Tag: commodities

Mad Max design of the month: Sietch Nevada

September 10th, 2009 — 4:07pm

My Ninja, Please! just posted about a project I completely love: Sietch Nevada.


For those of you who don’t read a lot of Sci-Fi, the term ‘sietch’ comes from Frank Herbert’s masterpiece ‘Dune’.  The dune series takes place largely on a planet covered by (you guessed it) dunes; an entire planet covered by desert.  The inhabitants of the planet live in scattered settlements built into rock formations and their culture is largely based around an eons-long process of capturing water from the atmosphere to terraform the planet into a lush green forest.  The project above is a proposal which takes these settlements as a conceptual starting point and applies the idea to the imminent water shortage in the American Southwest.  From AMNP’s description:

MATSYS has created a subterranean city – taking the idea of waterbanking one step further, creating an underground canal system that both provides water to the inhabitants and allows for necessary irrigation of the proposed garden spaces in the center of each of the sietch’s cells.


There are so many things to love about this project; the apocalyptic desperation of moving underground, the synthesis of urban space and food production, the geothermal cooling approach, the voronoi diagram of the towers and canals, etc.  These are the types of though experiments that we need more of in theoretical architecture.


I’m generally annoyed at architectural proposals this divorced from the reality of what can be practically implemented; what makes this project different is that it starts from the perspective that eventually we will be forced to start thinking with a much longer time horizon that we have been, then proposes a design that could be plausible in this inevitable future.  This seems more like a contingency plan for an uncomfortable future than an ill-conceived and under-informed plan for what to do now.

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More warnings about the water supply in the Southwest

August 8th, 2009 — 4:41pm

Worldchanging has a review of Lawrence Powell’s book “Dead Pool” in which he discusses the predictions that the water supply for much of the Southwest are rapidly declining.

How rapidly? Powell cites recent studies that with current water demand and even very minor climate change (which is not what we should expect now) there’s a 50 percent chance that both Lake Powell and Lake Mead (the two largest reservoirs in the U.S.) will “reach dead pool” by 2021. That means so little water will be left in them that the water level falls below their dam’s lowest outlets (and so no more water flows from them). As Powell notes, “A probability of 50 percent means that there is an equal chance that the reservoirs could fall to dead pool later — or sooner.” [his emphasis] The take away is that, unless profound changes are made, the desert Southwest will run out of water in the next couple decades.

“For the Colorado River basin and the Southwest,” Powell says, “the threat from global warming lies not in the comfortably distant future — the threat is here today. West of the 100th meridian, the danger derives not from the slow rise of the sea but from the more rapid fall of the reservoirs… business as usual cannot continue.”

The changes needed are virtually unimaginable now. Powell shows that right now, farms in the region use 80 percent of the water, and cities use the rest — about half of that for landscaping (which is why there are fountains in Phoenix and lawns in Las Vegas). Even cutting back agricultural use and slashing landscaping use and combining them with the most aggressive conservation efforts imaginable would still only at best buy time for a new way of life suited to a much drier, much hotter climate to emerge.

Could the be the beginning of the re-emergence of American regionalism?  Will different geographic portions of the nation (and world for that matter) be forced to so radically change their lifestyles in response to climate change that regional ways of life and cultural practices will begin to emerge again?  There was a story on NPR yesterday about a radio ad campaign in Brazil encouraging everyone to save a toilet flush per day by urinating in the shower; I wonder what other cultural practices will be questioned as we try to grapple with a radically different relationship between culture and commodities.

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Oil production rates dropping at twice the expected rate

August 3rd, 2009 — 12:58pm

From the International Energy Agency, via the Independant:

In an interview with The Independent, Dr Birol said that the public and many governments appeared to be oblivious to the fact that the oil on which modern civilisation depends is running out far faster than previously predicted and that global production is likely to peak in about 10 years – at least a decade earlier than most governments had estimated.

But the first detailed assessment of more than 800 oil fields in the world, covering three quarters of global reserves, has found that most of the biggest fields have already peaked and that the rate of decline in oil production is now running at nearly twice the pace as calculated just two years ago. On top of this, there is a problem of chronic under-investment by oil-producing countries, a feature that is set to result in an “oil crunch” within the next five years which will jeopardise any hope of a recovery from the present global economic recession, he said.

The IEA estimates that the decline in oil production in existing fields is now running at 6.7 per cent a year compared to the 3.7 per cent decline it had estimated in 2007, which it now acknowledges to be wrong.

In its first-ever assessment of the world’s major oil fields, the IEA concluded that the global energy system was at a crossroads and that consumption of oil was “patently unsustainable”, with expected demand far outstripping supply.

Oil production has already peaked in non-Opec countries and the era of cheap oil has come to an end, it warned.

In most fields, oil production has now peaked, which means that other sources of supply have to be found to meet existing demand.

Even if demand remained steady, the world would have to find the equivalent of four Saudi Arabias to maintain production, and six Saudi Arabias if it is to keep up with the expected increase in demand between now and 2030, Dr Birol said.

This ties into my earlier post regarding the Net Hubbert Curve; as we use up the easily accessible oil supplies, the amount of energy required to extract energy increases, so not only are we facing the (apparently rapid) decline in reserves, we’re facing decreasing extraction efficiency.

This is not good news…

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Net Hubbert Curve aka Goodbye!, Oil

July 10th, 2009 — 10:06am

It’s been a few days, so here comes the first of a few posts I’ve had on the back burner for a while.

The Hubbert Curve is a graph depicting the expected world-wide oil extraction before and after ‘peak oil‘.  Ignoring arguments about the existence or timing of ‘peak oil’ as well as the accuracy of the shape of the Hubbert Curve, let’s look at another frightening aspect of oil extraction: its efficiency over time.  As the ‘low hanging fruit’ gets picked, extracting oil becomes increasingly difficult, which means that more and more energy is required to extract the oil (energy).  Obviously technology can ameliorate this to some extent, but take a look at this graph showing the energy return on investment since the beginning of the century:


This clearly shows that as we extract more and more energy in the form of oil, we waste more and more energy in the extraction process.  Returning to the Hubbert curve, this is a graph showing the net Hubbert curve superimposed on the gross Hubbert curve:

Net Hubbert_6

In other words, the oil supply is likely to plummet precipitously once we reach peak oil, due both to the dwindling supply and to the increasing cost of extraction.  Maybe postponing those wind farms isn’t such a great idea after all…

via The Oil Drum

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Lake Mead Is Drying Up

May 7th, 2009 — 12:09pm

From Good

Lake Mead stores water from the Colorado River. When full, it holds 9.3 trillion gallons, an amount equal to the water that flows through the Colorado River in two years. The water from Lake Mead is used for many things. It irrigates a million acres of crops in the United States and Mexico, and supplies water to tens of millions of people. Its mighty Hoover Dam generates enough electricity to power a half-million homes. Additionally, the power from Hoover Dam is used to carry water up and across the Sierra Nevada Mountains on its way to Southern California.

In 2000, the water level at Lake Mead was 1,214 feet, close to its all-time high. It’s been dropping ever since. When Lake Mead was built during the 1920s and 1930s, the western United States was enjoying one of the wettest periods of the past 1,200 years. Even today, our so-called drought is still wetter than the average precipitation for the area averaged over centuries. In other words, for the last 75 years, we’ve been partying like it’s 1929. Farmers grow rice by flooding arid farmland with water from Lake Mead; residents of desert communities maintain front lawns of green grass; golfers demand courses in areas where the temperature exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer.

In 2008, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography issued a paper titled “When will Lake Mead go dry?” which set the odds of Lake Mead drying up by 2021 at 50-50. No more water, no more electricity, no more pumping power.

Today, we are at or beyond the sustainable limit of the Colorado system,” concluded the paper’s authors. “The alternative to reasoned solutions to this coming water crisis is a major societal and economic disruption in the desert southwest; something that will affect each of us living in the region.”

One of the more radical proposals involves pumping water from the eastern United States (where many regions are suffering the consequences of flooded rivers) over the Rockies to the West. In a Las Vegas Sun interview on May 1, Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said, “We’ve taken water from the West now for a hundred years, maybe it’s time to start taking water from the East, rather than from the West.” Another speculative proposal lies beyond the shores of California, where there’s an ocean of water available for desalinization. In April, the California Coastal Commission approved the West Basin Municipal Water District’s plan to build a desalination system in Redondo Beach that can desalt 100,000 gallons of seawater per day.

The power requirement for either proposal—desalting seawater or transporting water over great distance—is enormous. But if the only other alternative is a mass evacuation from the western United States, what other choice do we have?

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PV drops below $1/W, but terawatt-scale production unlikely

March 1st, 2009 — 5:41pm

Popular Science has a story about the recent announcement that PV prices have dropped below $1/W, along with an anaylsis of material availability suggesting that these prices couldn’t keep pace with large-scale production:

First Solar’s eventual goal is “grid parity,” a phrase that refers to making solar power cost the same as competing conventional power sources without subsidies. Right now the cost of making panels accounts for a little less than half the total cost of installation. The company estimates that it needs to get manufacturing costs down to $0.65 to $0.70 per watt, and other installation costs down to $1 a watt in order to reach grid parity—goals First Solar plans to reach by 2012.

The question, though, is whether First Solar or any other solar manufacturer would be able to handle the flood of orders that would ensue if they reached competitive cost. At that point, it comes down to a matter of having enough of raw materials. That is where the real limitations come to bear, according to a paper that will appear in the March issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology. In the paper, Wadia and colleagues Paul Alivisatos and Daniel Kammen evaluated the global supplies and extraction costs for 23 promising photovoltaic semiconductor materials and found that the three materials that currently dominate the market—silicon, CdTe and another thin-film technology based on copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS)—all have limitations when ordered in mass. While silicon is the second-most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, it requires enormous amounts of energy to convert into a usable crystalline form. This is a fundamental thermodynamic barrier that will keep silicon costs comparatively high. Both CIGS and First Solar’s CdTe rank poorly in abundance and extraction cost, with CdTe ranking dead last in long-term potential based on current annual extraction rates.

To that end, Wadia and his colleagues found that iron pyrite—better known as fool’s gold—was several orders of magnitude better than any of the alternatives, based on both cost and abundance. Copper sulfide and copper oxide were also attractive candidates. The problem with these materials is that they’re less efficient in converting the sun’s rays to electricity, and as a result have been the focus of considerably less research. But the Berkeley study accounts for this fact, and concludes that lower-efficiency materials that are cheaper and more abundant will ultimately serve the alternative energy market better.

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Lock up your copper

December 3rd, 2008 — 4:46pm

Slashdot says

The FBI today ratcheted up the clamor to do something more substantive about the monumental growth of copper theft in the US. In a report issued today the FBI said the rising theft of the metal is threatening the critical infrastructure by targeting electrical substations, cellular towers, telephone land lines, railroads, water wells, construction sites, and vacant homes for lucrative profits. Copper thefts from these targets have increased since 2006; and they are currently disrupting the flow of electricity, telecommunications, transportation, water supply, heating, and security and emergency services, and present a risk to both public safety and national security.

Copper theft: not just for contractors any more.

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