Tag Archives: energy

Hundred Rabbits – Real Life Tidalpunks

Two humans wearing rabbit masks complete with large ears stand on a rocky outcrop with barren trees and a vast sky in the background. There are mountains in the background as well with cumulus clouds above.
The Rabbits

You may have noticed that I’m somewhat obsessed with tidalpunk around here, but since I hadn’t even seen the ocean until I was in my 20s, I’m probably not the best person for advice about how to actually be a tidalpunk. This is where you would be better served by the artist collective, Hundred Rabbits.

Hundred Rabbits is an ocean-faring duo writing energy efficient software and finding ways to better mesh life on a sailboat with tech work. They’ve documented much of what they’ve learned on subjects like living off grid, why they’ve developed their own software tools, and how you can shop for your very own sailboat to live the tidalpunk life.

We talk a lot about keeping gadgets going longer and designing them for repairability here, and Hundred Rabbits are living that out in a much more extreme environment than we have here in central Virginia. According to their stated philosophy, “We target 20 years old hardware as to encourage recyclism and discourage the consumption of fashionable electronics.” They’re really hitting the Reduce and Reuse parts of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The fact they also use a 2010 MacBook Pro as one of their main machines makes me even more excited to have been introduced to their work.

Are there any other tidalpunks out there that you’ve run across? Are you going to buy a boat and join them yourself? Let us know in the comments!


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RadRunner Plus Long Term Review

A step-through ebike sits on a shared path. Trees and grass line the edges as it curves off to the right in the distance.
My Radrunner Plus on the John Warner Parkway Trail in Charlottesville

After having my RadRunner Plus for nearly two years, I thought it was time for a long term review. Getting an ebike isn’t a small financial decision, and I was both excited and a little nervous spending what I did to pre-order a brand new model of ebike. Some of you out there might be on the fence about whether to get an ebike yourself, so I hope this helps in some way.

From hauling groceries, taking things to the recycling center, selling crafts at the farmers market, or going to the park with my kid, the RadRunner Plus has made biking around town an option for me. The electric assist makes me feel much safer when having to contend with traffic since the speed differential is much lower than when I was still riding my traditional bike.

Riding the bike is still a little less convenient than driving a car around Charlottesville, but it is a lot more fun. I need to plan my routes more carefully than if I were driving, and parking the bike can be a hassle since most places have plenty of car storage but no place to stick a bike securely.

Bike theft isn’t a huge problem in Charlottesville, but an acquaintance and his wife had their RadRunner Plus and RadWagon stolen not too long ago, so I’ve been a little more anxious with respect to parking the bike lately. If you’re worried about bike theft, I’d recommend this episode of the Bike Here podcast.

I kept my bike in front of our townhouse under a motorcycle cover for about a year with no issues, but have since moved it inside. During that time I didn’t really ride the bike since we had the new baby, but everything booted right up when I plugged in the battery despite being out in all weather conditions. I’m not sure if that’s a point in favor of RadPower Bikes or the Pro Bike Tools cover, but good job either way.

There are still certain aspects of riding a bike in America that make it more difficult to just hop on and go versus driving. Helmets aren’t a huge inconvenience, but it’s an added bit of friction compared to taking the car. When I was just riding by myself, I didn’t always wear one, but now that I’ve got a tiny human on board, it’s helmets all around. Despite the inconveniences, I did have two errands last week that I think demonstrate how ebikes can be a great car replacement.

The cat bus from "My Neighbor Totoro." The cat bus is a large orange tabby cat with ten legs that's back looks like the passenger compartment of a bus with open air windows and covered with fur. Two mice with purple glowing eyes make up the marking lights on the top of the cab.
Charlottesville Area Transit’s acronym is CAT

First up was an unexpected run to the pharmacy. I was thinking of taking the bus, but since the bus only comes once an hour it made more sense to grab the bike. While it took a little longer in travel time than driving, I suspect our time door-to-door was similar since there is bike parking next to the pharmacy while the parking garage would’ve taken more time to navigate. The only worry I had was I hadn’t charged the bike and three trips into town stretched the battery to its limits. That’s a range of >25 miles in 80-92ºF (27-33ºC) weather hauling 250 lbs (113 kg) of humans around. I didn’t run the battery down all the way, so I don’t know how much further we might have been able to go. The battery did go empty on my way back from a grocery run before, and I do not recommend it unless you’re really looking for a new fitness regimen.

The second trip was to pickup our CSA from the farmers market. My child and I normally take the car after my wife gets home, but she wasn’t going to be back in time for us to make the farmers market before it closed this time. Ebike to the rescue again. All the vegetables fit in the front delivery bag along with a couple other items I picked up while we were there. Even in the 80s with 76% humidity, the ride was comfortable since on the bike you’ve got a breeze when you’re moving. I think I needed more cooldown time at the end than if I’d driven, but, since the car would have to cool down before it was comfortable, I wasn’t any sweatier if we’d driven.

Image shows the underside of a brown bike seat. The seat is mounted via a solid metal plate instead of the more traditional adjustable seat mount found on most bikes.
This Seat Features Zero Adjustability

The only complaints I have about the RadRunner Plus are the uncomfortable stock seat, the poor options for mounting the headlight if you have a front rack, and the flimsy kickstand. Definitely DO NOT step away from the bike with a kid onboard! I’m looking for a better kickstand solution, but my first pick, the Ursus Jumbo, doesn’t work on 20″ bikes. I decided to give it a go despite the manufacturer recommendations, and I can confirm it doesn’t fit the RadRunner Plus.

If you’re on the fence about getting an ebike, I think you’ll really be impressed what they can do. They are definitely going to be part of our solarpunk future. I really like the RadRunner Plus, but everyone’s needs are a little different. You can’t haul more than one other person on this bike, so that might sway you one way or the other for a RadRunner vs a RadWagon if you’re looking at entry-level cargo bikes. If you’ve got a bigger budget, I’ve heard great things about the Tern and Urban Arrow bikes some people have here in town. I was incredulous when people said having an ebike is a game changer for getting around in a city, but they were totally right.

Do you have an ebike or cargo bike you love? Let us know down below!


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Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US

Greater Gabbard Wind Farm in the UK – photo by SSE via a CC BY-ND 2.0 license

Offshore wind is gearing up in the United States. The federal government has announced a goal of 30GW of offshore wind generation by 2030 and 110GW by 2050. For reference, the current largest wind turbine available generates 15MW, so it would take 2,000 of these turbines to reach the 2030 goal if that were the only turbine type used.

One bottleneck for getting these projects started is Wind Turbine Installation Vessels (WTIVs). The first European offshore wind installations started in the 90s, but existing European ships can’t be used because of the Jones Act which stipulates that vessels operating in US seas must be built, owned, and operated by US citizens or corporations. Dominion Energy’s Charybdis WTIV is under construction in New Orleans and should be operational in 2023.

Charybdis will first get to work here in Virginia building the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project. Hampton Roads, Virginia has been billing itself as a hub for the offshore wind turbine industry. There’s a long history of maritime industry on the Virginia coast, so it’s great to see these communities able to transition with the winds of change.

The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project isn’t the only offshore wind farm to be in development here in the US. After the failure of the Cape Wind Project in Massachussetts, offshore wind’s future was murky in the US. However, Maine appears to be the only state explicitly rejecting offshore wind, with new projects being planned on both coasts including New Jersey and California.

A pile of one dollar bills spread across the frame.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As mentioned previously, one problem I see with a lot of developments in tidalpunk-related tech is that so much of it is big money, high technology equipment that is difficult to build and procure without large governments and corporations. For instance, Dominion Energy has had a stranglehold on the state legislature in Virginia for decades due to their shady business and political practices. Offshore wind offers a big opportunity for cutting carbon emissions in the grid, but I’m wary of the lack of community control over these generation resources.

As I live in the US, this blog tends toward developments here. Do you have offshore wind in your area? Let us know about it in the comments!


This is Part 3 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 1: Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?, Part 2: Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea, and Part 4: Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist.

Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?

A cargo ship sails down a channel next to a tug boat. A series of cranes dot the sides and background.
Photo by Martin Damboldt on Pexels.com

Since summertime is beach time here in Virginia, this month we’ll be taking a look at some developments toward our tidalpunk future. Today, we’ll be looking at how the maritime shipping industry is working to clean up its act.

While at sea, the majority of cargo ships use high sulfur fuel oil, the most polluting fuel in use today. With a global target to reduce maritime shipping emissions by half by 2050, however, the shipping industry is looking at its biggest change since switching from coal to diesel 100 years ago. While diesel won’t be going away soon, a mix of new and old technologies are receiving interest to replace fossil fuels in shipping.

The most exciting development in my mind, is the interest in bringing back sailing vessels for cargo transport. While a handful of clippers are still operating as cargo vessels, new ships in development like the EcoClipper500 could pave the way for a retro-futuristic tidalpunk future. As we’ve discussed before, the best way to clean up shipping emissions would be to exercise the first R and reduce the amount of stuff being shipped around the world in the first place. A combination of sailing vessels and distributed manufacturing of goods could make a big difference in carbon emissions and material waste.

A sailing ship with a white hull sails along a mountainous background. It has three large masts that are only partially rigged, presumably to keep speeds low for maneuverability.
Photo by Inge Wallumru00f8d on Pexels.com

In port, those diesel fumes can add up to some gnarly local air pollution for these communities. Oslo, Norway intends to be the world’s first zero emission port by investing in electrification of ferries and installing shore power so visiting boats can cut their engines while docked. Cleaning up the air is good for humans and wildlife that live near these industrial hubs, so cleaning up ports is an important piece of environmental justice work. Other ports are cleaning up their acts around the world including Los Angeles, Auckland, and Valencia showing this trend isn’t isolated to Scandinavia.

Despite their questionable environmental cred, cargo ships can still be a less carbon intensive option for long passenger journeys when compared to flying. According to Will Vibert, a cargo ship passenger, they can also feel surprisingly luxurious. “As I soon came to understand, the luxury of being at sea is not about fine food or a plush mattress; rather, life at sea itself – the tranquil pace and intoxicating sense of adventure – is the true luxury.” Later in the article they relate a similar luxury in the time-consuming, but languid process of North American train travel as I have experienced myself.

Do you have any thoughts regarding the maritime shipping industry and tidalpunk? Have you seen any cool initiatives at a port near you? Let us know in the comments below!


This is Part 1 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 2: Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea, Part 3: Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US, and Part 4: Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist.

Why Solarpunk Matters

A flag with split diagonally between green on the upper left and black on the lower right. An 8-rayed sun symbol is overlayed at the center with a black upper left and green lower right.
One of many solarpunk flags

As we enter a new decade, it can be hard to remain upbeat about the future. While I previously addressed some of the things I think define solarpunk, I think the most crucial piece is hope. I won’t get into the distinctions between hopepunk, solarpunk, and their related subgenres (tidalpunk, lunarpunk, etc.), but suffice it to say, in the face of the acceleration of the climate crisis, the pandemic, and decades of dystopian stories in fiction, it’s time for some positive possible futures.

Dystopias have their place in fiction warning against the perils of certain trends in society or potentially dangerous technologies. They can be great foils to techno-optimism, but when all you get are dystopias, it can become difficult to imagine your way out of a crisis. This is no more apparent than what is happening with the current climate crisis.

After decades of dismissal or denial, people are waking up to the fact that the carbon has hit the fan and we don’t have a lot of time left to act if we want to avoid the worst effects of global warming. We’re at a decision point, and after only hearing depressing news from the media and watching movies based on dystopian futures like the Hunger Games or Handmaid’s Tale, it’s no wonder that many are ready to just give up trying to fight what feels like an inexorable foe.

Now, more than ever, we need stories that paint a positive future. People have been bludgeoned to numbness by threats of rising sea levels, increasingly unpredictable weather, and the extinction of many of the other species on the planet. We need to show people that there is hope for the future and that we can still beat this thing. Is it too late for some species? Yes. We’re not going to come out of this unscathed, but if we don’t start acting now we might not come out of the other side at all.

Positive news about efforts in various parts of the world that are actually moving the needle on carbon emissions and other environmental issues is critical. Stories that show how the future could be so much better with clean energy and equitable distribution of materials is a much easier sell than saying certain behaviors or items should be banned. “Theft of Enjoyment” featured as the boogeyman when Republicans incorrectly claimed that the Green New Deal would make hamburgers illegal. As icky as advertising can be, only fitness companies make money by telling people what they shouldn’t have. Showing how much better our possible futures could be will have people running toward something instead of fighting tooth and nail to preserve what they already have, even if it isn’t good for them.

Cover of the Sunvault solarpunk anthology. The full title says SUNVAULT: Stories of solarpunk and eco-speculation and it is set on a colorful picture of a city with a river and lots of vegetation.
Sunvault – A solarpunk anthology

As the near future foil to cyberpunk, solarpunk is here to show us the world we want to have, not the one we’re afraid is coming. Does that mean that solarpunk is free of conflict or struggle? No. Solarpunk isn’t a perfect world, but it is a better, more equitable one. Solarpunk is giving people something worth fighting for which is much more powerful than asking for people to fight against something. In the face of the climate emergency, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, but solarpunk is what keeps me from giving up in the face of imposing odds. As Miguel de Cervantes said, “Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

How do you maintain your mental health in the face of climate catastrophe? Has solarpunk helped you weather the storm to your psyche as it has me? Let us know below.


Rewiring America – A review

Saul Griffith wants to point out something that we in the science and engineering community have known for awhile: we already have the technology to solve climate change, we just lack the political will. Griffith’s new book, Rewiring America, is a deep dive into one course of action that would eliminate most fossil fuels from the American economy by 2035 and save households bundles of cash in the process.

I started engineering school in 2005, and while there was a growing amount of research into alternative energy at the time, we already had a pretty good idea of what would be needed to transition our economy away from carbon-heavy resources: electrify everything. Fifteen years later, the costs of solar, wind, and electric vehicle technologies have fallen exponentially. The best time to start investing in electrifying everything was during the 70s oil crisis. The next best time is now. As atmospheric carbon concentrations grow, we need to accelerate our efforts to decarbonize. Griffith and OtherLab‘s extensive analysis of US energy distribution shows the gains that can be made quickly by electrification.

One thing often ignored by opponents of climate action, but thoroughly explored in Rewiring America, is that electric motors and generation systems have a much higher overall efficiency than systems dependent on fossil fuels. Just by switching our current lifestyle to all electric, our overall energy consumption would drop by half in the United States.

An old meme from The Onion

Most of my quibbles with this book are because I’m not the target audience of the book. I don’t need convincing that climate change is serious and that we have to do something about it. I’m incredulous about Griffith’s claims that we don’t have to change our lifestyle or his handwaving with regard to the availability of certain critical materials, but Griffith is trying to reach out to the people on the fence who’ve been told by deniers that climate change is either a hoax or is too expensive to tackle. These climate delayers are a bigger problem than climate deniers, since the vehement denial of climate change is coming from a very small segment of the population. Most people agree that there is a problem, but don’t want to take action because they don’t believe it will affect them personally. Griffith skirts around equity and monopoly power while pouring on a heavy coating of patriotism to appeal to this audience that is on the fence about taking action on climate change.

One of the least appealing parts of the book was the incessant call for a war effort and lauding American exceptionalism. Griffith certainly isn’t the first to use this language, but it is getting a little old, not just for me. The book is US-centric, with only occasional references to what could happen worldwide, but we’re also the only country with a major political party that denies the science of climate change. We need this book more than anyone else right now.

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0
Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Most people want the same basic things, but in the current polarized political environment we don’t even speak the same language. I think Griffith is doing a good job of trying to bridge this gap by focusing on the no-compromises parts of the energy transition: cleaner air, quieter cities, and more comfortable living. As a solarpunk, I don’t think we can ignore the equity or the structural problems that lead to the climate crisis to begin with, but Griffith’s plan gives us a starting point to have an honest conversation about climate action.

Have you read Rewiring America? Do you think it has the potential to kick people off the sidelines of climate action?

Radrunner Plus First Impressions

As you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of bikes. That said, I haven’t ridden much in recent years, which has been a bit of a bummer and something I’ve been intending to change.

Due to an unexpected windfall earlier this year, I was finally able to buy an ebike, and gave a quick set of first impressions in an attempt at video for Solarpunk Station. You can check it out here on Diode Zone.

Let me know what you think about doing more videos in the future!

More on malls

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Bellevue Square Mall courtesy of Debs (ò‿ó)♪

I’ve written previously about how malls could provide the bones of solarpunk co-housing, and Grist recently produced a video about how some communities, most notably Seattle, are re-purposing their old malls as community hubs, as they were originally intended. Ellen Dunham-Jones from the Georgia Institute of Technology gave a more in-depth look at retrofitting malls in her 2010 TED Talk and in this interview with WIRED. As malls everywhere experience hard times due to the “retail apocalypse,” is this our chance to reorient these monuments to capitalism into something more community-minded?

FashionSquare

An old map of Fashion Square Mall

Here in Charlottesville, Fashion Square Mall has been emptying out like so many others. Sears left in March 2019 and nothing has come to replace it. Instead of letting it sit vacant, you could retrofit apartments in the main store and put a makerspace in the old auto shop. I couldn’t find a square footage estimate of the store, but if we assume it’s around 50,000 square feet (~4600 square meters) and 10,000 square feet are set aside for the makerspace and community areas, it seems reasonable that you could still fit 50 to 60 apartments in the 40,000 square feet remaining.  With a mix of sizes from micro-apartments to three bedrooms, you could make some decently affordable housing for single people, families, and elders.

With the old store now affordably housing 100 or more people, people could start new businesses in empty store fronts like a food co-op or local restaurant. As the actual people in the mall slowly take over from the fleeing corporate interests, perhaps enough capital could be raised to purchase the mall from its current owners and turn it into a collectively-owned property.

Fashion Square Mall on the map

Fashion Square Mall on the map

Further development could include depaving some of the parking lots, adding rooftop solar panels, and building more housing in the former parking areas. Since a solarpunk future has a reduced dependence on personal automobiles, an improved frequency of bus service to the mall as well as improving connections to the local Rivanna Trail system would be critical. A car sharing station could round out the transportation options for our little collective.

None of these changes are particularly earth-shattering on their own, but each little adjustment to bad zoning and land use decisions inherited from the last century gets us a step further on the road to a sustainable future.

Is there a property in your area that could be turned to more positive uses? Let us know below!

 

Cities as ecosystems

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

With the start of the new Comprehensive Plan here in Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big picture of the city. I’ve been involved with bicycle advocacy here in town for awhile now, and I’ve felt that was definitely something worth fighting for since cycling, walking, and other active forms of transportation benefit both the environment and human health. Also, when you look at bicycling in the US, you have a bimodal distribution of users — people who have to cycle and people who choose to ride. Bike advocates have traditionally been from the latter group due to middle class people having more spare time to be active in local politics.

The more I’ve worked in transportation, the more I see that we need to seek synergies when fighting for equitable, sustainable, solarpunk futures. Poverty and homelessness are often portrayed as the fault of the poor, the result of laziness or bad luck. The truth is that the systems built into our society and built environment put up barriers to certain groups of people that are easy to overlook from a privileged perspective. How can we start to see things as systems, and not a collection of isolated parts?

We have a template to draw from in nature. In a natural ecosystem, there is no waste, just an endless flow of energy and material from one organism to the next. What if we started to look at our cities as ecosystems? How could we build synergistic effects between parts of our built environment?

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Garden courtesy of cuprikorn

Take a city park as an example. In traditional design, you’d select a plot of land, stick some trees and grass there, and call it a day. You might go so far as to add some playground equipment if you were putting it in a residential area.

Approaching a park from an ecosystem perspective, however, would allow for a much more vibrant community experience. We have a park here in Charlottesville that isn’t reaching its full potential because while it borders two different neighborhoods, a busy street separates one neighborhood from the park. Parents don’t feel safe crossing with their kids, so they don’t go to the park. If we took the whole ecosystem into account, safe crossing to and from the park would have been an integral part of its design. As discussed extensively in The Nature Fix, exposure to nature is immensely beneficial for mental and physical health. Poor design has a tangible, detrimental effect on equity.

Taking things a step further, the green space of parks also affords an opportunity to work on sustainability. Charlottesville is in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and has an important role to play in reducing pollution that flows into the Bay. In addition, stormwater management is becoming an increasingly important aspect of urban design as climate change makes storms more variable and rainfall less predictable. As a way of integrating ecological density, we could add native plantings to encourage pollinators as well as rain gardens and permeable pavement for managing stormwater.

By taking some additional steps in the design phase of a project, we enhance the equity, sustainability, and beauty of the city all at once instead of requiring separate projects to achieve a less resilient and integrated design. The same approach could be used when approaching transportation or housing. Taking the system as a whole into account when making planning decisions will allow us to more carefully shepherd our resources and do the most good with our limited community resources.

What opportunities for ecological systems thinking are there in your area? Let us know below!

Tidalpunk, logistics, and degrowth

Grist recently ran an article about a Costa Rican project to build a carbon neutral shipping fleet using traditional wooden boat building techniques including sails as the primary means of propulsion. Maria Gallucci writes that the worldwide commercial shipping industry moves 10.7 billion tonnes of material every year, predominantly by diesel powered megaships.

This seems particularly problematic when we look at the 262 million tonnes of municipal waste generated in the US alone every year. The article about the Costa Rican fleet said sailing vessels wouldn’t be able to make up a large proportion of the shipping fleet, but the question I had was, “Do we really need to be shipping this much stuff?”

While capitalism is based on unending, cancerous growth, there is a growing community of people around the world investigating how dialing back the economy could be better for people and the planet. When coupled with a circular economy, the degrowth movement points toward a brighter, greener future like that envisioned in solarpunk. Decentralized, local production of goods using recycled technical and biological nutrients would lead to a more resilient and less energy-intensive supply chain.

Some front-line communities are already leading the charge against climate change by developing solutions that are much more relevant to their local environment than the one-size-fits-all techno-solutionism often argued for in the US and other western countries.

What do you think? Should we just find “sustainable” ways to keep consumption at it’s current levels, or should we reevaluate our relationships with material goods? Let us know below!