Category Archives: Sustainability

Sustainability, for the purposes of worldat100, means balancing our consumption needs and wants (energy, raw materials, manufactured goods, food and water) with the environmental well-being of the planet, so that both are thriving to the maximum extent possible. Though it’s not perfect, I chose the United Nations/World Bank/IMF data on Alternative and nuclear energy (% of total energy use). I figure that if a country is at least trying to go “Green” in terms of energy production and consumption, that’s a good sign they’re also attempting to become more sustainable overall.

The Case of the Missing Alternative Energy Numbers

How much of our global power comes from alternative energy sources (i.e. wind, hydro, solar, etc.)? The truth is that we don’t know.

SustainabilityWhen I  last looked at how much of our total global power came from alternative sources five years ago (yes, it’s been a while), the increase over the previous year was amazing (5%!). About a month ago, I decided it was way past time for a revisit. Given the large amount of alternative energy capacity that’s come online recently (an estimated 200,000 megawatts of capacity were added between 2012-2016 in solar photovoltaics alone) I was looking forward to some pretty impressive numbers.

So I went back to the World Bank (and U.N.) data source I’d used previously but quickly discovered that the numbers hadn’t really been updated (to 2012 for most countries, and 2013 or 2014 in a few cases). I noticed that the data was coming from the IEA (International Energy Agency). So I checked that out. But though they have an impressive set of data, there was still nothing more recent than 2014 and many countries’ data was missing altogether. (In one odd graphic they seem to be including “fuel wood” as a “renewable resource” putting  many African countries high in “renewable’ energy but this isn’t a resource usually included when determining modern renewable use. Fortunately, this peculiar definition of “renewable” doesn’t seem to be reflected in the World Bank data. I know personally that Ugandans burn a lot of firewood for cooking – you can smell smoke almost wherever you go in the country but I wouldn’t count that as “renewable energy.”)

It seemed unreal that no one would have these numbers so I kept looking and checked:

Why aren’t these organizations updating their numbers? One factor could be the difficulty in gathering data, particularly solar, which is often residential and off-grid. (True story: The first people to embrace solar as an energy option were California marijuana growers who saw the off-grid potential and therefore nearly invisible ability to support their growing operations while eluding the unwanted attention of the authorities.) Another factor, when attempting to gather data from countries is that many of them may not have the personnel, technology, or interest in pulling together those figures. A third possibility is that whoever put together this data in the past is no longer doing so for some reason, possibly  due to funding cutbacks or a lapse in leadership.

But I have to admit I was little surprised and even shocked. With all the modern technology available and the vast amount of data collected on everything from the minutes we sleep to micro-gravitational variations in sea level to precisely what item of clothing you just checked out on that website, how can we not have this information? Considering the planet-wide concern about global warming and the monumental efforts being employed to both study and combat it, how can we not know how much of our increasing energy pie is composed of that slice of alternative energy? I still have no idea.

But in the spirit of this blog I decided to find out what I could. (Note: my next blog post was going to be on solar energy (PV) so that’s why the focus is largely on solar.) Here’s just a little of what I’ve found:

The Case of the Missing Solar Numbers remains unsolved. Possibly, as the realization of how important this data is sinks in to whatever businesses, organizations, and countries are reliant on it, those numbers will magically show up again. I’ll be looking for them but I’ll also be just watching and enjoying how people all over the globe are quietly and steadily making our world a much better place one solar panel at a time.

What can we do?

If you own your home, get solar panels, use thermal solar heating, and take full advantage of the power of passive solar. (See this article for an extraordinary example of how passive solar can be used even in the Northeast.) The subsidies may not be around for very long but the price of solar panels is continuing to drop as the the technology gets better and better. Other positives include increased home value, power outages becoming a thing of the past, and yes, you are helping to save the planet.

But the biggest positive is a lower power bill. And, in some cases, this could be suspiciously lower. In a recent in-depth study, the L.A. Times found that, despite a huge surplus of power in California, residents are actually paying more than other states because utilities have built too many power plants in a poorly planned rush to avoid power outages. The taxpayers are footing the bill and I suspect, now that they’ve been outed, there may be a backlash against more building. (Yup, I was right.) In addition, Tesla has stepped up in a big way and is going full-throttle into the energy market breaking speed records for large battery storage installation for solar power. So, if you want to lower your bills, get control over your power supply, and not contribute to corporate greed, those could also be good reasons to go with solar energy.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

The Solutions Just Keep Coming

I continue to be amazed at the speed which the world is moving towards alternative energy. (And equally frustrated at the lack of data showing this — just checked the World Bank numbers to see if they’ve updated them since the beginning of the year. Nope. Can’t wait till January till I can update the numbers!) I know, I know, you’re hearing lots and lots about fracking and shale gas, tar sands, giant coal reserves just found in north-western Mozambique, and then more about fracking and shale gas.

But the future of energy will not be in one direction but will be in hundreds. All at once. Kind of crazy but true.

One of those might just be this: Liquid air ‘offers energy storage hope‘. And then this: Petrol from air: Will it make a difference? One story tells how a guy in his garage in the U.K. has demonstrated a viable way to store power by super-cooling air, which can then be compressed into tanks and released later to power turbines. Sounds nuts, but it actually works. It involves removing the carbon from the air so it is mostly nitrogen (which air is anyway) which brings me to the second story which involves combining the carbon pulled out of air with water to create a petroleum product. So if these two get together, we’ll literally be able to pull energy out of air. (And does this mean, we could “mine” the smog around Delhi and Beijing for carbon?!)

We’re already looking at pulling energy out of dirty water — US researchers build ‘waste water generator’ — so why not air?

But my favorite alternative energy source (which the Komai team featured recently on their blog and I’m linking to here — thanks, Komai!) is this: Tiger Energy. The source, parents across the planet can confirm, is probably inexhaustible.

What other innovations haven’t we even heard about are coming soon?!

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

PS. The tiny island of Tokelau has just completed a shift from almost total reliance on diesel power to meeting 100% of its electricity needs with solar.  This seems to be a trend not necessarily related to sea level but more to ease of access to power sources. The Isle of Eigg in the UK has been experimenting with wind and hydro sources. And an island located 1500 miles off the coat of Spain has been leading the way for a while now.  The problems associated with access to power also became very clear during Superstorm Sandy. I am wondering if some of the people who lost power over those days will be considering alternative energy in their future storm preparation plans. 

An Abundance of Energy

I’m going to start linking my posts to Facebook from now on — not sure yet about the rest of the social mob! (I’ve been keeping this blog under wraps as I try to figure out where it’s going as well as get it into decent enough shape, so apologies to those of you who didn’t know about it!) I will also be donating $5 to every non-profit I highlight in my posts the day I post, and linking to the Causes app in Facebook. (I anticipate that some of them will be featured multiple times so this will be ongoing.) Please feel free to join in if you want and not if you don’t! This is just one way I thought I might make a tiny bit of a dent in moving our planet closer to 100%!

Sometimes I wonder if in all of our panic to avert global warming by coming up with alternative energy sources, that we haven’t inadvertently invented so much that we will actually have an over-supply of energy in the not-too-distant future.

I know it sounds crazy but: solar energy farms are popping up in deserts from north Africa to the Mojave to the Atacama high desert in Chile; wind power is going gangbusters in the U.K. (especially Scotland which is currently getting 35% of its electricity needs through alternatives including wind), in Texas, and in China; hydro-power is also on the upswing with lots of new dams planned, albeit with quite a bit of controversy surrounding them — Chile wants to build a huge dam across some of its rivers; China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan are all arguing about how to manage both the water and energy resources of the great rivers that wind down from the massive mountain ranges in Central Asia; and in Africa, a proposal for a huge dam in Ethiopia is on the agenda (which will also affect neighboring Kenya); and methane, biofuels, biomass plants, wave and tidal energy, geothermal, all are moving forward.

And all of this isn’t even taking into account the constantly accelerating pace of technological development in energy science. Batteries (able to store wind energy) are becoming likelier by the minute; harnessing the simple difference of electric potential between seawater and freshwater may soon become a reality; and there are too many others to put them all down here. Beyond all that, many energy efficiencies are being implemented (particularly in lighting, where there are huge amounts of waste to that are being rapidly eliminated with new LED bulbs.)

Alternative energy is also swiftly becoming an integral part of development in rural areas of the world, leap-frogging older power technologies altogether in some cases. Some examples of this include The Hunger Project‘s epicenter programs in Africa: in Senegal at the Namarei epicenter where solar panels are providing power for patient care; in Mozambique at the Zuza epicenter to pump water and provide light; and at Iganga Epicenter in Uganda (in partnership with AHEAD).

Yes, we will probably still need oil, gas, and nuclear for a while. But I am not really sure any more how much longer that will be the case!

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

How to Cook without a Fire

One of the most difficult facets of life for the poorest people in developing countries, is the daily work of simple cooking. First you must gather firewood (and water), then you need to transport this to where you live, and cook your food over an open flame, while inhaling smoke from this highly inefficient means of cooking your meals. Smoke from indoor cooking fires kills more than 2 million children a year in the developing world.

Despite the quantities of oil and gas currently being pumped out of the ground in Africa, most of the rural population still depends on firewood or inefficient charcoal as shown in this slideshow of people making charcoal in Liberia. (Liberia has severe fuel poverty and a non-existent rating from the World Bank for Alternative Energy.) Both the firewood gathering and the process for making charcoal have contributed to deforestation as well. The time spent in these activities can also contribute to children’s inability to spend sufficient time in school and the distances traveled can frequently present life-threatening situations for women especially, as in Darfur.

A potential solution to these many problems is solar cooking and there are several organizations involved in getting the technology into the hands of the people who most need it. These cookers work purely with the bright light of the sun (no fires!), cook the food in a better way, preserving nutrients, and can even be used to purify water. (Solar Cookers International even brings all the data together in one wiki so you can browse and find the most recent information on a particular country like Liberia.)

Sometimes I think that all the solutions are there: we just need to open our eyes, minds and hearts to see them!

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

Checking the Numbers

I’m back after a wonderful break, and excited and ready for 2012! Hope everyone had a great holiday break and here’s to a great 2012 for all of you stopping by! Thank you again for your comments and support.

I began updating my numbers yesterday, beginning with Sustainability and came across some interesting but apparently overlooked information. I’m using the stats from the World Bank on the percent of energy each country uses which is alternative or nuclear and was happy to see that several countries had increased their overall percentages, notably the European and East Asian countries. (Albania went up nearly 10%!) As I kept entering data, I became increasingly amazed at the changes: most of the countries only changed by a few percentage points but they seemed to be mostly increasing and added together, it was starting to look pretty significant.

So I clicked on the “graph” button just to see how significant and my jaw dropped. (Below is what I saw — you can click on the image for a clearer picture but the trend is pretty visible!)

What the chart is saying, as far as I can tell, is that our alternative energy use has increased around 5% over the last year. (One caveat: I am not entirely sure this chart takes into account countries’ total fuel consumption — China should be weighted more than Uruguay, for example — but it is still impressive.)

Despite this positive change in our global energy consumption, however, the media seems to be focused on the usual doom and gloom of continuing gas and oil dependence. (It was nice to see this article recently, pointing out some of this blindness, The future’s never looked brighter for the global solar biz.)

I am not sure what to make of this seemingly deliberate ignorance of the facts but maybe when we’ve gone up another 20 or 30 percent in the next few years, the “doom and gloomers” will be pleasantly surprised. Meanwhile the rest of us will just keep going, adding solar panels, maybe a wind turbine or two, and exploring ways to become more energy efficient; and alternative energy R&D (including tidal, wave, geothermal, biogas, etc..) will continue to expand and mature into new options.

Thanks for stopping by!

Heather McC