Monday, January 14, 2013

My Week in Climate Change

Climate change has been getting a small part of the attention it deserves lately, but that's a lot more than it usually receives. I find that this directly correlates with my mood, as on Tuesday last week when Australia's all-time high temperatures got to me in a big way.

Here are a few things that have been happening on that front lately, mostly hopeful news.

I went to a showing of a video in my neighborhood about the Transition Town movement. Time to get more involved with neighbors who are trying to do something.

Chasing Ice poster with two massive icebergs colliding, a tiny boat between them
I also saw the documentary Chasing Ice, about National Geographic photographer James Balog's efforts to capture the shrinking Northern Hemisphere glaciers in time-lapse photography. If you get a chance, it's worth seeing, but if you can't, it's enlightening to watch his interview on Bill Moyers (which includes many clips from the film) and also this short video of a woman, who says she loves Bill O'Reilly and Fox News, but who was brought to tears by Chasing Ice.

There were two different good news stories in my local papers' business sections this weekend. The Star Tribune told of one local energy cooperative that's crowd-funding solar power. The Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association (in the northwest Minneapolis suburbs and exurbs) has built a ground-level array using $148,600 in member payments. One couple who bought 15 panels (out of the 171 installed) said "I look at it as prepaying for electricity" for their condo, which couldn't be fitted with panels because of homeowners' association restrictions.
Wright-Hennepin CEO Mark Vogt said the co-op intends to build additional solar arrays with the same group financing if customers want them, and that seems likely. A survey of 160 metro-area co-op members by wholesale co-op Great River Energy found that 32 percent of homeowners were somewhat or very interested in installing solar power.
Other utilities, mostly co-ops, have begun to enact this model. Xcel Energy, Minnesota's largest electric utility (and not a co-op) has not, though the Strib says it is "discussing the idea with legislators and others."

The Pioneer Press had a story on two different Minnesota companies that are transforming human solid waste into organic fertilizer. Despite the unfortunate headline and the initial ick reaction, it's a very exciting example of closing another loop in the cycle. One product, called MinneGrow 5-4-0, is processed to the point where it looks more like a nonorganic fertilizer, kind of dry and hard. It's made from source material from the Shakopee sewer treatment plant. The other, produced by the Metropolitan Council in the southeastern suburbs, is a bit less processed and looks like slightly damp soil (or basically what most compost is like). "It smells a little soapy, a little bit like detergent," said one farmer who uses it. (Fact I never knew: Compounds called mercaptans, which contain sulfur, are what give human feces its smell. Scrubbers remove the mercaptans from the material during the process, while heat kills the bacteria.)

I'm going to see Maggie Koerth-Baker speak tomorrow night about her book Before the Lights Go Out. She's appearing at Linden Hills Power and Light, 2720 W 43rd Street in Minneapolis. I hope I get a chance to ask her about the study that found the mid-Atlantic states could realistically be meeting their electricity needs by 2030 from completely renewable sources, using only current technologies and the kind of incremental changes that would happen over that period of time (in other words, not assuming any great leaps in storage or anything else).

I'm not thinking too much about the National Climate Assessment that was released on Friday in Washington. Almost worse than its content is the fact that it was released late on a Friday, which indicates that the government hopes no one hears about it. Here's the text of the full report, if you're up for it.

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