Monthly Archives: June 2019

4 posts

Birds 101

Our four resident frogs are enjoying the lap pond’s 66.4 temperature. More my style would be a balmy 82 degrees but that’s not going to happen any time soon due to clouds and rain and cool weather. But that’s okay because that allows for time to clean the pool of green algae, and to listen to and look for the birds that are all around us. I am trying to learn and remember their songs and which species sings the scale, and which how-to-drink-your-tea? To aide and abet, we invite specialists. 

A few weeks ago, we had a couple of grassland specialists from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies visit us here at Darwin’s View to look about and train us in on how to monitor for grassland birds. A birder friend of ours joined us as well. All three shared their knowledge and thoughts on how we might maintain the property to entice grassland birds such as the bobolink.

We had a bobolink couple nesting here a couple of years ago but weren’t sure if they had come back since then because . . . what do they sound like again? Bobolinks prefer acres and acres of open grassland. Trees and big brush, not so much. Thus, Carl and I were concerned that all those permaculture swales that we put in and planted with blueberries and kiwi and fruit trees might have removed the sense of space and acreage that bobolinks require. Granted, we’d cleared five acres below the field to finish off our USDA grant to maintain brushland habitat but birds can be picky creatures as our chickens have taught us.

A tweet, tweet in the brush and all three birders exclaimed “Warbler!” Each named off a different species, finally agreeing it was a Prairie Warbler. And then “Great-crested flycatcher!” And isn’t that something to strive for? To know, just by a song, what the bird is, and its needs and comforts. Alas! Towhees, Prairie Warblers and Great-crested flycatchers we might have but the bird specialists all expressed doubt that the bobolinks would come back. They noted that some scruffy trees had grown up in one of our stone walls that bisects the field, and suggested we cut them back, and then wait and see.

We’d been meaning to clear out of that stone wall anyway. Within a day or two, the brush was gone, leaving us free to return our attention to garden creation, burying seedlings and a frozen chicken-who-died-back-in-March, and the feeding of black flies and deer flies with our blood. We pretty much forgot to pay attention to things bird. Though every morning, preferably by 5:30, I try to get up and go outside to listen to the morning chorus of birds wakening. I note the Phoebes. The Eastern Towhees. I keep forgetting who does the little scale tune. The rest? A blur of beauty.

Last week, as we drove up the driveway, around the sharp turn and on up toward the house, I looked to the right and saw a bird flitting. It landed on a tree. (Can you find it?) After a brief kerfuffle and study, we determined it was a male bobolink. We emailed the specialists who were thrilled for us, though they qualified the happy news: Likely as not, the bobolink had been displaced by a nearby field being mowed. It was unlikely that it would nest here. This year, anyway.

This happens a lot these days. Bobolinks are small blackbirds who like big fields. Lots of space to swoop over, blades of high grass to perch on. They nest in those fields, on the ground. And if those fields happen to be hayfields, which they often are, the nests and the eggs and chicks in the nest get chopped up by the mowers. Though there is a suggestd protocol to not mow until after the chicks have fledged in late July, that’s relatively unreasonable for farmers who are trying to get sufficient hay to feed their cattle in winter. And so bobolinks flit from just mown hayfields to ours. Happy days for us!

That same day, a Scarlett Tanager appeared. Carl got it on camera through our telescope.

Energy 107: The Nuclear Option

Let’s say those people who believe we have a climate crisis on our hands agree to disagree with those who don’t. And that those who don’t agree—or don’t care—agree to look at the true cost-benefit analysis of energy in the U.S. Of A.. If such were the case, there would likely be agreement that it makes economic sense to look beyond fossil fuels. As already mentioned, fossil fuels will soon be uneconomic and CEOs of fossil fuel companies don’t want the consequences of mining in their backyard. Exxon Mobil Corp has, ironically, signed a 12-year lease to buy solar power that will power their production of oil in West Texas.⁠1 Fortunately, we have options, not least, nuclear power. It provides 11 percent of the world’s electricity. The plants are big, and provide a reliable source of power. Pretty much all scenarios of how we go forward include nuclear power to bridge the gap between now and the future; and if you are talking carbon, think about this: If not nuclear, we fall back on coal-fired plants. So why not build more and bigger nuclear plants? What’s the hold up?

Economics, dear Watson. Nuclear plants are hugely expensive to build. As a result, unlike most other sources of energy, the cost of nuclear power has gone up in price and is now four to eight times more costly than four decades ago.⁠2  And then there are the risks and costs of a meltdown. Three Mile Island, a contained meltdown that occurred in 1980, cost $1 billion to repair and decontaminate, and took fourteen years. Meantime, they had “to fund an additional $2-3 billion in capital expenditures to insure reliable electric service to their customers.⁠3” It was a solar flare moment. According to the Comptroller General’s report: “The nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island power plant triggered a number of serious problems for the General Public Utilities Corporation, including a near financial crisis, as it moved to purchase high-cost replacement power to maintain service to its customers. During the year following the accident, the Corporation was recovering only a small part of the $233 million of power costs from utility rates.”⁠4 

None of these costs included the property damages, which totalled $2.4 billion.

Although the government states there were no health effects, and therefore no public threat,⁠5 interviews of residents show that diseases consistent with nuclear radiation contamination did happen, and that hundreds of lawsuits were settled out of court, and millions of dollars compensated parents of children born with birth defects.⁠6

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster cost several billion dollars.

Japan’s more recent nuclear meltdown could cost $200 billion dollars. 

Compare that to Hurricane Katrina’s cost of $125-250 billion.⁠7

But so what? Nuclear plants have insurance. The Price-Anderson Act⁠8 was enacted in 1957 and provides nuclear liability insurance. Nuclear plant owners pay for enough insurance to cover the equivalent of the physical plant. Which is like insuring the bumper on a car. If and/or when there’s a contained or all out meltdown, their insurance won’t cover the externalities: the environmental damage and health costs of a meltdown. Ah! But there is insurance for that, too: the insurer of last resort: our government, also known as you and me. Because nuclear power plants epitomize risk but they also provide an important, one might argue a vital role. Therefore the risk should “be socialized. The state needs to accept responsibility as insurer of last resort, as with everything else in industrial societies, though attempts have been made to represent this as a specifically nuclear subsidy.⁠9

The article I just footnoted is an interesting (in a Chinese curse kind of way) read of the World Nuclear Association’s perspective. They prove their glowing butt . . . resses are covered—their economic numbers and responsibilities are clear. Should that make us feel better? Nuclear power plants boil away. We, in New Hampshire, blithely turn on our lights, and if anything happens, there’s money to pay out. A perfect storm.

In the book (and website) Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, there is a brief comment about “no regret solutions”.  In that book, almost all [the solutions] are no regret solutions. Regardless of the carbon impact, the actions described are ones that we would want to take for the good of the environment, and human health and well-being. Nuclear energy is an exception. Nuclear energy is a regrets solution. In part because it results in a lot of nuclear waste that will take  hundreds of thousands of years to breakdown. But more because if an accident does happen—and accidents do happen—the toll is devastating, to the extent that the cost of nuclear power is most certainly not economic. 

Woe is us. Fossil fuels on the wane. Nuclear power is possibly too risky and expensive. What are we to do? 

We already are.

Next Friday: The Transition to Renewables: Will it work?

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1 Exxon Mobil Corp. will use renewable energy to produce oil in West Texas.

Under 12-year agreements with Denmark’s Orsted A/S, Exxon will buy 500 megawatts of wind and solar power in the Permian Basin, the fastest growing U.S. oil field. It is the largest ever renewable power contract signed by an oil company, according to Bloomberg NEF. Terms weren’t disclosed.⁠1

1 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-28/oil-giant-exxon-turns-to-wind-solar-for-home-state-operations

2 Drawdown page 19

3 https://www.gao.gov/products/EMD-80-89

4 https://www.gao.gov/assets/140/130102.pdf

5 http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/three-mile-island-accident.aspx

6 https://www.thebalance.com/three-mile-island-nuclear-accident-facts-impact-today-3306337

7 https://www.thebalance.com/three-mile-island-nuclear-accident-facts-impact-today-3306337

8 https://www.naic.org/cipr_topics/topic_nuclear_liability_insurance.htm

9 http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/liability-for-nuclear-damage.aspx

Why I Was MIA.

I fell off the blogosphere last week. Myriad excuses but it all comes down to this: I lost heart. It’s overwhelming, trying to be positive in the face of so much horror. Especially when people laugh about it. It’s like the “Springtime in Germany” scene in The Producers: making farce out of events that prove the depths of evil to which humans can sink. I don’t believe such events hold space for humor. On the contrary, my heart breaks. And so to joke when faced by the willful blindness and complacency that too many—myself included—are exhibiting? We are witness to the dying off of millions of species. Without them, we, too, will die. People rattle off “in eleven years”. “In 2030.” “By 2050”. We become inured to exactly what that means, and how soon. Until the horror strikes in the form of a hurricane, a tornado, drought or flood. Fire. 

And brimstone. Some people are stoked. They believe all this disaster and death is a good thing. God’s second coming. Bring it on!

They must believe they are the Chosen. Oh, so special. It won’t happen to me. Or thee. Only to them. Time will tell. Ha. Ha.

I was sitting at a bar the other night while Carl was getting ready for a gig. A couple of women sat down next to me and ordered drinks. They asked if the baseball game channel—I wasn’t paying attention. It is baseball season, right?—could be switched to the Belmont Stakes race. And so the next minutes were spent trying not to look at, and worry about, the gorgeous horses on the screen. Past races. Current preparations. I hoped the horses were happy. I suspected not. Or maybe, yes, but when the bartender asked the women if horse racing isn’t rather a cruel sport, one of the two—clearly familiar with such an inane question—replied, “no”. Or rather, “at the lower levels, yes. It’s awful. But these horses?” She nodded toward the television screen. “They are really well cared for.” She said this almost with envy. As if she’d like to have those massages, and the fabulous buckets of free grain. Are horses read bedtime stories? “But yes, at the lower levels, it’s really bad.” A pause. Maybe she was thinking about the 21 horses who have died recently at the Santa Ana racetrack. “Like everything in life, right?”

And with that sentence, she excused herself. She passed off any responsibility for her own participation and how she might be contributing to those “lower levels”. Just so the climate crisis. I wring my hands, and read about the pods of emaciated whales showing up dead on beaches because the ocean’s waters aren’t cold enough for the krill. And the krill are mostly plastic. Or the poster child Polar bears. The baby seals. And what can one person do? It’s untenable, unbearable, awful, overwhelming . . . and a shrug because it’s like everything in life, right?

I avoided all this last week, only to write about it this week. Some things we just can’t avoid.

Believe it or not, I’m trying to be positive, feed the good, not the bad, energy that’s swirling about . . . I try not to think about how the Democratic party is, apparently, determined to repeat 2016’s debacle. Tone deaf to all the new voters’ (and old ones!) and their demand for big change, the DNC won’t have a debate on climate change. It’s “impractical” to have one debate focussed on just one issue, even if it is the existential crisis of our species. And the DNC won’t allow candidates who participate in “unsanctioned” debates participate in DNC hosted debates. 

Fortunately, there’s the media to keep us in line and informed, right? That’s why last week, safe as milquetoast Joe Biden was on the front page of The New York Times nearly every day, gaffs and all. And no mention of the other candidates or their platforms. But why would we want to hear about those other candidates? Joe’s the “front-runner”. Just like Hillary Clinton was the front-runner.

Let’s nod bravely now, and say, “like everything in life, right?”

Maybe what I need to do is stay in the garden with the black flies and Deer flies. There, Carl and I have created a lot of garden beds and filled them with every, single one of the seedlings who survived my tender, loving care this spring. The garden will be very crowded if they all survive. And still the eggplants to plant. More lettuces and kale. Flowers. I’m hoping a few artichokes. We fenced the girls out so they don’t dig things up, and they are on the other side of it, hard at work, scratching and pecking.

The hens are really quite fabulous. They give me perspective and allow me to look about the garden, where I just spread a bale or two of straw and think, wow. The yellow straw is so much brighter, and lighter than the dark of the soil. The straw will reflect the heat, not soak it in. That’s good for the earth. And then I look about me, at the barn swallows swooping in the air, and the Killdeer scurrying along the gravel driveway. The turkeys in the distance and I realize I am surrounded by dinosaurs. And that I adore them. And the box turtle, too, who made a remarkable imitation of a rock. And then was gone. Just like that. For being so slow, they move like lightning.

Being in nature. Being here. Does that do any good? Carl and I have been imagining bigger than us actions. There’s the Jaffrey Climate Initiative, that’s apparently got a reputation around town for being full of crazy people. In fact, all we want to do is prepare for the inevitable changes. 

And there’s the idea of buying and renovating a downtown building, turning it into a net zero community center, a place to meet for a drink and a meal, to buy local produce, and that’s just the beginning. The building will embody the vision of what we want the future to be. Resilient, sustainable, community-driven. The idea is out of my comfort zone but if I thought it would make a difference, I’d do it. 

Jaffrey doesn’t much like change, and too many people don’t see the forest for the trees, even as the trees topple. And that’s what gets me out of my funks: the radical, transformative potential of these times requires us to go bold and big. Like the Green New Deal, and Inslee on climate, Warren on economies, Gabbard on war. It’s time to take those uncomfortable leaps. Go ahead. Figure out what your base is, how you ground yourself, and then open your arms wide, embrace the change, and jump.

I’m entirely unconvinced that this Friday’s post will be about nuclear energy because that is so old-fashioned. I guess we’ll see what comes out on Friday.

ENERGY 106 Part II: A Dirty, Little Secret

Roy Hopkins writes in his book Transition Handbook, that digging out the tar sands—from whence comes much of our fracked gas—is “akin to arriving at the pub to find that all the beer is off, but so desperate are you for a drink that you begin to fantasize that in the thirty years this pub has been open for business, the equivalent of 5,000 pints have been spilt on this carpet, so you design a process whereby you boil up the carpet in order to extract the beer again. It is the desperate, futile attempt of an alcoholic unable to imagine life without the object of his addiction⁠1 . . ..” 

No doubt: Fracking is a cleaner fuel than coal and, perhaps, oil. It has facilitated an economic boom of sorts. But it is a temporary and environmentally devastating economic boom. It helps us deny the fact we have a full-on addiction to fossil fuels that is going to kill us if we don’t stop sucking on that old carpet.

Which brings us to this most foul and egregious fact: fracked gas isn’t cost effective. Nor is coal. Nor oil. Without subsidies, and if we include externalities, this is a very, very expensive addiction. In 2008, we spent over $1 trillion on fossil fuels, more than was spent on education or the military.⁠2

Polaroid and Kodak, in their day, were publicly traded and bigger than Mobil/Exxon is today. Polaroid and Kodak were as rock solid then as fossil fuel companies are now. Sales were going up. And stocks were going down.

Investors are herd animals. Three years before those rock solid camera companies blew up into nothing, investors were bailing out. Those companies had a volatile life. And then life changed. No more cameras. No more VHS. Enter iPhones. In 2005, Kodak was the largest digital camera retail in the US. In 2012 Kodak files for chapter 11 bankruptcy.⁠3

Energy is 20% of the global economy, and investors are beginning to shift their sights away from fossil fuels toward renewables. They are doing it, not for the sake of the environment, but for their profit margin. It is happening, despite the weather and the climate because it is uneconomic to carry on as we have been. 

And so. On one hand, we have a wobbly grid and a growing demand for power to run our day to day lives. On the other hand, we have a lot of money going to what is looking more and more like a dying business model. Now what?

Years ago, in his book Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher wrote that humans are using nature as if it is income. “Fossil fuels are merely a part of the ‘natural capital’ which we steadfastly insist on treating as expendable, as if it were income, and by no means the most important part. If we squander our fossil fuels, we threaten civilization; but if we squander the capital represented by living nature around us, we threaten life itself.”⁠4

That book was first published in 1973, during the first Environmental movement that birthed the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), Earth Day (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972). Since then, the conservative rule of “Don’t sell your capital. Only use the income” has withered away. We have treated the earth as capital, not income. And now we figure out the answer to this question: What now? 

Let’s consider nuclear energy.

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1 The Transition Handbook, by Roy Hopkins, p 24.

2 https://environmentamerica.org/news/ame/dependence-big-oil-dirty-coal-could-cost-us-30-trillion-2030

3 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/analysis-and-features/the-moment-it-all-went-wrong-for-kodak-6292212.html

4 Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher page 17