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Beanstalk 2013

Lisa Song | Feb 04, 2010 04:09 AM

WANTED: thrill-seeking gardeners with a love of heights. Experience washing skyscraper windows a plus.

Such an ad might appear in Portland, Oreg., by 2013. Thanks to government stimulus funds, the city's main federal building will be renovated with giant plant-bearing trellises down its western side. These "vegetated fins" will shade the building in summer and let sunlight through in winter. Plus, it means hyper-local produce in the middle of a city.

Vertical farming projects not unlike this one were voted among TIME Magazine's 50 Best Inventions of 2009:

Real estate — the one thing we're not making any more of. That might be good news for landlords but not for the world's farmers, who have finite cropland to feed a growing global population. The answer: build up by farming vertically.


The ultimate vertical farm is the kind proposed by Dr. Dickson Despommier of Columbia University -- 30 floors of grains, vegetables, and fruit inside a skyscraper, complete with water recycling, hydroponic systems and wind turbines on the roof. For now, cost is the major barrier, with some estimates in the billions.

Valcent Products Inc. is piloting a tiny version of Despommier's dream. But the vegetated fins in Portland (even if they're outside and not inside the building), which will cost $133 million, might give a better idea of the potential for serious vertical gardening.


Green energy isn't always popular

Ed Quillen | Feb 03, 2010 05:45 AM

    My part of the world gets way too much wind along with plenty of sunshine. It also has some unusual geology which allows the earth's inner heat to come closer to the surface.
    Our wind, despite the window-rattling power of its gusts, is too sporadic to attract much commercial interest in developing this form of "green energy."
    But solar and geothermal energy projects have been getting some attention, not all of it positive. No matter how green the energy source, a development can still generate opposition long before it generates electricity.
    Solar has already attracted substantial investment with the 8.2-megawatt SunEdison plant in the San Luis Valley, but further development will likely require more transmission capacity -- and the proposed route over La Veta Pass faces opposition from a billionaire landownerr, while local ranchers have questions about one generating site.
    The San Luis Valley is part of a bigger geologic structure known as the Rio Grande Rift, which extends south through New Mexico to El Paso, Texas, and north into the upper Arkansas Valley of Colorado.
    Put simply, there's a sunken valley floor flanked by mountain ranges. The earth's crust is being pulled apart here; a geologist friend told me that "If you wonder what the Atlantic Ocean looked like 70 million years ago, before North America separated from Europe, just look around."
    The process means that there are faults -- big systems of cracks -- in the earth's crust along the sides of the rift. This allows molten rock (magma) to come closer to the surface. If it gets to the surface, it's a volcano, but just getting close often produces a hot spring.
    Thus there are hot springs along the Rio Grande Rift, among them Poncha Springs (which sit east of the town), Valley View on the east side of the northern San Luis Valley, and Mt. Princeton along Chalk Creek southwest of Buena Vista.
    The same earth energy that produces hot springs might also be put to work generating electricity with a geothermal power plant, and the federal Bureau of Land Management has proposed leasing some geothermal rights in the Mt. Princeton Area, in line with an Obama administration directive to support green energy.
    However, this hasn't exactly thrilled residents along Chalk Creek, who have succeeded in delaying the lease, citing a variety of reasons.
    But it should be noted that the Chalk Creek valley is hardly pristine. A few miles west of the hot springs there was a century of mining as evidenced by the ghost towns of Alpine, St. Elmo, Romley and Hancock. A coal-fired narrow-gauge railroad served those towns and continued west through the Alpine Tunnel to Gunnison. A dam and hydro-electric plant provided electric power to gold dredges in Taylor Park.
    In other words, it was an industrial zone that has, over time, become a scenic rural residential and resort area. And one where there are some valid concerns about further developing the geothermal energy that some residents and businesses already use.


Is this the nuclear renaissance?

Rachel Waldholz | Feb 02, 2010 09:35 AM

It’s been a big week for nuclear power.

First there was the conspicuous nuclear shout-out in the State of the Union last Wednesday, followed by the White House announcement, on Friday, that the Energy Department will explore new solutions for coping with nuclear waste. Then, yesterday, the administration released its budget proposal, with a plan to triple federal loan guarantees for nuclear power plants to $54 billion.

All this comes at a time when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is facing a "tsunami" of applications for new nuclear reactors, according to the Investigative Reporting Workshop's Judy Pasternak. After decades without approving a single application, the NRC has received 17 since 2007, prompted by incentives created during the Bush years. And while many companies want to build new reactors on sites which already host old ones, a handful are proposing wholly new locations, which means that some communities are starting to have debates nobody has had for 25 years.

One of them is Green River, Utah. That's where Blue Castle Holdings Inc. a three-year-old, politically well-connected start-up, wants to build Utah's first nuclear power plant.

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Less parking, better air -- a la carte

Nicholas Neely | Feb 02, 2010 09:15 AM

I salivate over wide-open spaces. Bliss, for me, is a sprawling view of distant ranges and crisp horizons—or a free, fortuitous curbside parking spot five minutes before a crowded event. Yet my environmental better half knows that "free parking" isn’t free, and that there are plenty of other types of euphoria to be had, like not having to drive at all.

In California, State Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) is working on a controversial bill that, last Thursday, was approved for the full Assembly’s consideration. Its aim? To reveal the actual costs of parking and create incentives for California cities to shift from a pro-parking model to a pay-to-pollute stance that helps to alleviate traffic and save the air. 

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Cows vs. RATs

Jodi Peterson | Feb 01, 2010 09:40 AM

The Forest Service and the BLM have just announced the 2010 fee for grazing one cow and calf on public land.

Back in 1966, the fee was $1.23 per month. For comparison, here are the prices of some common items in 1966 and today:

Item  In 1966   Today
New car $2,650   $23,000
Gallon of gas .32   $3.72
Gallon of milk .99   $2.68
Postage stamp .05   .44
Minimum wage $1.25   $7.25


So given those sorts of price increases, what do you think the 2010 grazing fee is? $5? $10? $15? Nope.

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Green energy isn't always popular

Ed Quillen | Jan 31, 2010 03:11 AM

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Still snowed in

Cally Carswell | Jan 29, 2010 07:48 AM

An editorial in last weekend’s Arizona Daily Sun described the paper’s "awe" at emergency response to the epic storm that dumped more than four feet of snow on Flagstaff. But while life in the city goes back to normal, stranded residents in Indian country are still digging out.

The West’s recent rash of apocalyptic weather has spread sparse emergency resources on reservations in the Southwest and South Dakota even more thin. According to a report in today’s Arizona Daily Sun, the Arizona National Guard has air dropped almost 22,000 meals to Navajo and Hopi families this week. About 22,000 gallons of drinking water have gone out as well, and "pilots [are] still finding communities they had not known about."

Ice storms have hit the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota equally hard. There, storms brought down thousands of power lines -- bad news for  what was already "one of the U.S.’s poorest communities," according to the Wall Street Journal:

With just 10,000 residents spread across 2.8 million acres, many Cheyenne River families depend on electricity transmitted across hundreds of empty miles to run pumps for drinking water, or to power the ignition modules on natural-gas and propane heaters.

Last year the tribe earned $175,000 leasing land to nontribal ranchers and deposited the money in an emergency fund. That fund is now exhausted, the tribal chairman said. A special Wells Fargo account established to help raise funds to evacuate tribal members with medical needs brought in just $450 in donations on its first day, said Eileen Briggs, a Cheyenne River Tribal executive.

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Borderline environmental justice

Nicholas Neely | Jan 29, 2010 05:00 AM

Recently, the New York Times reported on immigration and drug traffic across the U.S.-Mexico border where it crosscuts the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona, a story HCN covered in-depth in 2007. The situation is horrific: strangers knock on doors to entice and scare tribal members into smuggling, while pervasive Border Patrol inconvenience and intimidate the O’odham people on a daily basis. The Times reports:

(S)ome residents are angry at the intrusion of hundreds of federal agents, including some who stay for a week at a time on bases in remote parts of the reservation. The surge in agents who cruise the roads has meant more checkpoints and tighter controls on a border that tribal members, 1,500 of whom live in Mexico, once freely crossed.

The once-placid reservation feels like a “militarized zone,” said Ned Norris Jr., the tribal chairman, who also says the tribe must cooperate to stem the cartels. “Drug smuggling is a problem we didn’t create, but now we’re having to deal with the consequences.”

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Big cat boondoggle?

Cally Carswell | Jan 26, 2010 08:11 AM

Alan Rabinowitz might be the last person you’d expect to denounce the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to designate critical habitat for jaguars. Rabinowitz was instrumental in creating the world’s first jaguar preserve in Belize in the eighties. He’s the head honcho of Panthera, an organization with the "sole mission" of protecting wild cats around the world. He's the kind of guy National Geographic makes documentaries about.

But in yesterday’s New York Times, Rabinowitz boldly called the critical habitat decision "a slap in the face to good science." Rabinowitz’s basic argument is that jaguar habitat in the Southwest is marginal "at best." He says conservation efforts would be more effectively directed south of the border, where "thousands of jaguars live and breed in their true critical habitat." This is the same line of reasoning Fish and Wildlife officials followed in years past when they refused to designate habitat or draft a recovery plan for the big cats (See our 2008 story, "Jaguar's road to recovery unmapped," and 2007 story, "Cat Fight on the Border"). But now, Rabinowitz makes this provocative point: Jaguar critical habitat could be bad for the Endangered Species Act. Here’s his explanation:

The recent move by the Fish and Wildlife Service means that the sparse federal funds devoted to protecting wild animals will be wasted on efforts that cannot help save jaguars. It also stands to weaken the Endangered Species Act, because if critical habitat is redefined as any place where a species might ever have existed, and where you or I might want it to exist again, then the door is open for many other senseless efforts to bring back long-lost creatures.

The Fish and Wildlife officials whose job it is to protect the country’s wild animals need to grow a stronger backbone — stick with their original, correct decision and save their money for more useful preservation work. Otherwise, when funds are needed to preserve all those small, ugly, non-charismatic endangered species at the back of the line, there may be no money left.

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The costs of coal

Jodi Peterson | Jan 25, 2010 09:05 AM

A controversial new report on the economics of Powder River Basin coal was written by a University of Wyoming economist -- and paid for by the Wyoming Mining Association. As you might expect, the report provides some boosterish facts about coal:

  • The Powder River Basin, which stretches across 20,000 square miles of Wyoming and Montana, boasts nearly nine times the energy resources of Saudi Arabia
  • Annually, it would take one of the following to replace the energy produced by burning PRB coal:
    • 95 1,000-megawatt capacity nuclear power plants operating at 85 percent capacity.
    • 177 hydroelectric plants the size of Hoover dam producing 4 billion kilowatts an hour per year.
    • 201,922 wind turbines each operating at 2 megawatts.

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