Category Archives: energy

Energy: A Human History – Review


Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

Cradle to Cradle – A review

Book cover for Cradle to Cradle - blue top and green bottom with mirrored vehicle silhouettes

Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is about envisioning a better way to manage human interactions with the natural world. The authors ask,

“What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?”

Starting from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, they analyze the design decisions that led capitalist society to the environmental crossroads it faces today. While things weren’t quite so dire in 2002 when the book was written, its analyses of the pitfalls of rampant industrialization are thorough and thought provoking.

The most refreshing part of this book though is it isn’t just a list of where capitalism went wrong and why we’re all doomed. Cradle to Cradle outlines ways in which designers, engineers, and scientists can work together to deconstruct the current way we make things and redesign our material lives to benefit the natural world. The main idea, which I find to be very solarpunk, is to look at how in nature there is no waste. Everything serves a purpose in the environment. The fruit of the cherry tree feeds birds and animals while those animals spread the seeds of the tree. The droppings of those birds and animals fertilize the ground where the cherry tree and its offspring grow so that they can offer more food. Everything has its place in the cycle.

In one project, a shampoo was redesigned from scratch to only have positive effects by carefully selecting every chemical going into it, including the bottle. Herman Miller had a new factory designed including natural lighting, more ventilation, and a “street” with plants inside to bring nature closer to the workers. As we saw with the Nature Fix, bringing humans and nature together has positive benefits for human health, and by bringing the outdoors in, Herman Miller was able to bring its new focus on environmental sustainability to the forefront.

photo of pile of ripped carton

Photo by Luka Siemionov on

The book isn’t just anecdotes and feel-good aphorisms, it also includes a framework for how to approach design to ensure maximum good. One of the ongoing themes in the book is that so far, most industry has tried to do less bad to the environment when it cares at all, but it’s time to go a step further and see how we can take industry and make it improve the world around us.

A success story in this vein tells of a textile factory in Europe that worked to make a better upholstery fabric for office chairs. When the regulators came to check the factory’s wastewater (effluent), they were confused as the water coming out of the plant was cleaner than that going in.

The equipment was working fine; it was simply that by most parameters the water coming out of the factory was as clean as — or even cleaner than — the water going in. When a factory’s effluent is cleaner than its influent, it might well prefer to use its effluent as influent. Being designed into the manufacturing process, this dividend is free and requires no enforcement to continue or to exploit. Not only did our new design process bypass the traditional responses to environmental problems (reduce, reuse, recycle), it also eliminated the need for regulation, something that any businessperson will appreciate as extremely valuable.

One of the things I’m hoping to investigate further in 2019 is the circular economy, and I think the design strategies outlined in Cradle to Cradle are a good first step in this direction. I found there is a followup book called The Upcycle written in 2013 that I will be checking out from the library soon.

Have you read Cradle to Cradle or have thoughts on the circular economy? Let us know below!

Solarpunk winters

aurora borealis

Photo by Tobias Bjørkli on

As we observe the winter solstice, my thoughts have turned to how solarpunks approach winter. As the days turn dark and cold, how does a society dependent on the sun continue to prosper?


If anyone knows about how to approach long nights, it’s the people who live at the poles. Finland, which was recently rated the world’s happiest country, has no shortage of darkness given it’s proximity to the Earth’s North Pole. In the northernmost parts of the country, the sun doesn’t rise for 51 days in the winter. Why are they so happy then? A stable government with minimal corruption is probably a contributing factor, along with free healthcare and college programs. In the Nature Fix, author Florence Williams suggests it’s the access to nature. Provided you don’t cut down anyone’s trees or damage their property, there’s no such thing as trespassing in Finland. Unlike in the United States where fences and no trespassing signs prohibit free passage, you can hike from one end of Finland to another without running afoul of the law. Also, the combination of low population density and relatively late urbanization, most of Finland’s population is only minutes away from a Nordic walk in the woods or one of the many wintertime diversions available to residents such as ice skating or cross country skiing. For more, check out this Buzzfeed article that is a nice summary of how Fins stay happy, no matter the weather.

white sheep on farm

Photo by kailash kumar on


While the vegans in the audience will groan, I feel wool is one of the best resources we have when it comes to staying warm in the wintertime. Since wool is a material that can be harvested without harming the sheep, it seems like a win-win to me. It’s important to look at how you’re sourcing the wool when you get it, but wool from a well-treated sheep will keep you warm at the expense of them getting a haircut. Is wool cheap? No. But, it mother nature has taken millions of years plus a few hundred of human intervention to develop a fabric that breathes well, is the bomb at temperature regulation, and like all natural fibers, is biodegradable. That last part is important since so much of the microplastics in the ocean are coming from washing our synthetic fabrics. REI has a great article about sustainable clothing and textile choices for more info on wool and other options to stay warm in the winter/

Geothermal heat pumps

One way to make sure things stay toasty is with geothermal, or ground source, heat pumps. Often overlooked as a source of clean power, geothermal electricity generation isn’t something that works in all areas. Geothermal heat pumps work just about anywhere though to help keep things nice and warm inside with a minimal investiture of electrical power. In short, geothermal heat pumps replace the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system of a building and use the Earth as a heat sink. Since the ground is roughly 18 Celsius in most places, you can cool in the summer and heat in the winter with little energy expenditure. According to Wikipedia, these systems offer a 44-75% increase in efficiency over more traditional heating systems. The US Department of Energy has a good overview of the technology.

Solar fluid

In an interesting development announced last month, scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have developed a fluid that can store solar energy for up to  18 years. So, excess capacity in the summer could be stored into the winter from your solar array and retrieved when needed. Since the system is heat storage, it can be converted to electricity, or could be used as a means of storing summer’s warmth to heat your home in the winter. The original paper can be found here in Energy and Environmental Science.

Person wearing a black, white, and crimson cape patterned like moth wings. Cape is wider than armspan in width, makeing the wearer appear to have moth wings.

Moth Wings Cape by CostureoReal on Etsy


I would be remiss to not mention our lunarpunk cousins here when talking about the darkest time of the year. Lunarpunks are the night dwellers of solarpunk society. They are a subculture within our subculture, favoring the night. Biomimmicry of bioluminescent creatures, moth-themed cloaks, and gossamer fabrics fluttering in the night breeze are some of the aesthetic influences here. Winter would be the lunarpunk’s time to be more active, hosting all kinds of events in the cooler nights from art displays to street festivals.

Do you have any thoughts on what solarpunk winters might be like? Let us know below, or consider submitting a story to World Weaver Press’s call for stories for their Solarpunk Winters anthology which opens in January!

What is Solarpunk, anyway?

photo of smiling woman in white dress and brown boots posing in multicolored glass house

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on

The first thing you need to acknowledge when looking at solarpunk is that the world is on fire. The last few centuries of human development have taken a growth-at-all-costs approach to building up human society, and unfortunately, the bill is due. Solarpunk began as an attempt to imagine a brighter future wherein humans managed to transcend our current predicament and come out better for it on the other side. What began as a smattering of neat drawings and inspirational ideals is slowly coalescing into a movement to take back the Earth from the powers that would see it smolder.

Where is the punk in solarpunk? It’s in direct action to oppose ICE and police violence. It’s in the community energy coop putting solar panels on their roofs to save money. It’s the guerrilla gardeners throwing seed bombs into fenced-off abandoned properties. It’s in the schools where transgender students are welcome in the bathroom of their choice. It’s in the makerspace where people are finding ways to repurpose waste into useful and beautiful items. It’s remaking society into that hopeful future. The punk of solarpunk is in the now. The solarpunk future won’t happen without a concerted effort by a lot of people to fight the status quo and the powers keeping things that way.

Solarpunk doesn’t have one encompassing political or aesthetic vision. I think the most cohesive elements though are equity, environment, and appropriate technology. Equity is more complicated than simple equality, as it requires us to make sure everyone has what they need, which may not be the same exact thing as demanded by equality. For example, living with disabilities is more expensive and results in most disabled individuals having poor economic outcomes. While the exact method of providing an equitable society is something that will need experimentation, that goal is one of the central tenets of solarpunk.

Keeping the environment in mind as a stakeholder in all decision-making processes is another important theme in solarpunk. From the name, you can tell that solarpunk prefers a renewably-powered future, but reducing plastic waste, air and noise pollution, and waste are also environmentally-motivated goals of the solarpunk community. We’ve only got the one planet, so let’s make sure to keep Mother Earth in good shape. She doesn’t need us, but we need her desperately.

Appropriate technology is the idea that we don’t necessarily need “smart” everything in our lives. While solarpunk doesn’t eschew technology like some primitivists, solarpunk is interested in only using the appropriate level of technology for the task at hand and not making technology for technology’s sake alone.

If you’re concerned about climate change or the growing march of fascism across the globe, you might already be a solarpunk and not know it. To learn more check out the Scuttlebutt social network or look for #solarpunk on Mastadon or Tumblr. If you have any questions feel free to use the contact form on this website or comment below.

Being FOR something

It’s easy to be against something. Antifa, MADD, and many other organizations are formed around being against some idea, some thing, or somebody. The US election system has been overrun by politicians saying you should vote for me because I’m against them. Don’t vote for a 3rd party because you have to vote against the tyrant running against me.

When did we stop acting for something? Are we just so jaded as a species that we won’t stand up for anything? We’re just against whatever terrible thing is next and unwilling to suggest solutions to the problem. What happened to creation, ingenuity, or gumption?

Solarpunk imagines a future beyond against. To those who say the speculative is a waste of time and say there’s no value in an imagined better future, I say get out of the way. Is solarpunk just pretty pictures and science on the edge? No. It’s a lighthouse for our aspirations and all of those fanciful images and articles are guideposts to what we’re fighting for. I’m done living in a world against fossil fuels, against megacorps, against starvation, and against injustice. I want to live in a world for renewables, for community, for abundance, and for equity.

Solarpunk is about putting people in charge of their own destinies and helping each other get there. We’re in this together, so let’s start being for humans and cast of this negative cloud of against.

Seizing the means of production – What does 3D printing mean for solarpunk?

Solarpunk Station is the proud owner of a new 3D printer! I am hoping to use it to produce useful objects as well as provide insights on how distributed manufacturing relates to solarpunk. This should be the first of many articles related to additive manufacturing.


TL;DR: 3D printers have a lot of promise to disrupt manufacturing of household goods, but don’t get one yet if you’re not ready to tinker.

Most consumer 3D printers are basically a hot glue gun that uses plastic filament instead of glue sticks. A nozzle is suspended above a platform and computer-generated files are fed to the machine where it deposits plastic layer by layer to form a 3D object. There are other types of 3D printers that use UV light and/or lasers to form objects layer by layer from vats of goo or powder, but the basic idea is the same.

The main advantage of 3D printing is how it changes people’s mindset in relation to goods. If you spend some time on Thingiverse or Youmagine you’ll see people openly sharing things they’ve designed with each other. There are also some marketplaces like Cults3D that include a section for designs for sale, but the bulk of current design work is open. We’re moving from distributed, open software development like Linux and Firefox to distributed and open development of physical items.

Pineapple-inspired bowl (orange) with green leaves surrounding the edge. Only five of the 10 leaves are finished.

The orange part of the bowl took 30 hours to print. The leaves each took about an hour, so there’s ~35 hours of print time here. Total time was over 40 hours once all 10 leaves were finished.

Remixes take the open nature of 3D printable designs to the next level. People can adapt a previous design to a different device, or take a part and make it better, stronger, or faster to print. Since so many files are open source you’re free to adapt an item to your needs. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought that something I’d purchased was pretty cool except for one issue that I repeatedly turned over in my head. Without an easy way to make a replacement part, I was stuck with it. Now with a 3D printer, I can download a design, change anything I don’t like and upload my remix for others to find. While watching a part print can feel excruciatingly slow at times (the pineapple bowl took almost two days at 130% size), making something and being able to iterate on the design is still much faster than with most other methods.

These remixes extend to things you already own too. While I can’t print a replacement saucepan yet, I can repair or improve a lot of objects around the house. There’s a great subreddit for functional prints with lots of cool ideas, and Thingiverse has a pretty big section for replacement parts. DeskGrown is a new company that sells parts that can’t be printed for their designs and gives away the printable files for free. They have a clock and a set of headphones so far. I think we’ll see more of this hybrid model popping up since desktop 3D printers are limited to plastics at the moment.

While to some extent, 3D printing is over-hyped, I think it will be one of the critically enabling technologies for a solarpunk world. Not everything can be 3D printed, but a lot of everyday objects can be, meaning you can ship 1 kg of filament to your house and make several things for the same amount of packaging, cost, and environmental waste you would have for one item before.

The two main drawbacks of 3D printing are the learning curve and generation of plastic waste. As a beginner, I have had several failed prints. I believe the number of failed prints will go down considerably as I get more experience with the printer, but 3D printing is still not a zero waste manufacturing process. I am keeping failed prints and other scraps in a bag in hopes that I will be able to reprocess it into fresh filament in the future.

Failed cat ball toy print looks more like spaghetti...

This doesn’t look like a cat ball…

The plastic I have been printing is PLA (polylactic acid) which is a bioplastic made from various plant-based sources. It is biodegradable and can be recycled in a closed loop back to virgin material standards, making it one of the few Cradle-to-Cradle plastics available. Many other materials are available for 3D printers including ABS (often used in car parts), PET (soda/water bottle plastic), wax for metal casting molds, and TPU (flexible/rubbery plastic). With such a wide variety of materials available, it’s difficult to determine the exact environmental cost of 3D printing. If PLA were able to sate everyone’s needs, then we wouldn’t have the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but every material has it’s strengths and weaknesses, so that isn’t the case. On a bright note, PLA is one of the easier plastics to print with, so it has one of the highest adoption rates in the community.

We’re a long way away from the ease of use of the replicator in Star Trek. Using a 3D printer requires a lot of fine tuning and trial-and-error. I imagine the off-the-shelf solutions are better than kits, but 3D printers are still a large time investment. We’ll probably get to the point where you can buy one that just works, but as of now, a 3D printer requires a lot of time to get really good results.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to build your own computers or work on bicycles and really know what’s going on with the machines you’re using then I definitely recommend getting a kit. Otherwise, you’re probably better off finding someone locally with a printer on Make XYZ, Hubs, or getting a design printed straight from Thingiverse or Shapeways. In fact, you may want to reach out to local 3D printer folk even if you do want to get a printer yourself. Most people who are 3D printing are glad to share their opinions on different models as well as tips and tricks to get better results. There may even be a Meetup in your area.

3D printers will play a role in distributed manufacturing along with CNCs, laser cutters, and other machine tools. We’re a long way away from asking Alexa to make “Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” but we may get there eventually. The space has moved very quickly over the last ten years, and I expect the next ten will be equally exciting.

Do you have a 3D printer or know someone who does? Are there any solarpunk ideas that are particularly well suited to 3D printing you’d like to see us explore? Sound off below!

Top Ten Recent Solarpunk Science Stories


I’m going to be on a panel about recent advances in science this weekend at JordanCon in Atlanta, so I thought I’d put together a quick Top Ten as I prepare. In no particular order, here are my selections for the Top Ten Recent Solarpunk Science Stories (2017/2018):

  1. Scientists Accidentally Create Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastic Bottles
  2. Massive Iceberg Breaks off from Antarctica
  3. NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star
  4. CRISPR gene editing moved into new territory in 2017
  5. Air-eating bacteria found in Antarctica
  6. LIGO and Virgo make first detection of gravitational waves produced by colliding neutron stars
  7. ETH zurich 3D prints a beating artificial heart
  8. ‘print your city’ initiative sees 3D-printed plastic bags become urban furniture
  9. ‘shoetopia’ project makes sneakers sustainable with biodegradable footwear, 3D-printed on demand
  10. Trump’s Solar Tariff is a Bad Idea

via Real Clear Science, Scientific American, COSMOS, Design Boom

Image: “A Touch of Science” by Mars P. via a CC BY 2.0 License