Modern Luxury, a new oxymoron

I was reading an article (Everything Old is Green Again) in Conservation Magazine the other day which confirmed something I have suspected for quite a while – older buildings are often more energy-efficient than any built today.

The story uses the example of the Monadnock Building in Chicago, once the largest office building in the world. Completed in 1893, Monadnock had very thick brick walls (around 2m wide) to keep heat in during winter and out during summer, transoms and bay windows to allow natural light in, and windows were usually positioned to allow cross-breezes.

The Monadnock Building in Chicago - energy-efficient before it was on trend. (Photo Source: Wikipedia)

These features were very common to most commercial buildings of that period, before we decided that quicker, cheaper construction meant more cash to go around the table. Continue reading

Biofuel is not the answer

I saw an article today in the journal Energy and Environmental Science that claims to have the answer to the biofuel problem. Apparently agave, the plant that has provided a sugar alternative, rope, food, soap and tequila to centuries of human communities, has a bright new future as a bioethanol producer.

Biofuels are one of those contentious issues that everyone loves to argue about, so as to procrastinate the task of actually doing something about our increased fuel consumption. They’re wonderful in concept (plants take up CO2 from the atmosphere and then provide a ‘natural’, ‘renewable’, non-fossilised fuel source), but come with a whole suite of problems and unanswered questions, just like every other ‘quick-fix’ solution we’ve come up with in the past (and haven’t learnt from). Continue reading

Learning Danger

We may be taking our ability to learn for granted. It seems such an obvious thing…of course we learn! We went to school, started a new job, did a Masters in something, learned a new language…we can obviously learn.

Unfortunately, one aspect of our learning ability is falling short, mostly as a result of a very common trait – Complacency conveniently disguised as Confidence. We all know that most animals learn by conditioning – anyone who has trained a horse or owns a pet dog recognises that. A dog will eventually learn that going for the brush cutter’s head = smack on the nose. Training it to recognise other dangers (e.g. snakes) is then fairly straightforward. Continue reading

Forces of Nature

In my first post on this blog I discussed some of the issues that accompany developing nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. Point number 3 was “The potential for nasty accidents”. Witness Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, northern Japan, March 2011.

Advocates of nuclear energy claim that nuclear reactors are safe and clean, and technology has advanced enough since Chernobyl to prevent ‘accidents’. But how does Technology stand up to Mother Nature? Earthquakes, tsunami, volcanoes…our predictive ability is fairly limited when it comes to these phenomena, despite Technology apparently having our back. Continue reading

Coal-fired nothings…

I didn’t post anything in January because I was in India for most of the month.  It was an amazing trip, but I came home to the same news from before I went away…Australia still hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that coal is on the way out.

I saw these while I was in India:

Wind farm near Ahmednagar, Maharashtra State, India

India is ranked 5th in the world in terms of wind power installed capacity, with almost 11,000 MW capacity, and they’re planning more.  The US and a lot of Europe are already on the fast-track to zero-emissions power generation.  Even China reached their 2020 target of 30,000 MW of wind power this year, and have now increased the target to 150,000 MW.  All this is compared to Australia’s current operating capacity of about 1,300 MW. Continue reading

Combustible Debates

The only thing that man learns from history is that man doesn’t learn from history.

This quote, in various forms, has been attributed to a number of people over the years, so I’m not going to credit any one person. But the gist of all these versions is the same — and I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, however it’s articulated.

Today I’m thinking about alternative energies. Whatever camp you’re from, you must agree that we need to figure out alternative forms of energy, pronto? Even if you don’t believe in climate change or carbon emissions; even if you don’t care an iota about the environment, green spaces, nature or wilderness areas, there is still the basic economic issue of Excess Demand.

The consumption rate of coal exceeds its natural production rate — hence, its classification as a non-renewable resource.  Yes, it’s still being dug out of the ground. Yes, there’s still quite a bit lying around the place, and occasionally someone even announces that they’ve found a new reserve. But eventually, the last lump of coal will smoulder off into the sunset and every coal-powered television, PC and light around the world will sign out.

Do you reckon it would be sensible to have a back-up?  If you were going caving in Mammoth Cave, and you knew with absolute certainty that your headlamp batteries were going to run out of juice halfway in, would you pack extras? Continue reading