Could ‘green’ energy kill the desert?

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One of the more remarkale sights on my recent trip was this vast wind farm outside Palm Springs. Located on the San Gorgonio Mountain Pass in the San Bernadino Mountains, it contains more than 4000 separate wind turbines and provides enough electricity to power Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley.
But for critics, large scale wind power used to generate electricity is not inherently clean at all, but only somewhat less dirty than the fossil fuels they are purported to replace. Bruce Pavlik, in a piece for the LA Times warned that, if we’re not careful, a rush to produce green energy could do irrevocable damage to some fragile California ecosystems. “California’s desert lands are in some ways a perfect fit with the renewable energy industries necessary to combat climate change” Pavlik writes; “There’s sun. There’s wind. There’s space. But the biologically rich but arid desert ecosystems are remarkably fragile”.
Once topsoil and plant life have been disrupted for the placement of solar arrays, wind farms, power plants, transmission lines and CO2 scrubbers, restoration would be cost-prohibitive, if not technically impossible – and in any case can take 100 years or more. Pavlik cautions that widespread desert construction, even of projects aimed at environmental mitigation, “would devastate the very organisms and ecosystems best able to adjust to a warming world”.
As physical equipment, wind farms also use an awful lot of physical resources. The compartments at the top of each tower, that contain the generator, hub and gearbox, each weigh 15,000 kilos upwards (30,000 to 45,000 pounds). Other components of a utility-scale wind farm include underground power transmission systems, control and maintenance facilities, and substations that connect farms with the utility power grid. That’s a lot of embodied energy.
At the moment, more vast projects are moving ahead. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is processing more than 180 permit applications from private companies to build solar and wind projects in California deserts. One such venture, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, scheduled to begin construction in a beautiful valley near the California-Nevada border in San Bernardino County, will occupy 3,400 acres – and that doesn’t include the land needed for transmission lines. Most projects are even larger, averaging 8,000 acres; some exceed 20,000 acres. According to the LA Times, the total public land under consideration for alternative energy production exceeds 1.45 million acres in California alone.
“We need to acknowledge the true costs of any energy development” Pavlik concludes. “When a dam is built, a river is lost. But people who turn on their tap and draw that water rarely think about the river that was destroyed to produce it. Similarly, if we choose to place our “ugly” industrial technologies in the wilderness, there will be less awareness of the damage, less incentive to conserve”.

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Playing chicken

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On a visit to this week to Z33, an amazing art centre in Belgium, I learned about the Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen and his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (TCCP). It’s wide-ranging investigation of what it would take to create and manipulate scores of chicken breeds from whole over the world into a new species, a universal chicken or Superbastard. The site is full of reflections on genetic manipulation, cloning, globalisation and multiculturalness are found throughout his work. Vanmechelen likes to describe his work in Hegelian terms: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Or, the chicken and the egg as a metaphor for the human race and art. Me, I think this photo is fab.

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Off-Grid Water (Service design clinic, Stanford University, 2009)

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Together with Banny Banerjee, the new Director of Stanford University’s ’Design For Change programme, we ran a professional design clinic on the theme of “off-grid water”. Our Stanford clinic focused on entrepreneurs in the Palo Alto region who were developing tools to help citizens manage water sustainably.
Rainwater Hog has won lots of prizes, but its designer and producer, Sally Dominguez, wanted our advice on the best way to translate celebrity into sales.
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Our worldly design experts concluded that people will pay better money to save their house, than to save the planet., and advised Sally to re-brand the system as an on-site emergency water supply.
Seven per cent of all US energy use is to process waste – thereby causing 30m million of tons of emissions. Charles Zhou mesmerised us with his story about the use of smart micro-organisms to optimize sludge digestion, and of microbial fuel cells to recover clean energy from wastewater. Ninety-nine percent of current wastewater treatment facilities do not recover any energy from wastewater. Zhou seems set to become the Bill Gates of sewage.
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Professor Banerjee reflecting on the event, told me that the three criteria by which their projects are selected are: beneficial impact, scalablility, and urgency. Our clinic scored well against those criteria. President Obama’s new energy secretary, Steven Chu, stated on the day we arrived that “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California”. Immediately following our clinic, a state-wide water state of emergency was declared.

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Are you, or do you know, a wind catcher expert?

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A friend in Colombia has sent me this picture of the model of their proposed new house. She asks my advice on its wind-catching performance, how wide these have to be…etc.
Now I’m flattered to be thought to be an expert on such an incredibly sustainable thing as zero energy airco – but my practical knowledge is, well, zero. But I’m confident that among you, dear Readers, there is someone who really knows about this stuff?
So I’m going to quote the letter – and you can tell me who can help my friend.
“As you can see there is a bottom room which is partly embedded in the mountain (for coolness) and has a small window, this room will also have another window and a 2 doors one internal / one external but still will be quiet hot because its facing southwest (and we are a bit north of the equator) + its roof is a flat cement slab (of course with air space+ coconut filling between “plafond” and actual roof ///// This room is a recording studio this is why its square + has flat roof…we cant change this because of acoustics + also because we dont want to stick out of the mountain too much, so the idea is that this roof will be used as a terrace and have its own live roof of local vines to create shade …(we cant do grass directly on the roof because we need to colect water)…..Sooooo we are going to inject cool air into the studio – on the one hand we have air that will be passing through the water tank and coming into the studio and 2. we have this “wind catcher” we read about in internet – iranian very old system for injecting cool air and at diferent moments sucking out hot air….You can see it on the model on the right, looks like a chimney…Well it probably will be square and not round and taller too, made of red low fired brick covered with adobe plaster.and on the bootom there will be a small pool of water so air will come in over this pool and enter the room cool…………..But really we are kind of inventing some of it because we don’t have much info on how these “wind catchers ” work, – we found very little info online, so it would be great if we could talk to someone or if someone could send us some additional info”.

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Sustainable Daily Life (Projects Clinic, The Planning Center, Southern California, 2009)

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“What would life in a sustainable world be like?” Together with The Planning Center, we organized this workshop in Southern California for participants from grassroots organizations. Each presented case studies in which they use resources in a creative, original way.
Jules Dervaes is a pioneer in urban edible gardens; he calls them “urban homesteads”. Jules has launched a social networking site to help disseminate what they have learned, and to multiply the groups involved. His practical concern was that planners might make it illegal to keep chickens in urban areas.
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California is spending more than $20bn on “green” school buildings. The state spends $65,000 per classroom seat for the building – versus $1 per child per year for garden upkeep and support. Mud Baron whose job is to help L.A. schools develop gardens and nature projects, wanted our help to persuade planners and architects that “contact with nature” – not just buildings – is a crucual ingredient of “green” schools. We proposed re-labeling school gardens as “outside classrooms” and thereby solve Mud’s resource problem at a stroke.
Another one of our case studies, Proyecto Jardin, is an inspiring example of a bario-based economy. Irene Pena told us that this community garden for food and medicinal herbs must daily confront issues of land-use, group self-organisation, food coo-ps, seed storage, and green jobs – to name just a few.?
Project Hope provides scholing to some of Orange County’s 16,000 homeless children. The project began in 1989 when a teacher began educating local homeless children from the back of her car. A huge issue is mobility: the foundation spends $8,000/month moving students around. We asked whether churches, hospitals and universities, with their often under-used spatial and human resources, could be added to the empty strip mall spaces, and half-abandoned motels, that are on offer now. ?
Brian Biery explained the concept of “place-based philanthropy” which was new to us. The Flintridge Foundation, of which Brian is programme director, closed its Conservation, Theatre and Visual Arts programmes in order to focus all its efforts on the community where Flintridge’s endowment was created, and where it is headquartered—Northwest Pasadena and Altadena.
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The two workshops in California were small-scale versions of the model we developed for Dott 07 in the UK, and for City Eco Lab in St Etienne in 2008.

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Travel Without Moving (Design clinic on ‘sustainability immobility’ at Pixelache Festival, Helsinki, 2009)

Many of us are confronted by a painful dilemma: the only way to reduce our ecological footprint of flying is to stop flying – and yet we feel we need to travel for our work, and to see loved ones. Can modern transport and tourism ever be sustainable? After all, the movement of people and goods around the world consumes vast amounts of matter, energy, space and time – most of it non-renewable. To explore substitutes for mobility, we co-produced a design clinic on Traveling Without Moving together with the Pixelache Festival and Juha Huuskonen.
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A version of John Thackara’s talk was published by Adobe Think Tank under the title The fake-space race: Design and the future of travel

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JT West: Experiencing Sustainability

Climate change, peak debt, peak energy: these are all stakes being driven into the body of business as usual.
The days of acting as if infinite growth were possible within a finite system are over.
Where does this leave (interaction) design?
To find out you need to attend my talk on “Experiencing Sustainability” at IxDA in Vancouver 5-8 February.
After Vancouver I’m paying a visit on Saturday 7th to Bainbridge Graduate Institute; it’s a relatively new b-school and the only one I know of whose MBA programme is based explicitly on sustainability. Environmental and social responsibility are the basis of every course. (I first learned about Bainbridge from the three grad students who joined us at Doors 9 in Delhi last year).
On Monday 9 and Tuesday 10 I’m in-and-around Palo Alto. On Monday I’ll be catching up with my friends at Ideo and on the Tuesday I’m hoping to do a half-day workshop with Banny Banerjee who runs the Stanford Joint Program in Design (it serves as a bridge between the d.school and the design program).
Then it’s on to LA where, on Thursday 12 February, together with The Planning Center I’m running a Southern California Sustainable Daily Life workshop.
After that event I’m staying on for a week in Southern California with my daughter, Kate.
No, I don’t expect you to find the above interesting. But I’m publishing my schedule here because my days of flitting over to the West Coast on a whim are over, and I don’t want to appear impolite to anyone I won’t see (or have not yet planned to) on this trip.
2009 is Year 2 of my take-10-percent-fewer-flights-every-year campaign. This will be my first long-haul flight in 17 months and I did, as promised, reduce the number of flights I took in 2008 by 30% compared to 2007.
My main ambition this trip is to find out what kinds of sustainability and design projects between North America, Europa and India are a) important to do; and b) can be undertaken remotely, with a minimum of air travel. If you have strong ideas on that matter, do get in touch.

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City Eco Lab: view from the balcony – and from the net

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An overview of the City Eco Lab site on its second Saturday. It was snowing in St Etienne but the place was packed. (80,000 people came to the biennial two years ago but many more seem to be expected this time).
If you scroll down from this story, there are another 18 posts on specific projects.
Dori Gislason has put an album here, and Allan Chochinov – Mr Core77 – has blogged the bienniale here. Marcia Caines has now posted an excellent review here at the Cluster website. Brice Pelleschi from exyzt has posted some fab City Eco Lab images at Flickr. And here are some more from Juha Huuskonen and a collection from “your bartender”also at flickr.
Allan Chochinov has also posted a mini-movie. of me explaining the project as a whole. I look like something the dog just sicked up – but it was just after the opening. So be kind, listen to the words and visualize the pre-wrecked person I used to be.
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Here below is the installation on urban permaculture by Mathieu Benoit Gonin:
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here explaining it to visitors
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Below is the urban fish-farming prototype of Hugo Bont and Olivier Peyricot; (I’m not sure the cutest baby in the shed knew the fish were to be eaten):
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and here is the “Tools for Exchange” stand inside the Tool Shed created by Bethany Koby and Ellie Thornhill.
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The containers describe a wide variety of tools and organisational platforms for cooperation and sharing resources.
The popular ones after a week seem to be community-supported agriculture, energy descent action planning (as used by Transition Towns), local economy trading schemes, alternative trade networks, and land- sharing platforms. Visitors add their own recommendations for tools by writing on the blank lables of other containers.
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And in the Explorers Club (above) food producers and citizens discuss ways to enhance the AMAP system of community supported agriculture.
Next to the Explorers Club, in the Map Room (Salle des Cartes), Big Picture proposals from The Why factory are mixed up with maps of ecosystems and biodiversity in the Rhone Alps region.
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City Eco Lab: productive urban gardens

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One of the inspiring discoveries we made in putting City Eco Lab together was l’Ilot d’Amaranthes,a five-year-long project in which St Etienne designer Emanuel Louisgrand, in partnership with Galerie Roger Tator, has created productive gardens on abandoned sites in different parts of Lyon.
Given the range of malfunctioning global systems we have to deal with, attempting to design global replacements top-down simply wont work. Instead, we have to “grow” their replacement from small experiments, or seeds, that have the potential to multiply and be scaled up. Solutions will come through intense and diverse experimentation in doing things in a lighter and more sustainable way.
When I speak about experimentation, I don’t mean research in a laboratory, or debate in an academy. I mean experiments in the real world with the participation and co-ownership of citizens. Such experiments, when rooted in reality, generate the feedback and rapid learning that’s needed in terms of perpetually iterative design.
L’Ilot d’Amaranthes is a perfect model of the kind of activity that we need to see in every city and town. What shines out from the project is that each intervention is unique to that place and that time. This is a sustainable way of thinking: Understanding what makes each place unique, and then defining tools and infrastructures that can be adapted to it.
Roger Tator Gallery have published a new book about l’Ilot d’Amaranthes and the work of Emanuel Louisgrand. I know this because I contributed a short text and have a copy sitting next to me as I write – but I can’t quite find it yet on the Roger Tator site. But do hassle them for a copy – it’s beautifully done.

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