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China’s mega ‘solar cities’ are great, but sustainability is about scaling stuff down

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I recently spent a day in Dezhou, one of China’s famed ‘solar cities’. As a bright and cheery advertisement explained, “Just like the Silicon Valley, this is the Solar Valley.”

The ad was remarkable for several reasons. First, China’s economic development plan of copying hallmark western institutions was essentially nicely summarised in that simple slogan. Second, the peppy poster instilled in me images of an entire city feeding itself off solar electricity. Strangely, by the end of the day, I felt that my expectations were mostly satisfied.

I guess if you were to ask me what I’d expected before my arrival in Dezhou, I would have shrugged and muttered something about a solar theme park. The images from the flashy website and brochure suggested a playground for solar enthusiasts; a place where, for one moment, we could glimpse the city of the future with an entire infrastructure powered by the sun. Dezhou was not this city exactly, but it was close enough and certainly a pleasant place to go.

The Dezhou adventure started out awkwardly but earnestly. It was clear the staff at the solar city had not had any foreign visitors in quite a while by the way they shuffled around nervously, anxious to help any way they could. However, their hard labour to be the most hospitable was very much appreciated.

The day before, we had contacted our tour guide Laura to confirm that she could show us all around the Solar Valley. She met us at 9am in lobby of the Himin Solar office building and hotel. Himin, the primary owner of Solar Valley, is also a huge leader in solar thermal water heaters – the main technology we were shown.

We toured the lobby to see displays of different solar products; from a solar barbecue to a standard solar thermal water heater. We then looked at a diorama that I’m sure was a big hit with Chinese investors. It showed the planned large campus of present and future buildings to come.

The main entrance will be flanked by a tall solar archway and wind turbines, and the main building should be the largest completely solar powered office building in the world. There are also plans to build housing for students who are seeking training on how to manufacture and operate Himin solar products, and several model homes will be built to showcase solar integration. It’s a very large Solar Valley indeed, but then again being impressively large is I’m sure part of the plan.

We then got into a car and were driven to a group of state-of-the-art solar integrated condominiums. These buildings were like every other brand new condominium you see all over China but with solar panels and water heaters attached to their roofs. There were very few people actually living there, but our tour guide insisted the condo would fill up with tenants very soon.

After some lunch and some rest, the tour resumed. We entered the factory where Himin manufactures solar thermal water heaters. You can see solar water heaters everywhere in the country, so it was interesting to see the manufacturing process.

We explored the roof of the factory and examined the different solar arrays. There are the silicon photovoltaic (PV) panels that the average person imagines when solar power is mentioned, as well as solar thermal water heaters that use solar power to heat your household’s water.

Himin has also actually found a way to convert the thermal energy (heat) to electricity. We also saw concentrated solar panels where the light is directed to one, highly efficient solar cell, reminding us that concentrated solar was developed to lower production costs of PV.

The tour finished with a leisurely walk through the strange but pleasant solar park. The park had been the site of an international competition of architects that chose an element (earth, wind, fire, water) as a theme around which to build their solar homes. The park made for some unique views.

I appreciated the day because we learned more about what alternative energy purveyors in China can do to attract investors and enthusiasts. Laura was an excellent guide; candid and easygoing, with a host of information to share about Himin’s technology, the campus, and the ups and downs of solar industry in general.

It was good. Great. Fine. I guess my real issue is the very premise of a large Solar Valley. When trying to motivate public investment for a new idea, I suppose it is wise to have demonstrative area, to give a tangible image of what a solar future might look like. I don’t have any problem with that.

My contention lies with the size and scale of the Solar Valley. China is attracted to big productions, as demonstrated by the country’s ever-growing collection of sprawling shopping malls and wind farms. The issue of sustainability becomes confused when companies set out to build something big and brand new; a Solar Valley with 44 buildings, for example, or a brand new ‘eco city’ like that constructed in Tianjin.

One of the most important parts of resiliency is understanding that our buildings and our very way of life need to be scaled down and decentralised to cope with a hotter and more erratic climate. When we spread the risk to deal with unforeseen events, we are that much more able to handle crises.

Unfortunately, we live in a time in which consolidation is efficient and profitable. We see this consolidation everyday with our food production, banking and media, to name just a few examples. The more you stack your chips on one number, the higher your risk will be when you lose. The banking crisis is an excellent example of what happens when consolidation fails: it fails big time.

So, after touring the Solar Valley, I couldn’t help thinking that despite Himin’s laudable goal, the means of achieving that end might be flawed. Building an area that will exemplify clean energy, green design and sustainable agriculture is a great idea – but I dislike that these demonstrative sites must be huge, out of the way ‘solar cities’.

I would think that an easier example to showcase solar power for the public would be to make a solar house in every major neighbourhood in Beijing or Shanghai, or display an ecological garden or food forest in a local public park.

The Solar Valley stops becoming sustainable when folks have to drive or take a train for several hours to observe all of its glory. Across the world, individuals and communities are working to live more sustainably, and they are doing that, first and foremost, by acting locally.

Ted Swagerty is currently travelling through Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and writing about the steady emergence of small-scale renewable energy and alternative agriculture.

Further reading:

China: economic supremacy at any cost or global environmental leadership

We need expert problem-solvers to build the cities of the future

Green versus grey infrastructure

Leo Johnson and the power of people

Rob Hopkins: Transition Towns is the only ethically defensible thing to do

Editors Choice

2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage

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Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/droidworker

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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Environment

How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018

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eco-responsible
Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/kengmerrymikeymelody

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly

eco-friendly

Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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