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Photo: Marcus Teply/PRI
Dr. Andre Niemann with a partial model of his plan to turn Prosper-Haniel into a pumped storage system (basically a giant, water-powered battery). “It shows responsibility. It shows that if mining is over you’re not leaving the place.” 

Recently I read a sad story about a coal miner in the U.S. who once thought he and his infant son would have secure jobs long into the future. Now his mine is closing and he’s off to find another.

What’s sad to me is that although there are opportunities to retrain in up and coming industries, he and his family are chasing a dead one. But I can understand that he wants to keep earning six figures, a salary unlikely in most fields for which he might train.

Meanwhile, in Germany, people in an old coal town are biting the global-warming bullet and moving on.

Valerie Hamilton reports at PRI’s the World, “For most people, the top of the mine shaft at the Prosper-Haniel coal mine in Bottrop, Germany, just looks like a big black hole. But Andre Niemann looked into that hole and saw the future.

“Niemann leads the hydraulic engineering and water resources department at the University of Duisberg-Essen, in the heart of German coal country, western Germany’s Ruhr Valley. For more than 150 years, Germany mined millions of tons of anthracite, or hard coal, from coal mines here that at their peak employed half a million miners. But that’s history now — Germany’s government decided a decade ago to end subsidies that made German hard coal competitive with imports. …

“The end of hard coal mining in Germany comes just as Germany is working to slash its CO2 emissions by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The country calls it the Energiewende, or ‘energy transition.’ But wind and solar aren’t always there when they’re needed, so a key challenge of the Energiewende is to find ways to store sun and wind energy for later use.

“One way to do that is with a pumped energy storage system — basically a giant, water-powered battery. When the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, the excess energy is used to pump large amounts of water uphill into a reservoir. When the sun goes down or the wind dies, that excess energy can be released by letting the water flow back downhill, through turbines that generate electricity like in a hydroelectric dam.

“Existing pump storage systems make use of hills or mountains for the necessary difference in altitude. But Niemann says the depth of a coal mine — like Prosper-Haniel — would work just as well.

“He and a team of researchers have worked up a plan to turn the mine into a pumped energy storage system that could generate 200 megawatts of power, enough for almost half a million homes. Water would be pumped through a closed system of pipes from 2,000 feet below ground level up to the surface and fall back down again on demand, regenerating 85 percent of the renewable energy used to pump the water up in the first place — energy that would otherwise be wasted. …

“Niemann, who grew up in a coal-mining family in the coal city of Ibbenbueren, says it would be a powerful symbol that as Germany transforms its energy landscape, coal regions won’t be left behind. …

“[Miner Ernst] Mueller explains the deal offered to him and every other mine worker in 2007, when the German government moved to end the subsidies that kept Germany’s hard coal mines afloat. …

“Underground workers over 50, and above-ground workers over 55, like Mueller, can retire early, paid by a company fund, as long as they have 20 years on the job. About 400 of their younger co-workers can stay on to maintain the mine area after it closes. The rest get job placement and training. Beike says [the company] promises to find every worker a new job. …

“The hope is, eventually, green business will pick up where coal left off. To prepare, the region has opened a new technical college in Bottrop to train the next generation of workers — not in coal, but in fields like green tech, water management and electro-mobility.”

More at Public Radio International, here.

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In September, Victoria Lynden tweeted about Costa Rica’s clean electricity. Although hydroelectric and geothermal approaches sometimes have issues of their own and cars in Costa Rica still use gas, two months without using fossil fuels to generate electricity sounded pretty good to me.

Brad Plumer wrote at Vox, “Costa Rica is pulling off a feat most countries just daydream about: For two straight months, the Central American country hasn’t burned any fossil fuels to generate electricity. That’s right: 100 percent renewable power.

“This isn’t a blip, either. For 300 total days last year and 150 days so far [in 2016], Costa Rica’s electricity has come entirely from renewable sources, mostly hydropower and geothermal. Heavy rains have helped four big hydroelectric dams run above their usual capacity, letting the country turn off its diesel generators.

“Now, there’s a huge, huge caveat here: Costa Rica hasn’t eschewed all fossil fuels entirely. The country still has more than 1 million cars running on old-fashioned gasoline, which is why imported oil still supplies over half its total energy needs. The country also has cement plants that burn coal.

“What Costa Rica’s doing is nevertheless impressive — and a reflection of how serious the tiny Central American country is about going green. At the same time, a closer look at the story shows just how difficult it would be for other countries to pull off something similar.

“When many people think of ‘renewables,’ they tend to think of giant wind turbines or gleaming solar panels. But that’s not what Costa Rica is relying on. For years, roughly 80 percent of the nation’s electricity has come from a technology that’s more than a century old — hydroelectric dams …

“Another 12 percent or so of Costa Rica’s electricity comes from geothermal plants, which tap heat deep in the Earth’s crust and can also run around the clock. …

“So if Costa Rica can get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, why couldn’t other countries do the same? Why can’t the United States, which is far richer?

“One obstacle here is that hydropower and geothermal are very location-specific — and only a few countries are lucky enough to have such rich resources. Iceland gets nearly 100 percent of its electricity from these two sources. Paraguay gets almost all of its electricity from the massive Itaipú Dam. Brazil gets more than 75 percent of its power from hydropower. But those are exceptions. For most countries, hydropower can only satisfy a portion of their power needs.” Read on.

Seems to me that when a country wants to be greener (whether for the environment or to save money or both), it has already taken the first step to finding solutions that work for its own geography.

Chart: Observatory of Renewable Energy in Latin America and the Caribbean

 

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At Public Radio International, Jason Margolis and Ari Daniel reported recently on a Massachusetts business incubator focused on helping green startups by providing them with inexpensive space and shared tools.

“A few years ago, when Sorin Grama had just finished graduate work at MIT and was looking for a place to build his new solar electricity startup, he came across an old abandoned warehouse.

“ ‘My partner and I were looking at it and said, ‘Well, it’s a lot of space here, maybe others can join, it’s kind of lonely,” Grama says. ‘We put out a call to the MIT community.’

“Within weeks, a handful of startups were sharing that cavernous space.

“ ‘And we bonded. All the companies created a nice community, and we started sharing tools, people and ideas, and reading each other’s proposals for funding, things like that,’ Grama says. ‘We had a great Christmas party one year.’ …

“Today, their home is a massive old mid-19th century pipe factory in Somerville, just outside of Boston. It’s called Greentown Labs, and it’s one of the most successful in a new wave of what are called green business incubators, clusters of startups looking to build a business by helping cut carbon emissions and fight climate change. …

“They’re saving money [by getting started] at Greentown. If you need a power saw or an industrial press, no need to buy your own — just sign up for a time slot in the machine shop. The incubator also brings shared intellectual resources, like software, human resources, even PR help. …

“Outgrowing the incubator is part of the point, showing there’s money to be made tackling the world’s climate and energy challenges.

“It’s a growth area that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is betting on, putting millions in grants and loans toward a network of green tech incubators. Steven Pike, interim CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, says it’s an efficient way to spend.

“ ‘We can try and go out and try to support individually 50 different companies,’ Pike says. Or, Massachusetts can invest in an incubator that supports 50 companies under one roof.

“He says Massachusetts has an audacious goal: ‘We want to be the Silicon Valley of clean energy, renewable energy.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Greentown Labs
Shared workspace at Greentown Labs.

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You haven’t heard the last word on tiny houses from this blog yet. Just check out Treehugger reporter Kimberley Mok’s amazing story about using a 3D printer to create a tiny house and SUV that can create, store, and share energy. Unreal but true.

“Designers from architecture firm SOM, University of Tennessee and researchers from the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are cleverly tackling the energy issue by using a concept they call ‘integrated energy.’

“Their innovative design features a 3D printed house, that comes with a 3D printed SUV, which each generate, store and share energy — boosting energy efficiency both ways, while benefiting from the reduced construction waste and quick turnaround that comes with additive manufacturing techniques. …

“The design of both home and car uses carbon-fiber-reinforced ABS plastic (admittedly not the greenest of materials). The home was printed in separate modules that are assembled together and reinforced with steel rods, and insulated with a modified, highly efficient atmosphere insulation panels, resulting in a surprisingly strong and insulated structure.

“Certainly the most intriguing thing about the design is the reciprocal energy relationship that the car has with the house. … The 3D printed SUV is a hybrid that uses both electricity and natural gas to power itself. It’s parked on an inductive charging pad that allows it to send or receive energy from the solar-powered house — thus significantly solving the electricity issue on cloudy days. If there’s no electricity at all from either solar panels or car, the house can still tap into the energy grid. …

“Thanks to the additive manufacturing process, the prototype took only one year to realize from start to finish.” Read more here.

Photo: ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

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As an official member of his town’s tree committee, John has been working hard to promote the many benefits of an urban tree canopy both for quality of life and for the business environment.

Now here comes a really unusual idea for fans of urban greenery. You just need a large body of water.

At the website “Pop Up City,” describes Rotterdam’s floating forest, thought up by (who else?) an artist.

“Rotterdam will get its first ‘bobbing forest’ in 2016: a collection of twenty trees that are floating in the Rijnhaven, a downtown harbor basin.

“Inspired by Jorge Bakker’s artwork ‘In Search of Habitus‘, an aquarium filled with bobbers that grow small trees, Dutch designers and entrepreneurs from Mothership decided to carry out this idea in ‘real life’. After experimenting with a sample tree last year, an entire floating forest of twenty trees is scheduled to be ‘planted’ on March 16, 2016.” Check out some intriguing photos here.

My only question as a person who grew up in a hurricane corridor: What happens if there’s a storm?

Photo: Popupcity.net

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One of the better aspects of the 2015 Massachusetts Conference for Women was hearing speakers like Candy Chang, an artist who engages ordinary people in public discourse.

At the December conference, Chang focused on Neighborland, a service co-founded with Dan and Tee Parham, that helps “residents and organizations collaborate on the future of their communities.”

This is how it works. Organizations start by posing a question. For example, they might hand out cards that say, “I want [blank] in my neighborhood,” and a resident might write in, “a night market.” Next, using Neighborland tools, ideas are collected from workshops, public installations, SMS, and Twitter. They are then discussed and voted on. The website says Neighborland has “sophisticated moderation, clustering, and de-duplication tools for organizers to aggregate all of the data from residents. Our reports make it easy for organizers to see trends in the data, make decisions, allocate resources, and keep participants involved in the fun part – making their neighborhoods better places.”

In this example, National Gardening Association’s Jenna Antonio DiMare reports on Adam Guerrero,  his Memphis, Tennessee, team of blight-busting ″Smart Mules,″ and their efforts to create a greener and more sustainable city.

“During the month of October, National Gardening Association (NGA) partnered with Neighborland to challenge Memphis residents to propose innovative projects to make their city and neighborhoods more sustainable. With a $1,000 grant awarded to the most promising project, Neighborland’s simple platform empowered local Memphis residents to ‘connect and make good things happen.’

“Despite receiving many inspiring project proposals, from founding an urban agriculture school to growing a newly established community garden, it was clear to NGA that the ‘Smart Mules’ project would have the greatest impact with the $1,000 award. …

″ ‘We are fighting [urban] blight, raising neighborhood morale, engaging our local government, and investing in a future for the neighborhood, all at the same time,’ writes the ‘Smart Mules’ team. To accomplish these goals, ‘Smart Mules’ provides work for many young, at-risk males who have been ‘largely dismissed’ or disenfranchised, according to team leader Guerrero.” More here about the work these young men are doing for sustainability.

(A couple years ago, I wrote about Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” interactive street art.)

Photo: Neighborland.com

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And speaking of schools that develop a love of the natural world, check out this story from the radio show Living on Earth.

“On the other side of the world, in the tourist paradise of Bali, there’s a school that the U.S. Green Building Council named the greenest school on Earth for 2012. It’s called the Green School, and it educates some 300 students from 25 different countries. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb went to check out what’s so green about the school.”

Among the people he spoke with was Charis Ford, director of communications for the Green School.

“BOBBY BASCOMB: It rains a lot in Bali. Humidity and bugs typically destroy a bamboo structure in about 4 years, but the Green School buildings should survive 20 years or more.

“CHARIS FORD: We use treated bamboo, but it’s been treated with salt essentially. We heat water and we submerge the bamboo poles into the saltwater and it makes the bamboo unpalatable to termites and mold and funguses and other things that would biodegrade the bamboo. …

“FORD: All the building companies that he spoke with were like well, ‘You have to have walls. All schools have to have walls,’ and John [Hardy, a Canadian jewelry designer who moved to Bali in the 1970s and founded the school] said, ‘Why do they have to have walls?”’ They rubbed their chins and scratched their heads and said, “’Well, where are the kids going to hang the art?’ As it turns out, you don’t have to have walls. And we don’t have walls and we’re quite happy about it.

“BASCOMB: Just outside the classroom, a chicken wanders through a patch of green beans. Gardens are everywhere, integrated throughout the campus. They mimic a natural forest ecosystem using edible plants, a design called permaculture.

“FORD: When you wander around Green School’s campus, you might think it looks kind of like it’s wild, but then as you tune in and look at the plants that you’re around, you’ll see that that’s a bean trellis, and that’s a guava tree, and that’s ginger. Even though it looks like a jungle setting, you get a little closer and you see that’s chocolate — cacao pods — hanging from a tree next to you.” Lots more here. You also can listen to the recording of the radio interview.

Photo: Mark Fabian
On extremely hot days a canvas envelope can be pulled around a wall-less Green School classroom so cool air can be piped in to keep kids comfortable. 

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