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Roundup: Scientists Write to Obama, Retrofitting Detroit, 3D Printers Under $1K and More...

An Open Letter to the President
If you think it's frustrating to be a climate activist watching Washington, imagine what it's like for the scientists who are running the numbers while witnessing bureaucratic action consistently fall short of what they know needs to be done. A group of 20 prominent scientists and academics sent a letter to Obama and the U.S. Congress on Monday, and although the language is utterly respectful, the urgent message comes across loud and clear: The U.S. must act decisively, aggressively and immediately to curb emissions, and Obama must lead the effort personally.

Specifically, the letter says that passing Waxman-Markey (which the US House of Representatives is debating today) will be an excellent step in the right direction, but certainly no reason for politicians to pause an enjoy a pause for pats on the back. Instead, the legislation "at its best will be only a first step.”

The letter also draws a timely comparison to Obama's hefty push for nationwide health care reform:

As we write, we see the unfolding Presidential effort to lead the nation in the area of universal health insurance. We urge the President to initiate an effort at least comparable in the area of climatic change. We recognize the difference in popularity of these two causes, but it is the essence of Presidential leadership to show the way even where adequate public awareness of the risks ahead may be lacking. Speaking in Germany recently, President Obama referred to climatic change as "a potentially cataclysmic disaster." We agree and believe that message must be communicated and elaborated to the American people in time to assure strong, effective Congressional action in both houses of Congress this year.
The time for national action on climatic change is now. There has already been too much delay. The stakes are far too high to compromise the integrity of, and our responsibility for, prompt national action.

Their words underscore the precarious nature of the situation we face. We're at a point where the scientists most familiar with the data of global warming still believe that there is hope -- if we act now -- yet even in the light of this knowledge, we depend on volatile factors like "popularity" and political weight. We are grateful for the efforts of these leading thinkers, and hope that their words do not fall on deaf ears. (Download a full version of the letter here.) (JL)

Image source: Power House Report blog

Update: PowerHouse and Community Retrofitting
Back in March we posted about designers Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, who are retrofitting several foreclosed properties in the Hamtramck neighborhood of Detroit. The couple’s ongoing project, enabled by homes that are selling for as low as $100, is part DIY marathon, part social networking and community capital experiment, and part (very) small-scale district energy venture. The focal point is the PowerHouse, a future neighborhood hub and social space that would produce enough energy to cover its own needs and that of a neighboring house.

Last week CNN did another good profile of the project, but this one had an interesting addendum:

In two weeks, the state will begin offering $25,000 to anyone who buys a home, as long as they pay 1 percent of the total cost and live in it. Landlords or speculators aren't eligible.
Part of a $263 million grant given to Michigan and other states under 2008's Housing and Economic Recovery Act, the funds are intended to help buyers bring trashed properties up to code, according to Mary Townley, a director with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

It’s not clear how easily the residents of Hamtramck could leverage these state funds to broaden the scope of the PowerHouse experiment. It does seem that the scheme could help attract a greater pool of participants, possibly allowing existing residents to maintain a stake in their own neighborhood. Cope and Reichert’s efforts are clearly admirable — the interest and help they’ve received from residents suggests that their experiment in “mining out the existing positive and productive aspects of the neighborhood" is, in many ways, working. However, to date, those who have joined the couple in the rehabbing adventure are other outsiders, mostly other artists who have the know-how and capital needed to undertake large-scale retrofits. As the CNN article rightly notes, this approach is not something that could be easily replicated by just anyone.

If state funding allows the residents inspired by the PowerHouse to reclaim houses in their neighborhood, it is possible that this experiment could be a model for a type of “revitalization” that isn’t simply shorthand for “gentrification.”

Cope and Reichert’s site about the project is worth checking out, as is the attached blog, which has sporadic but fascinating snapshots of the extreme joys and headaches of being neighborhood pioneers. (CB)

MakerBot: A Fabber in Every Apartment
Watch the team of very excited geeks behind MakerBot describe their project:

Why are they so jazzed up? Well, you might be too if you had a robot 3D printer that made your digital designs into real, plastic stuff. And, thanks to MakerBot, now you can have one. Their CupCake CNC Basic Kit sells for $750. It does require assembly (you can buy the fully assembled robot for $2500), but that doesn't seem to be a problem for DIY enthusiasts. In fact, MakerBot markets it as an asset, announcing, "the kits are modular, modifiable, and built to be hacked." The pitch seems to be working, as the team is currently backed up on orders through mid-August. (Thanks to Matt for the tip.) (JL)

LeVerdureDelMioOrto_300.jpgSims Meets Community Gardening
Today, if you want food straight from your farmer, you frequent the local markets or sign up for a CSA. But imagine being able to have more control over what's being grown and the ability to stop by and help tend the plants. I came across a post on Frog Design the other day referencing Italian micro-agriculture site Le Verdure del Mio Orto (which roughly translates to Vegetables from My Plot).

The site allows local eaters to become growers by allowing them to design their own garden online. When you sign up for a plot, the virtual service becomes a real garden. The site's in Italian, but worth stopping by even if you don't speak the language. Icons alone can help users choose the size of their garden, what veggies they want to plant, and what tool they'd like to use (which will really be there if you'd like to stop by the actual garden). Once your veggies are ripe, the Le Verdure del Mio Orto delivers them to your door.

It's delicious reality translated into the virtual world and back. (SK)

Virginia Gardiner's Loo Made of Poo
At the beginning of this engaging 7-minute video from Dwell, designer and writer Virginia Gardiner introduces us to her composting toilet, which is itself made of sculpted poop. It's a good way to meet the charmingly blunt Gardiner, who gets pretty cozy with excrement (human and otherwise) over the course of her presentation.

Virginia%20Gardiner.jpgGardiner is working on a new waterless toilet system at the Design London Imperial College. Her challenge: to create a toilet for city dwellers that uses no energy, and turns waste "into a commodity." She experiments with feeding feces to worms in a compost bin, and sculpting shapes out of horse manure, as she attempts to capture not only the function of a modern toilet, but also its essence: that is, the ability to flush -- to take things that are unpleasant, and eliminate them and their evidence quickly and completely from our lives.

Her portable, low-tech LooWatt effectively captures odor and allows human waste (which we produce on the order of 2 lbs per day, per person) to be turned into a source of energy via anaerobic digestion. With 40 percent of people globally in need of sanitary facilities, it's well worth imagining a solution that doesn't flush drinking water down the toilet. (JL)

The More Oil We Use, The More Oil it Takes to Get Oil...
David Murphy at The Oil Drum gave an interesting analysis of the Net Hubbert Curve this week. He bases his predictions on a report from Cutler Cleveland of Boston University about the sharp decline in EROI (energy return on investment) -- in other words, it now requires much more energy to extract energy that we can use. Specifically, the report says, EROI has declined (in the U.S.) from 100:1 in the 1930s to 11:1 as of 2000.

How did we go from spending 1 barrel of oil per 100 to spending the same amount for a mere 11? Well, Murphy explains, as we use more and more of the world's oil reserves, the remaining oil is much more difficult to extract. This we knew. But Murphy takes this equation to the Hubbert Curve to produce an new curve, showing that post-peak oil, we don't actually have half the world's reserves left in net energy. We actually have much less.


Figure 3 shows the results of this analysis. Unlike the original Hubbert curve that shows equal quantities of gross energy resources on the left and right side, the Net Hubbert Curve is skewed so that most resources are on the left. For example, according to the original Hubbert curve, 50% of the energy resource is remaining when production levels reach the peak, but this is quite different for the Net Hubbert curve. Due to declining EROI, by the time peak production is reached, 73% of the net energy available is already used.
The implications of these results are vast, but in general, declining EROI is going to make it very difficult to meet the net energy needs of future society. Although this study may not be very precise, it does imply that if we have reached Peak Oil (and I think we have), that society has already spent quite a bit more than half of the net (or discretionary) oil energy that will ever be available.

Seattle Explores Waste Biodiesel for City Vehicles
Via the Seattle P-I, the Emerald City is looking into waste grease as a potential source of fuel for public vehicles. Reporter talks with Brenda Bauer, director of Seattle's Fleets and Facilities Department:

She said Mayor Greg Nickels directed her department to stop buying soy-based biodiesel fuel about a month ago. That was after the Environmental Protection Agency released a report that said ethanol production was potentially worse for the environment than gasoline.
Increasingly, critics say the production of crop-based alternative fuels -- ethanol made from corn and biodiesel made from soy -- is detrimental because of the amount of land needed to grow crops and greenhouse gas emissions.
So the city is testing waste grease-based biodiesel to see whether it meets local and national standards.

According to the article, the City had been purchasing about 73,000 gallons of biodiesel each month. Its fleet of diesel vehicles ran on a blend of 40 percent biodiesel, 60 percent ultra-low diesel fuel. Using locally sourced waste oil could be more sustainable on multiple levels: not only does it carry fewer agricultural complications, but it also diverts a local waste product from landfills.

Needless to say, the Northwest biofuels industry is less than thrilled. As KUOW's Tom Banse reports, Grays Harbor, Wash.-based canola oil biodisel refinery owned by Seattle-based Imperium Renewables has been idle since winter due to lack of demand.

Read more on clean tech and biofuel in the Worldchanging Seattle archives. (JL)

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