to the property tax, and through this assessment, the homeowner pays the City back with interest over 20 years.

So here are the main points:

First, (assuming the system is sized properly) the assessment is less than the utility savings, so
it is cash-flow positive for the homeowner; and of course after 20 years, it's free power.

Second, the system and the assessment belong to the property, not to the homeowner. This is critical. It means that value of the system will be properly appraised as part of the property, so there is no risk of losing the value of the system upon sale of the house. Moreover, whether an owner stays in the house for 1 year or 30 years, they still see all upside.

Third, the City is raising the money with a municipal bond; the lowest interest rate anywhere; passing this through to the homeowner helps make the economics compelling.

Fourth, the City gets a guaranteed revenue stream.

The biggest issue that I see is that demand in Berkeley is going to utterly explode. I have a hard time imagining that nearly every homeowner in Berkeley who gets wind of this won't try to sign up. I don't know how any of the local installers will keep up, in the short term at least.

This sounds like a nice problem to have, but of course the concern is that there could be a proliferation of naive, and in all probability (like in any "gold rush") some opportunistic new installers and service providers doing this work -- and doing a bad job. Of course most new entrants will be honest and competent, but it's the inevitable bad apples that worry me.

Balancing exceptional industry growth and the need for installers to support that growth are the realities that properly installing 30-year service life equipment is not easy, there is a rather complex set of reliability, safety, and regulatory / rebate issues to grapple with, and customers who may not have realistic expectations due to relentless solar hype are not necessarily the easiest to please.

The other substantive concern I have is if the contract with the City (and thus the assessment) includes periodic inverter replacements, or whether the homeowner is on the hook for it on their own. Modules are typically guaranteed to product at least 80% of their rated power after 25 years, but most inverters carry a 10 year warranty. This means it is very likely that at least one inverter replacement at the owner's cost over the system lifetime, and possibly two, will be required. At a couple thousand bucks a pop (depending on size) this has implications for system economics. An honest and professional assessment of system economics should assume these maintenance costs as well as the slow degradation in power output.

The inverter issue is quite problematic if a new owner moves in just before the inverter fails out of warranty, and then has to either shell out cash for the equipment, pay the assessment even though they are getting no benefit, or try to get the property assessment canceled (in which case the city is left holding the bag). The city says it will roll out the plan in about 8 months, so hopefully will have the foresight to address this issue.

All that said, assuming this doesn't get bungled up in red tape or political shenanigans -- and there's never a guarantee there, especially in B-town -- it seems inevitable that this idea will spread quickly.

One of the most interesting aspects of solar these days is the leadership of the states in successfully setting de facto national energy policy in the current leadership vacuum at the Federal level. It appears that Berkeley has taken this one step further.

Potentially, this initiative could serve as a seed crystal for a concept that could radically impact the way we produce electricity, nationally, even internationally - one town at a time.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Growing Fuel in National Geographic

There is an excellent article on biofuels in the October National Geographic. It does the best job I've seen in any mainstream publication - perhaps in any publication - of elucidating the importance of feedstocks to the sustainability and ultimately feasibility of biofuels.

The article touches on both ethanol and biodiesel. With ethanol, the article focuses on corn, sugarcane (and the Brazilian experience), and celluosic feedstocks and the tradeoffs of each. For biodiesel, soy is discussed but algae also gets significant attention, including a rare behind-the-fence photo at the Greenfuels plant in Arizona.

I highly recommend picking it up for a read. It also includes a fascinating article about modern pirates in Southeast Asia. So you really can't go wrong.

In other news, Solar Power 2007 was great last week. It was fun to see old friends and colleagues and there was a fantastic sense of momentum.

My presentation on innovation drivers for balance of system components seemed a success, with some good questions, so that was very satisfying.

I only made a couple of the other talks, the CEO forum and the closing plenary. The forum was quite interesting, with some good questions and it seemed, frank answers. Main fact - national SEIA had a lobbying budget of just $20,000 last year and the goal this year is just $60,000. This was to me, just astonishing given the amount of money spent in Washington by the mainstream energy industry.

The highlight of the closing plenary was a tour-de-force presentation by the senior energy manager of Wal-Mart. I was not aware that they are far ahead of the pack in terms of energy efficiency in their stores, though of course I had heard of the solar roll-out. Apparently this is just a pilot and if successful, Wal-Mart has a policy and track record of rolling out energy innovations massively. That is truly exciting stuff.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Jobs in Solar

I've been thinking about this next post for a bit now. I haven't had time to write anything lately but hopefully, I'll be able to post somewhat consistently over the next few months.

What's on my mind is giving some advice to the those that seek a job in the solar industry. There are lots of opportunities out there for the right people, and it's a good time to get your foot in the door. At the same time, as has been noted before, the hype machine is in overdrive. So buyer beware, especially if your livelihood is riding on it.

So let me first start with a cautionary tale. On Friday, the entire board of directors and CEO of Automatic Tooling Systems (ATS), the Canadian company that owned Spheral Solar (and conventional module manufacturer PhotoWatt), resigned in the face of "dissident hedge fund" shareholders demanding a turnaround. ATS's foray into renewable energy (as well as auto industry woes) was blamed for this sory state of affairs. Spheral Solar was actually shut down earier this year and ATS tried to spin off PhotoWatt in an IPO in late March, but failed.

Previously, Spheral was touted as the best thing since sliced bread, an amazing technology that allowed them to make flexible modules, with significantly less silicon, that (in theory at least) boasted near crystalline PV efficiency. Four years ago, the "New Scientist" wrote this breathless article about " 'demin' solar panels to clothe future buildings"; and Future Pundit wrote that Spheral would "start production in 2004" Yet as late as January 2006 the "Clean Break" blog opined, referring to a deal between building products manufacturer Elk (recently acquired by GAF) and Spheral to make building-integrated roofing materials with the technlogy, that "the product is sold before it's even been produced. Now that's the kind of certainty that investors like".

Well, maybe so, but of course that only works out if the company manages to manufacture their technology on a commercial scale. If you've been following the solar industry for any length of time, you come to realize that announcements from a company of the intent to produce, or the ability to produce, or even signed contracts to manufacture and install their technologies means very little if they don't have a track record of doing so (especially if they announced, and then failed, to go into production two years prior).

The point of this cautionary tale is that there are a lot of solar companies out there these days, and there are all sots of announcements and blog posts and what-have-you that make them look like just the greatest new thing. Be skeptical, and be smart, because in the next 5 years or so I think we're going to see a significant shake-out occur in this business.

If you are looking for a job, gut-check the risk level you are willing to take. If there are only a few employees, promises of lots of options, some venture funding and a prototype out in a garage - well, that's a high risk situation. Potentially high reward if it actually does work out of course. But a day of reckoning will come for all start-ups, especially if VC funded. There are a number of well known, seemingly reputable companies that have been around for years now and have yet to set up even modest manufacturing capacity or field a market-ready (i.e. all required certifications) product. There's even one which shall remain unnamed, based in Silicon Valley, which is infamous for being extraordinarily well funded - yet no one I've spoken to has even seen a prototype of their breakthrough technology. That's all well and good for a while but after several years have passed, one must begin to wonder.

Conversely, there are more established players with a reputation, products, vision, and great growth potential; but less speculative upside.

Look at the bigger pattern, the fundamentals, if you will. There's nothing new under the sun (ahem). Thin film was the the Next Big Thing five or six years ago, unfortunately, there were some serious reliability issues and so much for that. Now it's back in vogue. Not coincidentally, this new generation of thin film technologies (most of which is not yet commercialized) arose simultaneously with a rather prolonged shortage of polysilicon, the raw material of relatively high-efficiency crystalline solar cells. Same with concentrating photovoltaics, which saw a lot of effort in the '80s and up until the mid '90s, then largely abandoned as the price of 1-sun cells came down; but resurged with poly shortage driving silicon prices up. The high prices made thin film and CPV look good - trading significantly less silicon usage for low efficiency and mechanical / optical complexity, respectively.

So now it's two or three years later. Some of these new innovators have already fallen by the wayside, others are still working towards commercialization, and one German thin film company made it past the finish line in time and is raking it in (and good for them!).

But it seems that in the opinion of most analysts, the poly situation is already relaxing as many new plants come online. The question is, will these thin film and CPV solutions still be attractive in a world that is not silicon-constrained? In a world where the PV market is being flooded by low-cost, mid-efficiency crystalline PV technology from China while a few of the more technologically positioned crystalline PV players duke it out for high-efficiency dominance, and where vertical integration appears to bring some distinct advantages? Finally factor in that solar thermal powerplant technology (like the SEGS plants or, for a less proven example, Stirling dishes) looks pretty attractive for the really big centralized solar power plant market. In other words, who's going to win? It's a tough one but that's a question I would recommend answering to your own satisfaction before choosing to sign on the dotted line.

Now the foregoing was perhaps more focused on the tech-type jobs but there are other opportunities out there. For instance, there are any number of installation companies out there ranging from Mom and Pops to installers that are becoming regional or even national players, catering to the residential retrofit and commercial markets. It's physical, outdoor construction work. If you have the right skill-set it's a good job and you're bound to learn something about solar.

But still, do your homework, understand their business plan, and understand how the job might change if your employer goes public or gets acquired - and don't be shy about asking a potential employer about, specifically, what's in it for you in one of these cases.

So - the best of luck to all those interested in getting a job in this space. If you are serious, I can definitely recommend showing up at Solar Power 2007 in Long Beach (September 24-27) and getting your own impression of the industry. There's even a Career Center and a "Find Your Dream Job In Solar" seminar.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

TED talks on Africa

TED global recently posted some extremely interesting talks from the June, 2007 conference in Arusha, Tanzania. Among the featured speakers was William Kamkwamba, the young man from Malawi who built a homemade wind turbine for his family (see previous post).

I highly recommend the videos; two in particular are extraordinarily powerful and captivating. Moreover, they are primarily focused on identifying and strengthing positive trends, which is a refreshing change from the litany of negativity often found when Africa is discuessed.

George Ayittey, a Ghanan economist, takes no prisoners in his powerful indictment of the corruption of Africa's elites while lauding the progress made by a new generation of self-sufficient, resourceful African leaders, whom he has branded the "cheetahs" (of whom Mr. Kamkwamba certainly is one). He also relates an insightful viewpoint on how development in Africa is best framed in the context of traditional African economic activity, which while more collectivist in nature is nonetheless very much a market based and capitalist model.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian Minister of Finance, is featured wrapping up the conference with a talk that links macroeconomics, to her own intensely personal experiences of war-torn Nigeria as a young girl in 1969, to the concept that foreign aid to Africa is nothing but payback for the incredible amount of aid, material and human, that Africa contributed to the development of the "first world". It is hard to capture her wide-ranging speech in a paragraph, but it is a tour de force.

William Kamkwamba's portion is brief but it is interesting to see him in person, introducing pictures of his village and family and describing the process of designing, building, and optimizing the windmill. The fellow who interviews him, unfortunately, did so rather badly. Of course, 19 year Kamkwamba is nervous onstage, before a large audience under lights, and speaking in English - and this is one of his first times outside of his rural village. However, what makes the interview difficult is more of a cultural problem. Mr. Kamkwamba answers all of the questions quite literally and exactly; he is very precise and to the point. Unfortunately, the interviewer seemed unprepared for this - which should have been, culturally, to be expected. Instead, he asked somewhat abstract or open-ended questions, and seemed to be depending on Kamkwamba to expound and expand; in short, to meet our cultural norms and make the most of his time in the spotlight. This, unfortunately, reflected somewhat poorly on the young man as the interviewer waited awkardly for him to go on into more details while Kamkwamba waited, smiling, for the next question.

My (short) experience in East Africa, especially in that kind of context -- which is almost analogous to a classsroom situation with the teacher asking a question -- is that the questioner is expected to ask precise, rapid fire questions; and the answerer is expected to respond concisely and to the point. The lack of that dynamic was, I think, confusing to all concerned.

All in all, it is a great group of videos from the Arusha conference (and there are other videos on the page from previous TED conferences focused on Africa), and they come highly recommended.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Surprise, surprise...

Citizenre's plans delayed...until they say...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Three Short Items

First off, I just added MadKast to this blog. That's the little green icon by the post and it will allow you to to easily share posts with others, if you so desire. It's presently by invitation and in beta. Please try it out, and let me know if you like it or if it causes any issues.

Second, I mentioned blogging about Intersolar 2007 in Frieburg. It was certainly a very interesting show. However I've decided not to get into it to avoid any possible disclosure of non-public information about my company's direction and future plans. By the way, this is 100% my decision and my employer has applied no pressure on me whatsoever (in fact, I don't even know if they are aware of this blog).

Finally, it's as good a time as any to announce that I will be speaking at Solar Power 2007 in Long Beach. The unofficial title of the talk is “Off The Rack – Recent Innovations In Mounting System Design”. If you're able to make it, come up and say hi.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Inspiration in Africa

Well, I've been away from the blog for quite some time. I just got married about a month ago and have been on my honeymoon since...well, we stopped through Intersolar 2007 so I'll blog on that too...but anyway that's kept me away from the computer! In the meantime Heliotropic has gotten a lot of attention as a "blog of note" - quite cool.

What I wanted to post on tonight is something quite incredible: The blog of a 19 year old Malawian secondary student, William Kamkwamba.

This is an extraordinary blog for many reasons. First, he started this blog only 2 weeks after learning about the internet at the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, Tanzania.

Mr. Kamkwamba was attending this conference because of the work he's been doing in is village to provide his family with electricity -- building a wind turbine entirely out of scrap materials and wood, and armed only with his intellect, junior-high education and a book on electricity.

It's an almost unbelievable story...but it is also quite inspiring. Can you imagine what just a little help (books, light to read by, internet access) can do to help people in these communities that are already motivated to improve their lives and hungry for knowledge?

Now, it's clear to me that Kamkwamba is absolutely exceptional and actually something of a genius. Nonethless - there is no greater demonstration of the human potential that is tragically untapped in Africa due a lack of resources in education, basic health care, and infrastructure that we take for granted.

On the positive side, it is incredible to see people like Kamkwamba work with what they have to improve their own lives and it shows that there are any number of ways to solve a problem with the resources at hand. It is truly appropriate technology; if (when) the windmill breaks, he will readily be able to fix it, because he built it himself and the parts are readily available in his community. No need to parachute in expensive parts or specialists from Europe, the US, or even the capital city.

It's the very definition of appropriate technology.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Article Critical of Biofuels in NYT

The New York Times recently published an article from the Council of Foreign Relations entitled "How Biofuels Could Starve The Poor".

This is a hot-button topic for me, having encountered any number of intellectually shallow and/or downright dishonest arguments along these lines.

However, this piece is different. It's well researched, and I largely agree with it's premise and conclusions. It contains a nicely summarized background on ADM's role in the biofuels industry, and how biofuel feedstocks came to be dominated by corn and soy largely by ADM's efforts.

There is an interesting take on the Mexican tortilla situation, highlighting the intricies of the global economy. The article notes that most tortillas in Mexico are made from locally produced white corn, but high prices for yellow corn - mostly used as a feedstock for processed products, including corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol - led Mexican agribusiness concerns to buy white corn instead, thus raising tortilla prices.

Nonetheless, there are a number of significant flaws in the piece. Most glaring is that little attention is paid to alternate feedstocks and their significance, except to point out that they are not presently economical. Well, with corn and soy so heavily subsidized, what do they expect? It is also frustrating to see biodiesel largely lumped in with ethanol, despite significant differences that are mentioned but minimized.

Where the article really goes off the rails is not on the discussions of food security, which seem to be pretty sound, but instead where the authors attempt to make the argument that biofuels will provide little benefit to offset the food security impacts. First, they try to argue that biofuels take a significant amount of energy to make, thus, do not provide much benefit from the standpoint of reducing foreign oil dependence; then, they also try to argue that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are insignificant. Yet, the numbers they cite in the text give lie to their own arguments.

First on energy balance. Excerpting at length:

"Nor is corn-based ethanol very fuel efficient. Debates over the "net energy balance" of biofuels and gasoline -- the ratio between the energy they produce and the energy needed to produce them -- have raged for decades. For now, corn-based ethanol appears to be favored over gasoline, and biodiesel over petroleum diesel -- but not by much. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have calculated that the net energy ratio of gasoline is 0.81, a result that implies an input larger than the output. Corn-based ethanol has a ratio that ranges between 1.25 and 1.35, which is better than breaking even. Petroleum diesel has an energy ratio of 0.83, compared with that of biodiesel made from soybean oil, which ranges from 1.93 to 3.21. (Biodiesel produced from other fats and oils, such as restaurant grease, may be more energy efficient.)"

This use of language completely glosses over several salient facts. First, soy biodiesel is clearly much more beneficial than corn ethanol - by something like a factor of 2. Their parenthetic disclaimer that biodiesel made from resturant grease "may be more energy efficient" completely buries the lead. This feedstock results in a much higher net energy ratio, simply because it is being produced from a waste product; thus the only energy that goes into it is that required to collect and convert it, which is relatively very small compared to growing, crushing, and transporting soy oil. Finally alternate biodiesel feedstocks are simply not mentioned. Again, massively improved energy ratios are expected from dedicated feedstocks.

But this is a mild gripe compared to their egregious treatment of perhaps the most salient issue:

"Similar results emerge when biofuels are compared with gasoline using other indices of environmental impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions. The full cycle of the production and use of corn-based ethanol releases less greenhouse gases than does that of gasoline, but only by 12 to 26 percent. The production and use of biodiesel emits 41 to 78 percent less such gases than do the production and use of petroleum-based diesel fuels."

Again, ethanol and biodiesel are lumped together - despite a 3 to 4 fold difference in the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions. I don't know about you, but I would consider a (conservative) 50% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases from the use of biodiesel highly significant. From a climate change perspective, this is the functional equivalent of doubling the mileage of every diesel vehicle using the fuel! Minimizing this is basically irresponsible.

They cap it with this doozy:

"Another point of comparison is greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven, which takes account of relative fuel efficiency. Using gasoline blends with 10 percent corn-based ethanol instead of pure gasoline lowers emissions by 2 percent. If the blend is 85 percent ethanol (which only flexible-fuel vehicles can run on), greenhouse gas emissions fall further: by 23 percent if the ethanol is corn-based and by 64 percent if it is cellulose-based. Likewise, diesel containing 2 percent biodiesel emits 1.6 percent less greenhouse gases than does petroleum diesel, whereas blends with 20 percent biodiesel emit 16 percent less, and pure biodiesel (also for use only in special vehicles) emits 78 percent less. On the other hand, biodiesel can increase emissions of nitrogen oxide, which contributes to air pollution. In short, the "green" virtues of ethanol and biodiesel are modest when these fuels are made from corn and soybeans, which are energy-intensive, highly polluting row crops."

Where to start? First, the assertion that pure biodiesel is "also only for use in special vehicles" -- similar to flex-fuel vehicles for ethanol -- is obviously and patently false. Someone really fell down in the research department on this one. Second, again, we have this significant burying of the lead.

The article is stating that you can cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2/3 compared to gasoline with E85 made from celluosic ethanol - and again, nearly an 80% reduction using neat biodiesel! Even the 23% from corn ethanol isn't too shabby.

This is extremely significant and has enormous implications, but the authors characterize these gains as "modest". I challenge them to find another near-term solution that has the potential to cut total US CO2 emissions by over 18%*! I would hardly call that modest; it's a huge "wedge".

Finally, I must point out that the NOx issue is very unfairly characterized here. Stating that biodiesel "can" increase NOx emissions is technically true. However, the jury is very much out on whether it actually does increase NOx emissions in real-world driving. Recent research has increasingly found this to not the case; yet the NOx increase found in a old testbed engine study always seems to come up, with the more recent and more comprehensive studies rarely cited.

Well, it's not all bad; they do point out that:

"The benefits of biofuels are greater when plants other than corn or oils from sources other than soybeans are used. Ethanol made entirely from cellulose (which is found in trees, grasses, and other plants) has an energy ratio between 5 and 6 and emits 82 to 85 percent less greenhouse gases than does gasoline. "

Right...meaning that celluosic ethanol could cut oil imports for vehicles that are today gasoline fueled by something like, conservatively, a factor of 6. An 83% reduction. Oh, but wait:

"For now, however, the costs of harvesting, transporting, and converting such plant matters are high, which means that cellulose-based ethanol is not yet commercially viable when compared with the economies of scale of current corn-based production. One ethanol-plant manager in the Midwest has calculated that fueling an ethanol plant with switchgrass, a much-discussed alternative, would require delivering a semitrailer truckload of the grass every six minutes, 24 hours a day."

This just made me laugh. I mean, this sounds like an awful large volume of material, until you think about oil tankers and coal trains; a single large coal-fired powerplant requires 10,000 tons of coal daily; that's a hundred, 100 ton rail cars daily.

The question is not how much material needs to be transported in, but how switchgrass compares to corn. Presumably a significantly larger volume of switchgrass would need to be transported, but I doubt that this is really a deal breaker on the economics.

What is significant - and the article does an excellent job on this - are the massive subsidies given to corn and soy that make any other feedstock uncompetitive. Really, the purpose of the article is to point out that the incentives for corn and soy feedstocks to make biofuels are truly perverse. These incentives, in concert with speculative hedge fund activities, do have the affect of raising food prices for the poor by significantly affecting agricultural markets globally in highly complex ways. Moreover, the benefits -- both from the standpoint of petroleum dependency and greenhouse gas emissions -- are suboptimum with these feedstocks.

I completely agree with this assessment. What gets me is that the article does a poor job of distinguishing the current state of the biofuel industry from where it should go, and needs to go, which is actually extremely promising. The piece mentions, but fails to discuss in any depth, that these other approaches - based primarily on crop waste, wood crops, and dedicated biofuel crops grown on degraded land - will have negligible impact on food security.

From the title on, the piece gives the impression that biofuels are not a solution, minimizing the benefits and maximizing the spectre of the starving poor. Rather than encouraging excitment about the right way to do things, and highlighting why these approaches are different, it pretty much lumps all "biofuels" together as either destructive or infeasibile and undermines attempts to move towards more appropriate feedstocks by marginalizing biofuels in general.

*Transportation is 33% of CO2 emissions. Gasoline is 60% of this, or ~20% of total emissions. Cutting this by 66% reduces total emissions by 13%. Taking diesel to represent half of the remaining 40% of transportation fuel emissions (a swag), and reducing this 20% by 78%, gets another 5% of total emissions. So, about 18%.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Shipyard

I was remiss in not mentioning in the previous post that the current home base of the Mechabolic project - the Shipyard - is, at this moment, in grave danger.

Details here.

Please do what you can to help, in particular, emails to the City of Berkeley seem to be having an effect.