Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This is what self-reliance looks like: Maine's Fox Islands will become entirely wind-powered

Via today's Bangor Daily News: the member-customers of the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, which provides power to the islands of North Haven and Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay, have overwhelmingly voted to go ahead with a wind power project that will provide enough electricity for the islands' 1500 permanent residents.

The islands currently import their electricity via an undersea cable. That cable will continue to provide back-up power during calm periods, but over the course of the year, the Cooperative expects to export 10,000 surplus megawatt-hours of electricity to the mainland - enough to pay for the project and reduce local electric rates. You can learn more about the complete proposal from the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative website.

It's interesting to compare this project with last year's Black Nubble proposal in Carrabasset Valley. That project was larger, with more turbines, but also further away from homes and less visible than the Fox Islands project will be. Why such overwhelming support for a project on Maine's prized coastline, and such bitter opposition for a project in one of Maine's poorest regions?

I was at one of the public hearings for the Carrabassett Valley project. The people opposing it were classical Jackass Environmentalists: dregs of the baby-boom, the Crummiest Generation, who had for decades fetishized a fantasy idea of "wild nature," and in their retirement sought out their dream of living in an isolated little cabin next to a huge ski resort. Wide, permanent clearcuts on Maine's second-tallest mountain don't bother them (because that's where they ski!), but a few wind turbines on the horizon would have been an unforgivable blight on the landscape. These are people who love quoting Thoreau but hate the actual practice of self-reliance.

Living on an island, on the other hand, does require real sacrifices and independence. The Fox Islands are a 75 minute ferry ride - in fair weather - from the mainland and its conveniences. Many islanders still make their living by harvesting the ocean's natural resources. These are people whom Thoreau would admire, even if they themselves would be more likely to judge Henry David as an insufferable Masshole.

I guess Fox Island residents just have more spine and less whine than the Quixotes of Carrabassett Valley. Thank goodness for that.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

We'll dig our way out.

Note: this cartoon came from Nick Anderson at the Houston Chronicle. Houston, of course, is the one American city that is not suffering at all in the current recession, thanks in large part to trillions of dollars' worth of activity in the city's oil industry.

But even Houston knows that it won't last. When I lived there in 2005, I spoke with several oil industry geologists who freely admitted that peak oil had either already happened or would happen very soon. The Chronicle sounded the same alarm in a May editorial, noting that Exxon Mobil's crude production is one the wane in spite of record-high prices.

In the midst of all this, my rather indifferent response to John McCain's offshore drilling proposals is to shrug and say, "you're welcome to try, but it won't do a damned bit of good." By the time new offshore oil wells come online, you'll probably have to shell out over $300 to buy a barrel of oil from them.

But hey, if Americans and their car manufacturers really think that they can stave off bankruptcy by continuing the failed energy policies of the past eight years, why shouldn't we humor them? It will amount to another multi-billion dollar giveaway to the oil companies, but using tax money to bail out failed business models is what America is all about these days.

You guys keep on trying to drill your way out of the hole you've made. I'll be over here, on my bike.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Right now, your computer is destroying a mountain.

Here's an interesting gadget from, an anti-mountaintop-removal-mining web site, that reveals where your coal-fired electricity comes from based on your zip code:

I hadn't been aware of any coal-fired power plants in Maine, but to my surprise, Central Maine Power does indeed buy some electricity from a coal-fired cogeneration plant at Rumford's NewPage paper mill. The mill, in turn, buys coal from about a dozen different mountaintop-removal strip mines scattered among the former hills of southwestern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

Clicking on the website's maps of the national coal ecosystem, I can even learn about the strip mines' impact places like Rawl, West Virginia, where resident Donetta Blankenship describes her tapwater: "The water runs out of the pipe like tomato soup: thick with orange sediment."

Well, I guess she consider herself lucky that she doesn't have to look at wind turbines.

You can avoid buying electricity from Rumford, or from any coal-fired power plants, by signing up for a clean electricity utility. In Maine, there's Interfaith Power and Light. New York has Accent Energy, and Green Mountain Energy operates in a number of other states, including Texas and Vermont.

For an extra dollar or two in your monthly electric bill, you can help fund local renewable energy development, and avoid funding mountaintop removal strip mines in southern Appalachia.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Americans are trading their RVs for high-rise hotels

Visits to the nation's national parks have been in decline for most of the past two decades. A well-publicized study from 2006 blamed movies, the internet, and video games. [statistical footnote below]

So it might not qualify as news, but since park visits are on a downward trend yet again this year, this week's Economist offers up a fresh take on the phenomenon. They find the television and internet arguments "implausible." After all, visits only started declining in 1987, well before the Internet, and long after Americans discovered movies and television. However:
"Attendance at national parks was not the only thing that peaked between the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In 1991 America’s homicide rate reached 9.8 per 100,000 people. Many cities were known for lawlessness and grot; not surprisingly, holiday-makers were passing them up for greener spots. Then, miraculously, the murder rate began to slide, falling to just 5.5 per 100,000 in 2000. Led by New York, cities spruced themselves up and began to attract more tourists.

"Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces, a consultancy, reckons Americans have rediscovered the pleasures of densely-populated, exciting places... Yosemite is long on staggering views but short on what most people would today regard as entertainment."
I've long admired Kent and the Project for Public Spaces for advocating for interesting parks and streets that enliven cities (and often provide a dose of wildness in the midst of densely human habitats), and I think he has a good point here.

The Economist concludes that national parks should build more luxury hotels and spas in order to compete with places like Times Square and Las Vegas. I'm not so sure this would work - and it's not only because of my strong personal distaste for places like Vegas and luxury spas.

The Economist fails to take note of an important factor. Not only are cities safer; they're also making the biggest investments in urban parks and greenspaces since the turn of the last century. The last two decades have seen major park renovations in places like Chicago's Millennium Park and in Manhattan's Central Park, and huge new parks are being built or planned in Atlanta and in Orange County, California, plus dozens of other metropolitan areas.

If you can hike, swim, or watch wildlife by catching a city bus or riding your bike to your local abandoned military base, you'll be a whole lot less likely to drive four hours through RV traffic jams to do the same things.

1 This study modeled national parks visits as a function of various other social variables, and found that per-capita visits were "significantly negatively correlated with several electronic entertainment indicators: hours of television, (rs=-0.743, P<0.001), video games (rs=-0.773, P<0.001), home movies (rs=-0.788, P<0.001), theatre attendance (rs=-0.587, P<0.025) and internet use (rs=-0.783, P<0.001)."

As with most regression analyses, the first number indicates the magnitude of statistic influence, and the second number (P) indicates the degree of statistical certainty. So internet use, with an rs of -0.783, seems to have a bigger influence on park visits than theater attendance, with an rs of -0.587, but the larger p-value associated with theater attendance also makes it less certain that it has any influence at all.

Interestingly, the same study found that the number of "Appalachian Trail hikers (rs=-0.785, P<0.001)" also had a negative statistical influence on park visits. This seemed counterintuitive to me at first, but on closer reflection on my experiences working in the Appalachian Mountain Club huts of New Hampshire, I can attest that the chance of listening to an actual Appalachian Trail thru-hiker talk about his/her "spiritual journey" is, in fact, a strong deterrent to spending time in the woods.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Exhuming London's rivers

There are dozens of rivers in England's biggest city besides the Thames. But because nearly all of them have been buried in underground drains or converted to sewers over the centuries, even most Londoners know nothing about them.

Now, London's new mayor, Boris Johnson, has proposed that the city work to unearth parts of its historic tributaries to the Thames, as part of a broader scheme to introduce more parks and open space into the city.

Some river daylighting projects have already been accomplished, thanks to the activism of local watershed councils. In southeast London, the Quaggy Waterways Action Group prevailed in bringing a short stretch of the River Quaggy to the surface in Sutcliffe Park:

The restoration project came about when the city proposed a conventional concrete channel to carry the river through the park in 1990. But concrete channels, in aggregate, tend to worsen flooding by rushing rainwater downstream all at once, instead of letting it spread out and sink into the ground along floodplains. The Quaggy Waterways Action Group showed that restoring the riverway through the park would be more effective in controlling floods and less expensive than underground pipes and drains.

Apparently it took the citizen activists 14 years to convince the civil engineers, but good sense prevailed and the waterway was restored in 2004. Apparently, Mayor Johnson was impressed with the results.

The mayor's advisers "believe that unearthing stretches of buried rivers and creating new parkland could help to cool the capital, which can get markedly hotter than the surrounding suburbs." But Londoners can also expect waterway daylighting projects like the one in Sutcliffe Park to also restore wildlife habitat, provide recreation areas for its neighbors, and help improve water quality throughout the Thames watershed.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Comeuppance: the decline and fall of Ford and General Motors

"Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power." - Benito Mussolini

Since 1990, Ford and General Motors have protested new fuel-efficiency standards in Washington, because improving gas mileage might make their SUV-dependent business models less profitable. Today's NY Times business section has a great story about how we can essentially thank Ford and GM for $4/gallon gas.

These GM workers were photographed protesting fuel-efficiency standards in 2002. They wanted to continue building the company's ridiculously profitable SUVs:

(Photo by Joe Polimeni, via the AP)

I like the sign that says "America Means Choice." Because now, Americans are choosing not to buy any of their piece-of-shit vehicles.

GM is shuttering several of its truck factories. Another great story in today's NY Times talks about how much it sucks to cough up a Benjamin every time you need to fill your gas tank.

Even Starbucks is worth twice as much as GM these days. Sometimes capitalism works just the way it's supposed to.