Renewable "green" energy will be the biggest industry in the history of humankind. Jay Warmke's When the Biomass Hits the Wind Turbine is a great way to learn all about it.
Jay is blessed with an off-beat sense of humor and a wonderful way of narrating truly earth-shattering history with aplomb and a light, loving touch. "I don't remember a time when the world wasn't about to end," he begins.
Neither do I.
But given this summer's life-threatening heat, its record drought and on-going string of apocalyptic ecological disasters, we could be easily convinced that unless we do something—NOW!—our ability to live on this earth could indeed come to a crashing halt.
With his wife and collaborator, Annie, Jay has founded an ecological community called Blue Rock Station, near Zanesville, Ohio. It features green power along with tours and classes designed to further our knowledge and commitment to a world worth saving.
His book opens with some obligatory personal history from a guy who grew up when "the price of fossil fuels is way too cheap."
To explain why, Jay backs us up to 1491, the year before native Americans discovered Christopher Columbus on their beach. We learn about charcoal, peat and the reason the Mayans dropped from a population of 14 million all the way down to 30,000 (hint: it had to do with energy and trees).
We learn that Pope Celestine 3 believed that since wind came from God, His church had the right to issue (or deny) permits for windmills. Warmke says as many as 4,000 operated in England when William the Conqueror took a census in 1086. The number jumped to more than 10,000 a century later.
None of them were used to generate electricity, discovered by Ben Franklin not with a kite (he would've been fatally electrocuted) but with a parlor game device that generated shocks just for the fun of it. It was Franklin who invented the term "battery" when he hooked up Leyden jars in sequence and used the system to zap a chicken. Ben later reported that the electrocuted meat was "uncommonly tender."
But for all the fun history—and there's a lot of it in this book—the most interesting time is the present. As Warmke points out, the era of the photovoltaic (PV) cell is rapidly accelerating. "The installed base of PV within the U.S. has more than doubled," he says. Since 1980 the price of PV modules has dropped from more than $20/watt to well under $5. As General Electric and others have confirmed, the price of solar-generated electricity—long dismissed as being far too high to be practical—is about to drop below installed new coal generators.
Which means, simply put, that even if you're a 1 percent billionaire who hates hippies and the planet, you're still going to invest in solar over nuclear, coal or oil.
In fact, says Warmke, in the face of the Solartopian revolution, the whole fossil/nuclear business is nothing but smoke and mirrors. "For the foreseeable future," he writes,"the battle for newly installed electric power will be between natural gas, wind and solar."
But the horrifically destructive fracking process by which natural gas is being mined is ecologically and economically unsustainable. Aside from destroying our water and bringing on earthquakes, Jay writes, fracking simply does not pay. It's heavily subsidized, barely covers investment if at all, and will not last. Ditto tar sands, the Keystone Pipeline and all the other insanely expensive eco-ripoffs being perpetrated by the corporate elite.
Instead, says Warmke, we're now in the midst of the greatest technological revolution in history, and its color green stands for both the planet and profit. As knowledge and mastery of PV improves, every building, every machine, every vehicle will be covered with it.
Like wind power, biofuels and nearly all other green energy technologies, PV power stations nearly always come on line ahead of schedule and under budget. And they are always "misunderestimated." According to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, projections for how far and fast green energy would spread have been consistently low-balled. And not by a little. In many cases the predictions for the spread of renewable energy have been off by a factor of ten and more, in terms of energy produced, dollars invested and viability of market price.
To help prove the point Warmke provides a fascinating history of the electric car. It was, after all, the original plan of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to have a global auto industry based on batteries. As you ran out of charge, you simply drove into a station and traded out your limp battery for a freshly charged one.
But back then the power of the oil cartels was stronger than the magnetism of an electric vehicle. Rockefeller's petroleum—which had been used primarily to produce kerosene for lighting—suddenly became the basis for a new fuel called gasoline (airplanes still fly on a variation of the original kerosene).
Way too late, we are finding our way out of the fossil fuel dead end. Worldwide hybrid sales have jumped from virtually zero in 1997 to nearly 700,000 just 13 years later.
And as solar/wind-driven electricity skyrockets in popularity, the electric car has returned. It has come most importantly in the form of the hybrid, especially Toyota's Prius. Initially dismissed by bloviating "experts," the gas/electric combo is delivering 60 mpg and more in commercially available automobiles that look a hell of a lot like "regular" gas-driven planet killers.
In his brilliant chapter on "The Rebirth of the Electric Car," Warmke predicts that within 30 years half of all passenger cars will be electric or hybrid (if green patterns hold true, it will come a lot sooner). The most serious problem today, Jay says, may be that battery technology currently limits the range of an electric vehicle to 100 miles or less on a single charge.
But most people don't drive anywhere near that many miles every day. An automobile is usually on the road an hour a day or less. The batteries are rapidly improving. And "electric filling stations" are starting to proliferate. The heavily traveled Route 5 Corridor through Washington, Oregon and California is about to host the West Coast Electric Highway, with charging stations every 40-60 miles along the way. With the speed and power of the charge improving daily, 2 million or more electric cars may travel Route 5 alone.
But what makes green energy so exciting in general is its astonishing adaptability. According to Warmke, a new breakthrough now involves "the invention of a process whereby photovoltaic panels can actually be produced in a manner very similar to printing."
And, he says, "by printing the photovoltaic energy source directly on the surface of nearly any suitable product (be it paper or cloth or plastic), the only added cost will be in the production, not in the material."
As that happens, electrical generation will be everywhere. Politically, it will undercut the power of the energy corporations in particular, and all corporations in general. Distributed generation, as it's often called, will mean everyone can generate and use their own industrial energy, regardless of what the corporate 1 percent has to say or wants to charge.
Overall, Jay Warmke's often funny, always compelling excursion to Solartopia makes it clear that when it comes to green power, "opportunities abound that will make the Industrial Revolution look like a second-rate warm-up act for the real show."
And the real show is a green-powered economy that is sustainable, inexpensive and provides jobs for all those who want them.
As Warmke concludes: "One thing is certain. It's sure going to be exciting."
As is his book. Take it, read it and enjoy. Then go out and work. Shut a nuke. Stop a coal-burner. End fracking.
I'm sure if you visit Jay and Annie at Blue Rock Station, they'll have some suggestions. And that they'll be every bit as fun, provocative and productive as this excellent book.
Harvey Wasserman's Solartopia Green Power & Wellness Show is at www.progressiveradionetwork.com, and he edits www.nukefree.org. Harvey Wasserman's History of the U.S. and Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth are at www.harveywasserman.com along with Passions of the PotSmoking Patriots by "Thomas Paine." He and Bob Fitrakis have co-authored four books on election protection, including How the GOP Stole America's 2004 Election, at www.freepress.org.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>